Fifty years ago today, Otis Redding & the Bar-Kays boarded a plane heading to a one-night-only gig in Madison. It had been a tumultuous autumn at the University of Wisconsin as generations clashed over the Vietnam War, and one can well imagine students & music lovers anticipating the ascendant King of Soul’s visit as a brief moment of respite. The venue, The Factory, was just off State Street, midway between the university & the Capitol. Big O was the headliner with his backing band; opening for them was a Rockford-based group called The Grim Reapers fronted by Rick Nielsen.
Redding had played two shows in Cleveland & appeared on WEWS-TV’s Upbeat the day before, so he & most of the Bar-Kays flew in on his private plane. It was drizzling, foggy, & hovering around freezing in Madison, and Redding’s pilot, just ten months removed from earning his multi-engine license, was from Georgia. A few miles from Truax Field at 3:25 p.m., over Lake Monona, everything went wrong.
Otis was 26. Jimmy King (guitar) was 18, Ronnie Caldwell (organ) would’ve turned 19 in seventeen days, Phalon Jones (sax) was 19, and Carl Cunningham (drums) was 19. Ben Cauley (trumpet) was the only survivor. Also killed were the pilot & Otis’ valet (Matthew Kelly, 17).
Otis Redding & the Bar-Kays (with a special guest) on 09 December 1967:
So much music was left in that voice, those lungs, & those hands.