The tragic death of Otis Redding – one of soul music’s greatest tragedies

Otis Redding, arguably the best soul singer ever, died in a plane crash December 10, 1967. The plane crashed into Lake Monoa in Wisconsin, 3 miles short of the airport. 7 of the 8 passengers and crew died. Ben Cauley survived. In this extract from Memphis 68, author Stuart Cosgrove describes the aftermath of this fatal crash and its aftereffect – soul music’s greatest tragedy.

Carl Cunningham’s
Cardboard Requiem
8 January

Memphis 68 FINAL COVERIt was a routine delivery. A parcel truck parked illegally outside a dilapidated cinema on East McLemore Avenue in South Memphis. No one even looked at the driver as he stacked a tower of cardboard boxes and delivered them to the foyer, to the ramshackle offices of one of the most prodigious independent recording studios in the world. This was Stax Records, the flagship home of Memphis soul and a beacon of hope for hundreds of young musicians and teenagers who hung around its doors as if it were a fairground. The boxes were addressed only to the company and they lay by the entrance, unacknowledged, for several days. It was only when a curious staff member opened them that their sad significance came to light. They contained the remains of the drum kit of Carl Lee Cunningham, the deceased drummer of the Bar-Kays, the backing band of Stax’s most famous star, Otis Redding. The cardboard lay scattered over the lavender carpeting, a banal requiem to the tragic events of the previous month, when seven young people plunged to their death in a plane crash. The drum cases were in a bad state, battered by the waves and rusted by cold waters, with their skins partly torn from the rims. The red strips of tape that had once secured the cases top to bottom had peeled off in the deep, and now hung pathetically.

Carl Cunningham’s death hurt Stax to the core. He was a familiar face around the studios, a boy obsessed with music and bewitched by the beat, who came from a famous family of drummers well
known at Stax and on the streets of Orange Mound. Like many of his generation, he lived a hand-to-mouth existence, holding down a low-paid job as a shoeshine boy at King’s Barbershop on the
corner of College Street and East McLemore. Cunningham’s drums were the last items to be salvaged from the crash site. His horn-rimmed glasses had disappeared, and the drumsticks he had
cradled in his hand as the plane plummeted were never recovered. They were presumed lost in the frozen waters of Lake Monona, Dane County, Wisconsin.

Talking to the press was a tough thing to ask anyone to do and that role fell heavily on the shoulders of Cunningham’s friend, the trumpeter Ben Cauley, who was still only twenty. He had been hospitalised in the immediate aftermath of the crash and had spent a difficult Christmas recuperating. Now that 1968 had arrived, he was facing up to the loss of his best friends. He stood in the
reception area at Stax, head bowed down in grief and holding back the tears, barely managing to answer the questions in a stammering, fading voice. He was dressed in a double-breasted military raincoat with epaulettes and an Ushanka hat that perched perilously on his head and looked as if he had bought it second-hand from the Russian army. It was in fact a hat that he had bought in Wisconsin as the winter winds grew stronger. On his left arm he wore a new wristwatch, to replace the one he lost in the deep waters of the lake. Ben held his hands in front of him as if he were at a wake and his eyes gazed wearily at the floor. He started to explain his ordeal. He had all but passed out in the freezing lake but miraculously survived by clinging on to a soaking wet seat cushion. Hallucinating with hypothermia, he had watched each of his friends try to escape from the wreckage, but fail to keep their heads above the surface. All drowned before the rescue party arrived. Cauley spent twenty-five minutes in the water. When he could no longer hold the sodden cushion in his numb and frozen hands any longer, he drifted into unconsciousness. ‘Just as soon as I let it go, somebody yanked me up,’ Cauley remembered, still bewildered by the randomness that had saved his life and killed his friends. He admitted to the journalists that his near-drowning provoked recurring nightmares in which ‘the rush of the lake’s icy water, the chill of fear, and the helplessness’ lapped through his mind.

