Otis Redding worked his way up from the bottom. He was a teenager who managed to strike a deal with a then-struggling but now-legendary label, Stax-Volt. He started with ‘These Arms of Mine’ in 1962, gave us a string of hit ballads, and everyone loved hearing his smooth-but-scruffy tone. But by the time he released ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ and ‘Respect,’ people just couldn’t get enough of his “got-ta-got-ta-got-ta” tagline.
By the mid- ‘60s, the young and talented singer was touring and selling records, proudly collecting some trophies on the way, like a 300-acre ranch and a private plane. But that plane would end up taking his life. The sad truth about Otis Redding’s short-lived life is that he was taken down just as his career was taking off. He would have made the infamous ’27 Club,’ but he was just shy of a year. Otis Redding died in a plane crash when he was 26 years old, just three days after he recorded his most popular song. Unfortunately, he wasn’t around to enjoy it.
This is his story.
Otis Ray Redding Jr. was born in Dawson, Georgia, but at the age of 2, his family moved to Macon, Georgia. He was the fourth of six children and the first son to parents Otis and Fannie. Redding Sr. would occasionally preached in local churches, and it was in the church that the young Otis sang his first chords.
At an early age, Otis sang in the Vineville Baptist Church choir. He also learned guitar, piano, and at age 10, he starting taking drumming and singing lessons. During his high school years (at Ballard-Hudson High School), Otis sang in the school band. He even earned a few bucks at Macon’s local radio station, WIBB, making $6.00 every Sunday to perform gospel songs.
Otis made it clear to those around him that he had talent, but his passion was singing. He often cited Little Richard and Sam Cooke as his influences. Redding had once said that he “would not be here” without Little Richard. In his own words, he said how he “entered the music business because of Richard – he is my inspiration. I used to sing like Little Richard, his Rock ‘n’ Roll stuff. My present music has a lot of him in it.”
But when Otis was 15, he had to put music on the back burner and leave school to help support his family. His father contracted tuberculosis and was frequently hospitalized, leaving his mother as the sole breadwinner. So, Otis had to hit the workforce. He got a job as a well digger, a gas station attendant, and even sometimes managed to get a gig as a musician.
There was a pianist named Gladys Williams, who was a locally-known musician in Macon and another musician who inspired the up-and-coming musician. Williams would perform at the Hillview Springs Social Club, where Otis would occasionally play the piano with her band. Williams also hosted Sunday talent shows, where Otis would come with two of his friends, singers Little Willie Jones and Eddie Ross. The three of them formed a very primitive but promising band.
Redding’s big break came in 1958 on DJ Hamp Swain’s “The Teenage Party,” which was a talent contest at the town’s Roxy and Douglass Theaters. Georgia’s own Johnny Jenkins, a guitarist, was in the audience during the show. He felt that Redding’s band was lacking in musical skills, so he offered to join them that very night.
That night, Redding sang Little Richard’s hit, “Heebie Jeebies,” and for his performance, Redding won the talent contest 15 weeks in a row. The prize? $5.00 (which would be about $44.00 today). I think it’s safe to say that it wasn’t about the money. What that contest did, however, was introduce him to Jenkins, who then welcomed Redding into the world of paid gigs.
“The Teenage Party” also introduced Otis to his future wife. Otis was 18 at the time he met 15-year-old Zelma Atwood at the talent contest. She gave birth to their son Dexter in the summer of 1960 before they decided to get married in August of 1961. The couple had four children in total. Redding was now a father who needed to provide for his family.
Jenkins became the lead guitarist and played with Redding in a number of gigs. And after a hopeful start, Redding was then invited to replace Willie Jones as the frontman of Pat T. Cake and the Mighty Panthers, which had Johnny Jenkins on the guitar. Eventually, Redding was hired by the Upsetters when Little Richard left the world of rock and roll and entered the world of gospel.
