The Otis Redding tribute on Monday evening was a somber, respectful affair. Marking the 40th anniversary of the great soul singer's death in the Lake Monona plane crash that also claimed the lives of all but one of the Bar-Kays, the event drew a large crowd to Monona Terrace and featured an appearance by the tragedy's sole survivor, the trumpeter Ben Cauley, who was in Madison for the first time since that terrible night.
Opening with local guitarist Robert J. and harmonica virtuoso Westside Andy's respectful cover of the Redding classic "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay," the event was marked by Mayor Dave Cieslewicz's reading of a memorial proclamation. But the highlight had to be Cauley's appearance.
The trumpeter has gone on to become one of the cornerstones of the Memphis music scene. Dressed to the nines for his appearance at Monona Terrace, Cauley offered some brief reflections on the crash and its aftermath before he launched into an emotional cover of another Redding hit, "Try a Little Tenderness," followed by a version of "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" that was downright heart-breaking.
I didn't know anyone had survived the plane crash until 1992. While researching a column on the occasion of the tragedy's 25th anniversary, I delved into the news accounts of the day. Buried deep in the stories was the fact that Cauley had survived. Tracking him down in Memphis, I phoned him up. Our ensuing conversation produced the following column in the April 24, 1992 edition of Isthmus:
A friend asks: "Did I hear right? Was there a survivor in the plane crash that killed Otis Redding here in the '60s?"
Yes. Sunday, Dec. 10, 1967: Otis Redding and The Bar-Kays -- the heart and sould of Memphis' Stax-Volt R&B label -- were flying in from Cleveland to play the Factory, a club at the corner of State and Gorham. Redding had just recorded "Sitting on the Dock of the bay." It would be released posthumously.
Redding and five of the Bar-Kays filled Redding's new green-and-white twin-engine Beechcraft. Bar-Kay bassman James Alexander and Redding's valet, Carl Simms, took a commercial flight into Milwaukee and were to make connections from there.
Approaching what was then the Madison Municipal Airport in fog and drizzle at 3:28 p.m., the plane plunged into chilly Lake Monona half a mile of Tonyawatha Trail. Some of the passengers died on impact, the coroner reported. Others drowned. Bar-Kays trumpet player Ben Cauley was rescued and treated at Methodist Hospital for shock and facial cuts.
A year later, Cauley re-formed the Bar-Kays with Alexander and new players; 25 years after the crash, he still lives in Memphis, is married and has seven kids (ages 16 to 25). Either solo or as a member of the legendary Memphis Horns, Cauley, now 44, has recorded with Elvis, Michael Jackson, Keith Richards, Isaac Hayes, the Doobies, Delbert McClinton, Allman Brothers, Tracy Nelson, Bobby Womack -- "You want me to go on?" he asks. He was recently reunited with Alexander: "He and I got together and did a show with the Bar-Kays here in Memphis about two months ago. It'd been about 10 years since we'd played together as a group," he says. "Lotta people came out."
Cauley's never been back to Madison, but he says he'd like to return someday. He tries not to think about the crash, "but I still remember a lot of things about it. In fact, I was up in my attic looking at an article [about the crash] last week," he says.
In the years since, I've thought of Cauley on each succeeding anniversary of the crash and almost every time I've heard one of Redding's songs, and hoped he would be able to make it back to Madison some day.
So you can imagine what a pleasure and privilege it was to seek him out at the 40th anniversary memorial observance, shake his hand and exchange a few brief words with a true survivor -- a man who appears to have remained conscious of his good fortune and continues to make the most of his life while also paying tribute to Redding and his legacy.