Sunday, December 10, 2006

Remembering Otis Redding 39 years after his death in Madison's Lake Monona

When the plane carrying Otis Redding and his band crashed into Lake Monona, I was living in Boston. I was sharing a basement apartment on 1292 Commonwealth Avenue with a roommate named Jeannie who was was rarely there. She usually stayed with a boyfriend who attended one of the many colleges in the area. But on the morning of December 11, 1967 she awakened me screaming, "Otis fell into your lake last night!"

Even after I was fully awake, I really didn't understand the depth of her sorrow and anger because Otis Redding just wasn't a name I recognized. A few weeks later, I moved back to Madison in time to celebrate Christmas with my family. The moving van with my clothes didn't arrive until the middle of January.

Otis Redding and his music really didn't register with me until a few years later, when my friend Jonathan introduced me to the splendid Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which was performing at the Wisconsin Union Theater. I was spellbound. After that initial introduction, I went to see Ailey's company perform whenever I could. I saw them in Chicago and New York. I saw them when then returned to Madison. And somewhere along the way, Alvin Ailey introduced me to the music of Otis Redding via choreographer George Faison's "Suite Otis," which premiered in 1971, and which originally featured some of the company's all-time greatest dancers, including Ulysses Dove, Masazumi Chaya, and the sassy, unforgettable Marilyn Banks.

The six songs in "Suite Otis" are the ones I know best, the ones I play most often when I put my Otis Redding LP on the record player or a disk in my CD player. And of those six songs, the most familiar, the most often played is "Try a Little Tenderness." You can listen to a rendition of it from Otis Redding's 1967 Stax Tour of Europe on the You Tube video below:

The Friday after Thanksgiving, I went to the Monona Terrace Convention Center with plans to take a photograph of the Otis Redding Memorial on the William T. Evjue Rooftop Garden. But as I noted in an earlier post, the entire facility was closed.

This past Friday, I made a return trip to Monona Terrace. Although the building was open, there was no access to the Rooftop Garden. Sadly, you may not be able to visit the Otis Redding Memorial until next year.

I talked to one of the building managers and learned the Rooftop Garden is usually closed all winter. Large sections of the floor of the Rooftop Garden are covered with commemorative tiles (with the names of donors to the convention center) made from materials easily damaged by snow removal equipment. When the Rooftop Garden is covered with snow and ice that can't be removed because of concerns about damaging the tiles, it is kept closed to the public because of safety and liability concerns. Driving rain and high winds are also reasons for closing the Rooftop Garden.

Emulating my heroine, Brenda Starr, I managed to persuade a building manager to let me see (and photograph) the current condition of the Rooftop Garden. It was treacherous up there. It may not seem like it from the photos, but it's very icy -- and there's really little hope that recent slightly warmer weather will melt it all away any time soon. Here's what it looked like on Friday:

And since you might want to read the words on the stone that sits on the ground in front of the Otis Redding Memorial, here's a photo of that, too:

Next year will be the 40th anniversary of Redding's death and since the media seem to favor numbers divisible by ten (or sometimes five), you'll probably see and hear a lot more about Otis Redding in Madison in 2007. But if you want to pay your respects, you'll have to schedule a visit to the Otis Redding Memorial for a sunny day when snow is just a memory.


Anonymous said...

I had taken a course in underwater rescue and salvage as an advanced SCUBA course at the West HS the previous summer. My mother received a call from the Madison Sheriff's department wanting to know if I would be willing to dive on the Otis plane crash site the night of the crash. Unfortunately, I was a in the hospital at Madison General as a patient at the time and was unable to dive. But I consider the Plane crash a major historical event for Madison.

MCHS class of 64

james clark said...

I am a singer/songwriter in Toronto, Canada. My song 'Lake Monona Last Night' deals with both the fatal Otis Redding plane crash as well as a more personal devastating event which occurred in Madison not so long ago. To have a listen go to:

I welcome any thoughts. Thanks for listening.