He was earning $25 per gig (that’s $222 today), but he didn’t stick around in Georgia for too long. In mid-1960, Otis moved to Los Angeles with his sister, Deborah, leaving Zelma and the kids in Macon. In Los Angeles, Redding started to record his first songs, including “Tuff Enuff” (written by James McEachin), “She’s All Right,” (written with McEachin). Redding also recorded two songs that he himself wrote: “I’m Gettin’ Hip” and “Gamma Lamma.”
Now that he was a member of Pat T. Cake and the Mighty Panthers, Redding embarked on his first tour, riding around the Southern United States on the Chitlin’ Circuit, which was a string of venues that were especially welcoming to African-American entertainers during a time of racial segregation (that lasted well into the early ‘60s.
Around the time Jenkins left the band to join the Pinetoppers, Redding met Phil Walden and Bobby Smith, who were both record company executives. Redding signed with Confederate Records and started to call his band Otis and the Shooters. They recorded “Shout Bamalama” (a rewrite of “Gamma Lamma”) and “Fat Girl.” Then, when Jenkins was about to be signed to Atlantic Records, Redding ended up stealing his thunder…
Atlantic Records showed interest in Jenkins, and in 1962 they sent him to the Stax studio in Memphis. Redding drove Jenkins, who lacked a driver’s license, to the studio. But the session with Jenkins, who was backed by Booker T. & the MGs, was unproductive and didn’t last long. Redding, however, was allowed to perform two songs.
The first song was “Hey Hey Baby,” but studio chief Jim Stewart thought it sounded too much like Little Richard. The second song was “These Arms of Mine,” with Jenkins on guitar and Steve Cropper on piano. Stewart was impressed. He praised Redding’s performance: “Everybody was fixin’ to go home, but Joe Galkin insisted we give Otis a listen. There was something different about the ballad. He really poured his soul into it.”
Redding was then signed to the Stax-Volt label and released “These Arms of Mine” and “Hey Hey Baby” was on the B-side. The single was released in October 1962, and by March the following year, it was hitting the charts, becoming one of his most successful songs, and selling more than 800,000 copies.
“These Arms of Mine” and other tracks from his 1962–1963 sessions were put on Redding’s debut album, ‘Pain in My Heart.’ It was released in 1964, peaking at #20 on the R&B chart and at #85 on the Billboard Hot 100. Then, Redding would start his journey to the Apollo Theater, which would end up being a real turning milestone in his career.
In November of 1963, Redding, his brother Rodgers, and an associate/former boxer/childhood friend of Redding’s, Sylvester Huckaby, traveled to New York to perform at the Apollo Theater. He was supposed to perform at the theater for the recording of a live album. Redding and his band were paid $400 each week ($3,340 today).
But the thing is they had to pay $450 for sheet music for the house band (led by King Curtis), which left them in a financial problem. The trio had to then ask Phil Walden, the label exec, for money. Apparently, Redding met Muhammad Ali and other celebrities, like Ben E. King, who was the headliner at the Apollo at the time that Redding performed there. King reportedly gave Redding $100 when he heard about Redding’s situation.
Around that time, Walden and Rodgers were drafted into the army. So Walden’s younger brother, Alan, joined Redding on the tour and Earl “Speedo” Simms replaced Rodgers as their road manager. Since most of Redding’s songs from his first album had a slow tempo, DJ A. C. Moohah Williams famously labeled him as “Mr. Pitiful,” which inspired Steve Cropper and Redding to write the song by the same name.
Redding’s second studio album, ‘The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads,’ was released in March 1965. His old pal Jenkins started working independently from the group, fearing that Galkin, Walden, and Cropper would steal his playing style. Cropper then went from pianist to Redding’s lead guitarist. That summer, Redding and the crew started making new songs for his next album.
Ten out of the album’s eleven songs were written in a mere 24-hour period on July 9 and 10, 1965, in Memphis. The album, ‘Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul,’ was released in September 1965. Now with three albums under his belt, Redding was starting to roll in the dough. After the release of ‘Otis Blue,’ Redding became what’s called a “catalog” artist.
A catalog artist is someone whose albums weren’t immediate hits, but rather sold steadily over time. And with time, Redding’s music made him wealthy. According to several sources, he had about 200 suits and 400 pairs of shoes. He eventually was making $35,000 per week for his concerts (about $287,000 today). With that kind of money, he was able to splurge just a little bit.
