Otis Redding died a horrific death: His friend could only watch

Written by Jakob A. Overgaard

Sep.09 - 2023 6:02 PM CET

Otis Redding, celebrated as one of America's most iconic voices, faced a devastating conclusion to his life during a flight between performances.

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The soulful singer behind "The Dock of the Bay" was en route from Cleveland, Ohio, to Madison, Wisconsin, in 1967. Having just graced the stage for two nights at Leo’s Casino and made a memorable appearance on the Upbeat show, Redding was eager to perform at the Factory nightclub in Wisconsin.

Before embarking on this journey, the 26-year-old artist reached out to his beloved wife and children, updating them on his whereabouts and plans.

Redding's love story began when he was just 18, meeting his soon-to-be wife, Zelma Atwood. The couple exchanged vows in 1961 and were blessed with four children: Dexter, Demetria, Karla, and Otis III. However, Zelma's world would soon shatter into pieces.

On that ill-fated evening, despite the heavy rain and dense fog, Redding's plane took off. As they approached Truax Field in Madison, everything seemed under control. But in a tragic twist of fate, the plane plummeted into Lake Monona. All aboard perished, save for Ben Cauley, a member of the Bar-Kays band.

Ben's harrowing experience was one of sheer terror. Awakening just moments before the crash, he witnessed a bandmate's horrified expression. As the plane submerged, Ben clung to a seat cushion, struggling to stay afloat in the icy waters. Despite his desperate situation, he couldn't swim and was forced to watch his friends succumb to the cold, their cries echoing in his ears. The crash claimed the lives of guitarist Jimmy King, saxophonist Phalon Jones, organist Ronnie Caldwell, drummer Carl Cunningham, and the band's valet, Matthew Kelly. The pilot, Richard Fraser, also met a tragic end.

The aftermath of the crash haunted Ben for decades. He recounted the chilling sensation of the lake's cold embrace and the overwhelming feelings of fear and helplessness. The memories were so vivid that he could still recall the sensation of the icy water and the loss of one of his shoes.

The cause of the crash remains a mystery. Rescue teams reached the crash site within 17 minutes, managing to save Ben but tragically, not the others.

In a subsequent twist of fate, the Redding family faced another tragedy. Otis Redding III, the late singer's son, passed away in April 2023 at the age of 59 after a courageous battle with cancer. He had followed in his father's musical footsteps, forming the funk band The Reddings and producing six remarkable albums.

Otis Redding's legacy, both in music and in the hearts of his loved ones, remains undiminished. His tragic end serves as a poignant reminder of the unpredictability of life and the enduring impact of genuine talent.