Fifty years ago, on the frigid and stormy afternoon of Dec. 10, 1967, 26-year-old former Air Force pilot Richard Fraser radioed Dane County Regional Airport near Madison, Wis., for clearance to land an eight-passenger Beechcraft H18 on a three-hour flight from Cleveland. Upon clearance from the tower, the tiny twin-engine plane began its descent in dense fog over Lake Monona, one of three lakes surrounding the midwestern city. Four miles from the runway, communications between craft and tower suddenly ceased as the plane disappeared from radar. While one passenger would survive the crash landing into the lake’s icy waters, which some attributed to a power failure, Fraser, five members of the Barkays musical band, and the plane’s owner — another 26-year-old and a popular musician — did not. Days later, the mangled craft was lifted from the bottom of the 40-foot lake, its propeller, left wing and engine missing, yet its body intact and adorned in script, “Otis Redding Ent.”
A half-century later, what also remains intact is the enduring legacy of a Georgia-born musical prodigy who used his brief time on earth to leave an indelible mark on his industry and the world. In doing so, Otis Ray Redding Jr. helped craft a revolutionary model of independence for Black artists at a time when few enjoyed such freedom.
Redding wrote his own music in an era when many African-American artists did not or were not allowed to. As president of Redwal Music Company, Redding was heavily involved in the business direction and operations of his career, setting up his own publishing and record label, Jotis Records. Also unlike many of his soul-singing peers, he was well compensated for his substantial control over his own music and he engaged in outside investments in real estate, stocks and bonds. Redding also owned the 300-acre “Big-O” ranch near his hometown of Macon, where his family still resides today.
And yes, he even acquired a couple of his own airplanes, all before the age of 26.
“His legacy remains very prolific through his music and his business acumen,” acknowledges Karla Redding-Andrews, daughter of the late singer and executive director of the family-run Otis Redding Foundation. “Skin color was never considered a limitation,” she said, noting he stressed the importance of education for the Black community, “especially being that he himself did not complete high school. He strongly believed in the power of education even going as far as providing scholarships to many kids in his community.” As part of this legacy, Redding-Andrews and her mother, Zelma, Redding’s widow and foundation president, offer programming aimed at empowering and motivating youths through education in music.
Though unique in many ways, Redding’s story began like so many singers before him — in the church choir, at Macon’s Vineville Baptist Church. While a student at Ballard Hudson High, the talented teen entered the city’s Douglass Theatre talent show for a chance to win the coveted $5 prize. He ended up winning $75 after taking first place 15 times in a row. As a result, the theater barred him from competing.
In 1958, the 17-year-old Redding returned to the Douglass to grace its stage as a new member of the popular homegrown band Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers. The enigmatic Jenkins was known to play his guitar left-handed and upside down, a style that would later have a substantial impact on fellow artist Jimi Hendrix. The group continued performing locally and, in 1959, Capricorn Records founder Phil Walden began booking the band after hearing them on a local radio talent show. Three years later, Redding got his first major break when he drove Jenkins to a recording session at Stax Studios in Memphis, Tenn. When Jenkins finished early, Stax co-owner Jim Stewart let Redding use the remaining studio time, resulting in the 1962 debut, “These Arms Of Mine.” Redding signed with Stax and his career took off. He subsequently recorded a string of hit singles, among them “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and “Try A Little Tenderness.” Ironically, Jenkins, whose extra session time triggered Redding’s meteoric rise, was asked to lead Redding’s tour band but refused because of his fear of flying.
Yet, Redding did soar. During the mid-1960s, one would be pressed to find a more popular emerging artist as he toured the globe garnering critical acclaim amid sold-out performances. Fans of all races and backgrounds gravitated to the raw, heartfelt emotion of his music and his equally mesmerizing presence on stage. This soul-felt connection with audiences and listeners, epitomized by his distinctive ad libs and guttural “gotta gotta” refrains, propelled Redding to 20 singles on the Billboard charts in a five-year period. In 1966, as a testament to his wildly popular appeal, Redding won the coveted Melody Maker poll as Best Male Rock Vocalist, the first time in a decade the winner didn’t go by the name Elvis Presley.
Though the rest is certainly history — his historic 1967 performance at the Monterey Jazz Festival, his recording of the iconic “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of The Bay” days before his untimely passing — what is less remembered is his impact upon the racial dynamics of industry cover songs. Prior to Redding, white artists like Pat Boone would remake classic songs from Black artists and, in doing so, capitalize upon the fame and fortune of a large, mainstream white audience commonly denied to African-Americans. However, given his growing mass appeal, Redding’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” on his seminal “Otis Blue” in 1965 effectively flipped this process in a way other mainstream-encroaching Black artists could, and did, emulate. And, poetically, the major artists who have since emulated and covered the late Redding—musicians of all colors, ages and genres—are far too numerous to list.
A couple of upcoming events will ensure Redding’s mold-breaking musical legacy continues for generations to come. On May 16, Crown Archetype Publishing will release the highly anticipated, 500-page “Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life,” penned by Beatles biographer Jonathan Gould. And three days later, Stax Records will celebrate its 60th anniversary by launching a string of new-hits compilations from the label’s biggest artists, including Redding, Isaac Hayes, the Staples Singers, Sam and Dave, William Bell, Johnnie Taylor, Carla Thomas, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, the Dramatics and Albert King.
So, the legacy continues, but a question remains. If the independent-minded Redding had lived, what direction would his music have gone in, given the increasing racial tumult of the late 1960s and early ’70s? Would he have used his music, as a number of his soulful peers did, to politicize an issue, challenge societal ills or make a stand?
Though we’ll never know that answer for certain, his daughter takes a stab.
“I don’t think so,” posits Redding-Andrews, noting her father’s music was focused on love and relationships and “not fueled by situations around race.” She clarifies his authorship of the classic song “Respect” was simply about “a man just needing appreciation when he came home.” Aretha Franklin later “moved its tone towards being an anthem of the Black woman’s rights and power.”
But, “don’t get me wrong,” Redding-Andrews adds. “I am certain he felt the turbulence of racism and expressed this when he covered Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come.'”