Redding’s success gave him the financial freedom he, nor anyone in his life, ever had. He decided to buy himself a 300-acre ranch in Georgia, which he called the “Big O Ranch,” which cost him about $125,000. The label Stax was also doing well, signing musicians like Percy Sledge, Johnnie Taylor, Clarence Carter, and Eddie Floyd.
Together with Redding, they founded two more production companies: Jotis Records (from Joe Galkin and Otis) and Redwal Music (from Redding and Walden), but this one was shut down shortly after its creation. They were creating music, records, and labels, but Redding wanted to branch out a bit. As most of their fans were African-Americans, Redding chose to switch things up in April 1966 and perform at Whisky a Go-Go on LA’s Sunset Strip.
Redding was one of the first-ever soul artists to perform for rock ‘n’ roll audiences in the western United States. The novelty might have had something to do with it, but his performance received critical acclaim and positive press. He was beginning to penetrate the mainstream pop culture. Bob Dylan even came to the concert and offered Redding a different version of one of his songs, “Just Like a Woman.”
Over those three nights at the LA venue, Redding and his band set the stage on fire (not literally), giving the audience seven powerhouse sets of soul. What was interesting for people to see (who were there) was how the band worked through and settled into their material. And more so, into their surroundings. Redding was completely aware of his new, mostly white audience, and so he delivered ten different renditions of the Rolling Stones’ massive hit “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
In 1966, Redding returned to the Stax studio in Memphis and recorded several tracks, including his famous hit (and my personal favorite of his), “Try a Little Tenderness,” which was written by Jimmy Campbell, Reg Connelly, and Harry M. Woods back in 1932. The song had been covered before by greats like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, and the publishers even tried to stop Redding from recording the classic song from a “negro perspective.”
But they weren’t going to stop him. Today, the track is often considered his signature song. Stax’s Jim Stewart once said, “If there’s one song, one performance that really sort of sums up Otis and what he’s about, it’s ‘Try a Little Tenderness.’ That one performance is so special and so unique that it expresses who he is.” I couldn’t agree more. And if you ask me, the song just isn’t long enough!
“Try a Little Tenderness,” backed by Booker T. & the MGs, was included on his next studio album, ‘Complete & Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul.’ The song and the album were very successful, and the single peaked at #25 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and at #4 on the R&B chart. By spring of 1966, for the first time ever, Stax started booking concerts for its artists, including Redding and his band.
The majority of the group flew into London on March 13th, 1966, but Redding flew in days earlier for interviews, like “The Eamonn Andrews Show.” When the crew arrived, London’s very own Beatles sent a limousine to pick them up. Redding played at the Fillmore Auditorium in late 1966. Booking agent Bill Graham, who got him the gig, said later: “That was the best gig I ever put on in my entire life.” Redding started touring Europe six months later.
In March 1967, Stax released the album ‘King & Queen,’ consisting of duets between Redding and Carla Thomas that reach gold record status. It was Jim Stewart’s idea, which was to blend Redding’s rawness with Thomas’s sophistication. And it worked. The album was recorded in January 1967, during a time when Thomas was earning her Masters in English at Howard University.
Three songs, “Tramp,” “Knock on Wood,” and “Lovey Dovey” were all singles, and all three reached at least the top 60 on R&B and Pop charts. Redding then went back to Europe to perform at the Paris Olympia. ‘Otis Redding: Live in Europe’ was released just three months later. But Redding got some backlash when he chose to take his new protégé, Arthur Conley, on the tour instead of established artists like Rufus Thomas and William Bell.
In 1967, Redding performed at what turned out to be the influential Monterey Pop Festival. He was the closing act on the second day of the festival. Until then, he was still performing for mostly black audiences and wasn’t considered a “commercially viable player in the mainstream white American market,” despite having made a dent a couple of years back in LA.