The Stax songwriter David Porter watched the press conference in disbelief. From that day on, he described Cauley’s survival as divine: ‘Ben is a miracle. It’s really that simple.’ Yet Cauley was not alone in his luck; bass guitarist James Alexander had travelled by a different route and survived, and the Stax singer Mary Frierson, who had been given the stage name Wendy Rene by Otis Redding and was pencilled to appear as a warm-up act and a backing singer, stayed in Memphis, having just given birth to a baby boy. Frierson eventually drifted away from music as a consequence of the crash, leaving only a few obscure songs as her legacy. Cauley then told the press that he was rushed to the Methodist Hospital in Wisconsin, suffering from exposure and shock, where he remained for several days. His first visitor was James Alexander, another member of the Bar-Kays, who had missed the doomed flight. The group had drawn lots. Alexander lost out and, with no seat available on the private plane, flew safely by commercial airline via Milwaukee. On his arrival at Mitchell airport, Alexander had been met by police who drove him to visit his friend in hospital. Then he was taken on the grimmest visit of his life – to the mortuary, where he was asked to identify the naked bodies of his friends, name tags hanging limply from their big toes. When he was asked what had caused the crash, Cauley hesitated, then looked around to Stax’s staff members for guidance. He explained nervously that he had been visited by aviation investigators and had told them that the aircraft had been cold when they first boarded. The Bar-Kays had asked the young pilot if he could crank up the heat, but ominously he told them that the battery reading was too low for extra heat and almost certainly too low to guide the plane to safety.

The crash that killed Otis Redding and six others was a mess of misinformation. Even eye witnesses were unsure of what had happened. It seems that around 3.30 p.m. on 10 December 1967, just three miles from the safety of Dane County’s regional airport Truax Field, a twin-engine Beechcraft-18 plane plunged through low-lying clouds and fog. The gusting rain and squally conditions seemed to tip the plane into a tailspin and it crashed down into Lake Monona. Only a few witnesses saw the crash, but many more claimed to have heard the engine fighting with itself as the pilot tried desperately to descend into an instrument-led landing pattern. What no one knew at the time was that the plane was a private jet owned by soul singer Otis Redding, one he had bought several months earlier from James Brown. The distinctive green-and-white livery, recently painted and emblazoned with Redding’s name, was barely visible in the low-lying clouds, and, according to one of the few eye witnesses, the plane seemed to break apart as soon as it hit the surface of the lake. If it had continued for another mile it would have crash-landed into Madison’s heavily populated East Side. By some small mercy a major catastrophe was averted. That was cold comfort to Stax, whose heart had been ripped out by the crash. Police divers and volunteers, including a small contingent of local doctors, quickly gathered at the scene. Defying the freezing cold, they plunged into the water to look for survivors, but when it became clear that there was little likelihood of saving lives, a crane was hired from a local contractor, and police began what was to become a painstaking rescue operation. A razor-thin film of ice formed on the bitterly cold waters of the lake, the temperature plunged, and after a day of searching, the search was called off. Later, they managed to winch the wreckage up from the lake. The body of Otis Redding, one of the greatest soul singers in the world,
was slowly dragged up from the water. A police photographer captured the moment. Redding’s head was inelegantly trapped between the winch and the police barge, his mouth battered and blood clotted around his lips – those lips that had sung the saddest of songs with such elegance and pleading – ‘Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa, I keep singing them sad, sad songs y’all, Sad songs is all I know.’ The police barge headed at a glacial pace to the shore, obscured by the dense fog that hung over the lake’s surface. The remnants of the Bar-Kays’ stage suits, bought at Lansky’s on Beale Street back home, floated pathetically to the surface. Only these freezing waters knew the full story of what had actually happened. On board was the plane’s log, which had been found near the aircraft. It was
eventually turned over to Federal Aviation Agency officials, but by the time it was in their safe hands, the impact of one of soul music’s greatest tragedies was reverberating around the world.

Read more in Memphis 68: The Tragedy of Southern Soul by Stuart Cosgrove

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