Just days after recording "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay," 26-year-old Otis Redding and four members of his band died when their plane crashed in Wisconsin.
In 1967, Otis Redding was in the midst of his rapid rise to fame. He’d just completed a tour of Europe with Stax Records and made waves at California’s Monterey Pop Festival. He was growing popular with the mainstream market in addition to the fans of the soul music he was known for.
On Dec. 7, 1967, he wrapped up recording what would become his greatest hit: “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” Three days later, Otis Redding died in a plane crash. He was just 26 years old.
“Dock of the Bay” was released the following month, and it quickly topped the charts. It became the first posthumous number one single in U.S. history.
Though Otis Redding’s death brought a premature end to his promising career, it didn’t stop his music from gaining international renown. Today, the late musical artist still reigns as the “Crown Prince of Soul” in the hearts of millions of fans worldwide.
Otis Redding’s Early Life And Rise To Fame
Born in Dawson, Georgia, on Sept. 9, 1941, Otis Ray Redding Jr. was one of six children born to a poor sharecropper. When Redding was a toddler, his family moved to a housing project in Macon, where the future singer soon learned how to play the guitar, piano, and drums.
As a teenager, he began competing in a weekly talent show hosted by local DJ Hamp Swain. His soulful vocals won him the top prize for 15 weeks straight — and eventually caught the attention of a band called Pat T. Cake and the Mighty Panthers. After performing with them for a short time, he began singing with Little Richard’s former band, the Upsetters.
By 1960, however, Redding was ready to pursue bigger and better opportunities. He moved to Los Angeles, recorded his first singles, and eventually signed a contract with Stax Records. Soon, he was releasing hits like “These Arms of Mine” and “Try a Little Tenderness.”
During this time, Redding also wrote and recorded one of the most well-known songs in the world, “Respect,” which was later made famous by Aretha Franklin. Outside of his musical career, he stayed busy raising a family with his wife, Zelma Atwood. The couple married in 1961 and welcomed three children.
Redding’s daughter, Karla, told Madison, Wisconsin station WMTV in 2015: “I think what made him a success was the fact that he was so talented… but also he was a very humble person. He didn’t really think he could sing that well. According to my mother, he’d say, ‘Well, you know I don’t dance well, I don’t really sing that great. But I just do what I can do.'”
The rest of the world didn’t seem to agree with the singer’s modest opinion of himself. As Otis Redding’s star continued to rise, he embarked on a European tour in the spring of 1967. And that June, he performed at California’s Monterey Pop Festival, where he stunned the mostly-white crowd. He’d previously performed for mainly Black audiences, and it seemed that the concert would be the turning point of his career, allowing him to achieve mainstream fame.
Tragically, he would die just six months later.
The Events Leading Up To Otis Redding’s Death
On Nov. 22, 1967, Otis Redding recorded “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” which he’d written three months earlier on the deck of a houseboat in a harbor in Sausalito, California.
Two weeks later, on Dec. 7, he recorded the final overdubs, and his hit song was complete. Sadly, he wouldn’t be around to see the sensation it would become.
Redding was set to perform in Madison, Wisconsin on the night of Dec. 10, 1967. That afternoon, at around 12:30 p.m., the singer, his assistant, and five members of his band, the Bar-Kays, boarded the twin-engine Beechcraft H18 Redding had recently purchased. One other band member, James Alexander, had taken a commercial flight because there wasn’t enough room on the plane.
The weather was rainy and foggy, but pilot Richard Fraser assured Redding he could get him and his band to Madison safely. So, they took off from Cleveland, Ohio and headed west to Madison.
According to Salon, musician James Brown later recalled, “On the last morning we talked, I said, ‘That plane is not big enough to be doing what you’re doing. It can’t carry all those people and all that equipment. You shouldn’t be messing around with it like that.'”
“That plane was an old plane, with a bad battery and a lot of service problems,” Brown continued, “and it had no business flying in that kind of weather.”
Unfortunately, Brown’s concerns turned out to be founded. Just four miles from the Madison airport, Otis Redding’s airplane crashed into Lake Monona.
How Otis Redding Died In A Tragic Plane Crash
Per the Eugene Register-Guard, the only survivor of the crash, trumpet player Ben Cauley, later said that he woke up as the plane was going down with a “tremendous feeling that we were in a spin.”
The aircraft hit the water, and Cauley grabbed onto a seat cushion to keep himself afloat. He heard another bandmate screaming for help.
“I started swimming over to him, but before I got there, he went down,” Cauley recalled.
Fans were already in line at the concert venue when news of the plane crash broke. They went home that evening hoping that Redding had somehow survived. Divers searched the wreckage until dark and then resumed their rescue mission the following morning.
James Alexander, the bassist who had taken a commercial flight instead, told Tidal in 2021 that the search took three days. “On the second day is when I identified Otis,” Alexander said. “He was still strapped into his seat.”
Otis Redding was dead at just 26 years old.
The Lasting Legacy Of The ‘Crown Prince Of Soul’
On Jan. 8, 1968 — less than a month after Otis Redding’s death — “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” was released. It quickly reached number one on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles charts, becoming the first-ever posthumously-released single to reach the coveted top spot.
The song sold four million copies worldwide and went on to win two Grammy awards, one for Best Rhythm & Blues Song and another for Best Rhythm & Blues Vocal Performance. They were Redding’s first Grammy wins.
Today, “Dock of the Bay” is ranked number 38 on the Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list. (“Respect,” written by Redding, comes in at number one.) Even more than half a century after its release, it continues to crop up on summertime playlists and thrill listeners around the world.
In 2007, Redding’s widow Zelma started the Otis Redding Foundation, a nonprofit that provides music and arts education to youths in Macon.
Sadly, we’ll never know how far Otis Redding’s musical career would have taken him had he not lost his life in the icy waters of Lake Monona. As Jeff Kollath, the executive director of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, told the Wisconsin State Journal, “It wasn’t just that the plane went down in Madison… It was a career at a meteoric rise cut short.”
After reading about the tragic death of Otis Redding in a plane crash, learn how Quiet Riot guitarist Randy Rhoads died when a plane clipped his tour bus. Then, go inside the death of Ronnie Van Zant, the frontman of Lynyrd Skynyrd.