Standing on the Dock of the Bay

By Doug Bradley

I make this trip every December 10th, driving a short distance from my home on the west side of Madison, Wisconsin, to the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Monona Terrace on the shores of Lake Monona. Once there, I find a trio of marble benches at the Terrace’s Rooftop Garden and gaze upon a plaque that proclaims:

Otis Redding

The King of the Soul Singers

1941–1967

After I dry my tears, I look out upon the cold, icy lake that was the graveyard of Otis and six others on December 10, 1967, and wonder just what would have been…

Otis Redding was in the midst of barnstorming the country barely six months after his dazzling performance at the Monterrey Pop Festival in the summer of ’67 that had rocketed him to stardom. Earlier that December, he had recorded “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” the song that would become his biggest hit. He was due back in the studio in Memphis on Monday, after shows in Cleveland and Madison over the weekend.

That Sunday, Otis and the Bar-Kays were to headline a show at the Factory, a popular music venue in downtown Madison. Ominously, the opening band that night haled from nearby Rockford, Illinois and went by the name of The Grim Reapers. They eventually became known as Cheap Trick.

The skies over Madison were heavy with rain and fog that evening. But Redding, ever the devoted showman who had never missed a scheduled performance, was determined to not let the weather stop them. Flying in the face of warnings against trying to make it, his plane, a Beech Model 18, was a few short miles from its destination when it crashed into Lake Monona, killing every passenger except for 20-year-old Ben Cauley Jr., a trumpet player, vocalist, songwriter, and founding member of The Bar-Kays. Cauley managed to unfasten his seat belt and grab a cushion before he was flung out from the plane where he was picked up by a Madison police boat. They couldn’t believe he was alive.

But Otis Redding was no more. A few weeks later “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” was released, becoming the first posthumous number-one single in American recording history, selling more than four million copies. Even today, there’s an eerie sadness that lingers by the “dock of the bay” along the shores of Lake Monona where you can hear Otis confirm that he’s

“sittin’ on the dock of the bay/watchin’ the tide roll away…”

Ironically, just before his tragic death, Otis had responded favorably to a request from then Vice President Hubert Humphrey to entertain troops and boost morale in Vietnam, especially among black GIs. One can only imagine the reception Otis would have received if he’d made that trip.

But Otis did leave the gift of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” to Vietnam soldiers and veterans. The power of that song to transport, to connect, and to heal so many of us was one of his greatest legacies. The song’s melancholy lyrics have something to do with this, with references to leaving home, the “Frisco Bay” (from where thousands of GIs embarked for Vietnam), “wastin’ time” and having “10 people tell me (what) to do.” But the lines that most resonate for Vietnam vets are these:

This loneliness won’t leave me alone . . .

‘Cause I’ve had nothing to live for

And look like nothin’s gonna come my way

Grown men still choke up when the repeat those lines, because in that repeating, in that remembering, they revisit the ache in their hearts, the loneliness they felt, and the despair that nearly overwhelmed them in Southeast Asia. It was a tumultuous and difficult time regardless, but being thousands of miles away from home and in a war zone made it almost intolerable. But what saved those soldiers in Vietnam, and continues to save them today, are songs like “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”

Madison commemorated the 40th anniversary of Otis’s death in 2007 with a host of events and activities. My We Gotta Get Out of This Place co-author Craig Werner and I were honored to be invited by the Wisconsin Veterans Museum to talk about the legacy of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” It was another cold, snowy Wisconsin evening but nearly 100 people showed up. Our hearts were buoyed by Otis’s spiritual presence and, of course, by his music.

And mine nearly burst when we were read a telegram from Otis’s widow, Zelma, who thanked us for paying tribute to her husband. It’s we Vietnam vets who are grateful to your departed husband, I wanted to tell Zelma, for helping us to try to “remain the same” why the world around us was falling apart.

Now, 54 years after the plane crash that killed Otis Redding and six others, if you stand by his plaque and look out over Lake Monona, you realize that he has “made this dock my home.” And then if you listen hard enough, you can almost hear Otis whistle, as he does at the end of his iconic song. That whistle is in the wind, in the water, here in Madison, Wisconsin, where we lost one of the greatest artists of our generation.

(Vietnam veteran Doug Bradley is the author of DEROS Vietnam: Dispatches from the Air-Conditioned Jungle and co-author, with Craig Werner, of We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War named best music book of 2015 by Rolling Stone magazine. According to David Martin, Emmy-award winning correspondent for CBS News, Doug’s latest book, Who’ll Stop the Rain: Respect, Remembrance, and Reconciliation in Post-Vietnam America, “uses music to bring us together after a war that so bitterly divided us.”)

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