But after Redding delivered one of the most electric performances that night, and involving the audience more than the other acts, he progressed from being a local act to a national sensation. It was a true turning turning-point in Redding’s career. “I got to go, y’all, I don’t wanna go,” Redding said as they left the stage. Sadly, it was one of his last major concerts.
According to Booker T. Jones, “I think we did one of our best shows, Otis and the MG’s. That we were included in that was also something of a phenomenon. That we were there? With those people? They were accepting us, and that was one of the things that really moved Otis. He was happy to be included, and it brought him a new audience. It was greatly expanded in Monterey.”
Brian Jones and Jimi Hendrix were also there and were captivated by the performance. But the touring was taking a toll on Redding, physically. He developed polyps on his larynx and tried to self-treat by drinking tea and lemon or honey. But it didn’t cut it, and so he was hospitalized in September 1967 in New York and had to undergo surgery.
Redding didn’t know it at the time, but he was living the last days of his life…
In early December 1967, Redding hit the studio again, and nobody at the time could have ever imagined that it would end up being Redding’s last studio session. While there is some disagreement about the date of the session, it occurred on December 6 or 7 (or both). Those present were Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, Booker T. Washington, Al Jackson, Wayne Jackson, and Joe Arnold.
And most of them were confused and disapproving, at first, of the song Otis came in with. The song was “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” which was written by Redding and Cropper. The pair wrote the song when they were staying with their friend, Earl “Speedo” Simms, on his houseboat in Sausalito, California. The song was inspired by the Beatles album ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’ from which Redding tried to create a similar sound (even though Stax was against it).
Despite the fact that it became a massive hit, Redding’s wife, Zelma, disliked its atypical melody, and the Stax crew were dissatisfied with the new sound. Jim Stewart thought that it simply wasn’t R&B, while bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn thought it would damage Stax’s reputation. Oh, how wrong they were…
But Redding didn’t listen to the naysayers; he wanted to expand his musical style and actually considered “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” to be his best song, believing it would top the charts. Oh, how right he was. He even whistled at the end of the tune. “Otis always liked to ad-lib at the end of songs,” Cropper said, “so I added in about ten measures of instrumental background for him to do so. But when the time came, Otis couldn’t think of anything and started whistling.”
The song was simple, spare, with just a couple of lines, and basically unlike any song he had done before. It also wasn’t necessarily complete. Cropper recalled: “When Otis walked in, he said, ‘Crop, get your guitar.’ I always kept a Gibson B-29 around… Otis played and sang a verse he had written.” He was referring to Redding’s sorrowful melody of lounging in the morning sun, watching the ships come and go.
The backing track was done totally impromptu, covered in melancholy tones that matched the mood of what Otis was singing. In regards to his whistling at the end, the consensus was that he did it only as a placeholder, which was to be replaced later, either by horns or lyrics. But that “later” never came…
Redding hung around in Memphis until the next morning, hoping he could work on the song just a bit more, or at least decide what the hell to do with that whistling part. They had discussed the idea to “soul” it up with background singers, maybe by the Staple Singers, who did gospel harmonies. Nothing was decided, however, as Redding headed for the airport. He said he would be back on Friday morning.
He was going to pick up the soul group, The Bar-Kays, and head to Tennessee on his private plane, a Beechcraft H18. That morning, Redding met 26-year-old pilot Richard Fraser, at the airport who pretty much skipped into the plane for its maiden flight.
Fraser was a former Air Force pilot who had also become a close friend of Redding’s. Redding sat in the co-pilot’s seat as the plane made its way to Nashville. But flying in Redding’s prized Beechcraft was kind of like playing Russian roulette. The plane had eight seats in the cabin, but there were two other members of the group on this journey to Nashville.
Carl Simms, the Bar-Kays’ vocalist, and 17-year-old Matthew Kelly, their valet, were also onboard. But it was agreed upon that two of them would have to fly commercial on each flight. On December 9th, Redding and his band, as well as the Bar-Keys, appeared on the ‘Upbeat’ TV show in Cleveland. Then they played three concerts in two nights at Leo’s Casino.
Redding and the rest were headed out to Madison, Wisconsin, where they were supposed to play at the Factory nightclub on December 10th, 1967. By that point, Otis was at the height of his fame. He had scheduled appearances on Ed Sullivan, American Bandstand, Johnny Carson, and Joey Bishop. An album with Aretha Franklin and a sequel album with Carla Thomas were in the works.
Phil Walden was sent two movie scripts that Otis was going to audition for (the producers wanted more from him than just signing). Walden literally placed the scripts on the desk Otis used when he came into the office, which was supposed to be on Monday. Walden had also just taken out an insurance policy on Redding for a million dollars.
But Redding and the crew were stuck traveling in a sub-par plane during a particularly rough Midwest winter. The weather was atrocious, and the skies were nothing close to friendly during the entire weekend they were in Cleveland. On Sunday afternoon, pilot Fraser arrived at Hopkins Airport and was told that all commercial flights had been grounded. They strongly recommended that he didn’t fly.
When Fraser did an inventory of the plane with a mechanic, the battery power was low, which concerned Fraser. Otis asked the young pilot if he could manage to get the plane up and down safely. Fraser, who despite his age, had logged 1,290 flight hours, with 118 of them flying Beechcraft planes alone. He told Redding that he could do it. Oh, how wrong he was…
“Then let’s go,” Otis said, naively thinking that some mechanical problems wouldn’t be a problem. Only weeks before that fateful flight, Redding had posed for a now-iconic photo, walking in front of his plane, guitar in hand, looking as proud as could be. Eerily enough, when James Brown heard that Otis was learning to fly a similar plane that Brown himself got rid of, he warned Redding that he was gambling with his life.
“On the last morning, we talked,” Brown recalled, “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.’” Otis said to Brown: “Aw, it’s all right Bossman. We’ve had a few problems, but it’s doing okay.” Years later, Brown mentioned in his memoirs: “Somebody was fooling Otis… That plane was an old plane, with a bad battery and a lot of service problems, and it had no business flying in that kind of weather.”
Both Otis and Fraser were confident the plane’s battery was sufficient enough to fly. Alan Walden later said, “Otis always took pride in not missing an engagement. He was advised not to fly to Madison, but he didn’t want to disappoint his fans and took off anyway, leaving with the words, ‘Gotta make that dollar.’”
At Hopkins Field, each one from the Redding group boarded. James Alexander and Carl Simms, the odd men out, had to deal with the hassle of catching a separate flight to Madison. But they would soon realize that it was the luckiest day of their lives. In the early of December 10th, 1967, (and three years to the day after Sam Cooke died), Otis called home.
Zelma told her husband that he sounded depressed. To which he said he was just tired. He wanted to talk to the kids, but only Otis III was awake at the time and was able to say a few words to the boy. He then said goodbye to Zelma, telling her to be “real sweet and real good.” The small plane, with “Otis Redding Ent.” painted on the top, lifted off.
Redding got up to sit in the co-pilot’s seat. Now here’s a question: did Redding at any point fly the plane in such weather? He wasn’t licensed yet and only permitted to fly with a pilot, without any passengers. Yet this was up for debate, leading to a lot of speculation because of what happened next.
After three hours in the air, Fraser radioed Dane County Regional Airport, receiving clearance to land. The plane started to descend through the heavy clouds. To get to the airport, the plane needed to clear the lake and make the four more miles over land. The tower heard nothing more from Fraser and kept trying to communicate with him, but their radio had died en route.
It was part of a power failure in the plane. On the tower’s radar screen, the plane was a blip about four miles from the runway. Then the blip suddenly disappeared. The truth is no one will ever really know for sure what went wrong that day. What is known, however, is that something made the engine suddenly quit.
Fraser was apparently unable to see anything through the fog and was attempting an instrument landing. He was basically flying blind. An eyewitness on the shore said later that he saw the plane, with its left-wing lower than the right, just before it fell sharply and hit the lake. The plane didn’t break though; it rested on top of the freezing water for a few minutes, bobbing up and down, before it eventually sank.
The plane sank about a half-mile from the land. Controllers alerted rescue crews, and the first responders were there within minutes. But by the time they reached the area, the plane was already underwater. Miraculously, though, they saw one person in the lake, clutching a seat cushion. It was Ben Cauley, the trumpet player.
Cauley had been asleep until the crash woke him up and threw him into the ice-cold water, still strapped into his seat. Not knowing how to swim, he grabbed his seat cushion and held on for dear life. He almost lost consciousness by the time the police came to the scene. The other two bodies that were floating by him were later identified as Richard Fraser and Jimmy King.
Cauley was pulled onto a boat and taken to a hospital and treated. Amazingly, he wasn’t injured and was able to tell the rescuers, and the press, details of the crash. He told them that other than Fraser and King, who were near him in the lake, he had no idea what happened to the others. A cop then came to Cauley and told him that he was a lucky man. When Cauley asked why the cop responded: “Because everybody else is dead.”
The plane sunk to the bottom of the forty-foot lake, its nose buried deep into the mud, the fuselage was torn open, with its left-wing and engine missing. There were no other signs of the remaining passengers nor the pilot. Meanwhile, Cauley gave the only explanation of the crash that there would ever be: “I was sitting behind Otis on the plane, back to back, next to the door. I fell asleep, and the next thing I knew the pilot was telling us he was having trouble.”
Cauley noted that before the moment of impact, Redding stayed calm. “I didn’t hear him say a word. Didn’t see him do a thing.” It didn’t take long for the news of the crash to spread all over the news, newspapers, and radio stations across the country. Redding, in these early reports, was presumed to be a casualty of the crash.
Throughout the entire night, the authorities worked to confirm Redding’s identity. When the crash was reported, Al Bell, who was in Las Vegas with Jim Stewart, attended the industry convention that Phil Walden was at. Bell and Stewart were paged in the hotel ballroom and told about the news from people back at Stax. “We were in a state of shock,” Bell recalled. “I couldn’t even move.”
They made immediate plans to head back to Memphis. “We didn’t know what to do, who to talk to. We were just walking around in a daze, hoping against hope that it was a mistake, that Otis would be found alive somewhere.” Those were the same hopes that Zelma would be having as well.
At around 5 p.m., Zelma got a call from the Madison coroner, who told her the string of events. He told her that one of the bodies they managed to recover was that of a black man who was “tall and dark and has on a black undershirt.” She figured that the coroner was describing the still-unidentified Jimmy King.
She then yelled at him, “That’s not Otis!” She said that he didn’t wear underwear and that he was also an expert swimmer. She knew that he was out there alive and that they just hadn’t found him yet. “Go find him!” she ordered the man on the line. She then called Richard Fraser’s wife, Diane, because her husband had already been identified by the coroner’s office. Diane, hearing Zelma on the other end, cried, “Dick is gone. Otis, too.”
Redding’s body was recovered the day after the crash when the lake was thoroughly searched. Other than pilot Fraser and Otis Redding, the other victims of the crash were four members of the Bar-Kays: guitarist Jimmy King, tenor saxophonist Phalon Jones, organist Ronnie Caldwell, drummer Carl Cunningham, and their valet, Matthew Kelly.
More than 4,500 people came to the funeral. Johnny Jenkins and Isaac Hayes didn’t show up, apparently because they feared their reaction would be worse than Zelma’s. Redding was buried at his ranch in Round Oak. Redding was survived by Zelma and their four children, Otis III, Dexter, Demetria, and Karla. “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” was then posthumously released in January of 1968.
The song became Redding’s only single to reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and it was the first posthumous #1 single in US chart history. It sold four million copies worldwide and got over eight million airplays. Redding has since been called the “King of Soul,” a moniker that has also given to James Brown and Sam Cooke.
Artists from all kinds of genres have named Redding as their musical influence. George Harrison said his rendition of “Respect” wan inspiration for “Drive My Car.” The Rolling Stones mentioned Redding as a major influence of theirs, too. Even Janis Joplin was influenced by his style, according to guitarist Sam Andrew, who stated that she learned “to push a song instead of just sliding over it” after hearing Redding.