Forty years ago, December 10, 1967, a twin-engine Beechcraft carrying eight passengers crashed into an icy lake in Wisconsin, killing seven and forever altering American popular music. Ben Cauley remembers the crash as if it happened yesterday — he's the lone survivor.
Cauley played trumpet in the Bar-Kays, a group of Memphis high school and college students whom 26-year-old pop star Otis Redding had recruited as his backup band. "We'd been traveling with Otis almost a year," Cauley recalls, sitting in the upstairs recording studio in his East Memphis home.
Cauley's fond memories of that year include a night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where Redding and the Bar-Kays performed James Brown's "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." The Godfather of Soul himself surprised the band and audience alike, jumping on stage and making it a duet with Redding. "We all were steppin'," Cauley chuckles, referring to Brown's patented stage moves.
The group usually traveled "by station wagon and U-Haul," Cauley explains, but would load up Redding's plane, with the singer's friend and pilot Dick Fraser, 26, if the distance to a gig and the dollars from it added up. The group booked a string of shows in Nashville, Cleveland, Ohio, and Madison, Wisconsin, beginning December 8th."Something I'll never forget about that plane," Cauley begins. "The first of the last three nights we were together, we got to the airport about 5:30 or 6, and we asked Dick if we could crank it up so we could get warm, but he said the battery was low."
The boys looked at each other agog, but Cauley says they didn't think too much of it, and made the trip to Cleveland without incident.
Next morning, the group took off from Cleveland en route to their gig at a dance club called the Factory in Madison, Wisconsin. Redding sat beside Fraser in the cockpit. Cauley and Redding sat back to back. Four other members of the Bar-Kays — guitarist Jimmy King, organist Ronnie Caldwell, drummer Carl Cunningham, all 18, and saxophonist Phalon Jones, 19 — packed into the plane with their 17-year-old valet Matthew Kelly. Bar-Kays' bassist James Alexander and vocalist Carl Sims couldn't fit and took alternate transportation.
"We just talked as we always did on the plane," Cauley says, "a lot of jiving going on. We went to sleep for a while, and woke back up. Otis was talking about how he'd just cut a record and said, 'You'll hear it when you get back. We need to put the horns on it, so you'll do that.'"
The record was news to the Bar-Kays, Cauley recalls. "That was the first time we heard about 'Dock of the Bay.' That's the last thing he talked about — how much he loved that record and that it's something he'd wanted to do for a long time."
The passengers drifted back off to sleep, but were awoken with the plane shaking violently. Cauley looked over to Jones, who asked, "Man, what's that?" before looking out the window and yelling, "Oh, no!" as the plane spiraled nose first into partially frozen Lake Monona, about three miles shy of the runway in Madison.
Cauley awoke holding a seat cushion in the water, dizzy, with his head swollen from the crash. He looked around the foggy lake, disoriented, and heard his friends fighting for their lives. "I just kept thinking, 'We're in the wrong place,'" he says. "I was trying to run to the beach, but the more I tried, the further I drifted out. I saw Phalon. I saw Carl come up and gasp for air. I saw Ronnie come up. I said, 'Brother, hold on!' I was getting colder and colder."
He thinks he spent 20 to 25 minutes in the water. He grew tired, and felt himself losing consciousness. He couldn't hold the seat cushion in his numb hands any longer. "Just as soon as I let it go, somebody yanked me up," Cauley says.
A man who lived on the lake saw the plane go down and had hopped in his boat to search for the passengers. After snatching Cauley from the water, he lay Cauley in the boat beside three of the others and covered them with a tarp.
"I asked, 'Are they alright?'" Cauley says the man told him to lay down. When they reached the shore, the man pulled the tarp back and revealed some of the other boys, covered in algae.
In shock, and still unaware of all that had happened, Cauley told the man who they were and explained, "We're playing tonight." The man told Cauley, "You're lucky. You're the only one who lived."
"At that moment I couldn't talk," Cauley remembers. "I tried and I couldn't. I hadn't experienced anything like that in my life. I got to the hospital and heard what everyone was saying, but I couldn't communicate. It was like I was frozen. They told me I had gone into shock."
At age 20, Cauley had cheated death, but lost his mentor and closest friends. "When we played, we played together, and when we fought, we fought together, but we were there for each other," he says.
Twenty is a tender but resilient age. In a matter of weeks, Cauley flew back home to Memphis, immediately overcoming any fear of air travel, where he and Alexander reformed the Bar-Kays with more local musicians, many of whom acted as pallbearers for the original members. They hit the road scarcely a month after the accident. In 1970, Cauley and Alexander each named their first-born sons after Phalon Jones.
In the 40 years since that foggy afternoon, Cauley has come to terms with his luck and his loss. Despite his peace with the tragedy, Cauley says, "An eerie feeling runs across me any time I hear '(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay.'"
A Christian, Cauley says he knows that his friends are happy, in a safer place. He gestures toward a portrait of Redding and the Bar-Kays on the wall of his home studio. A local woman, Ms. Watson, made the matching suits the group wears in the black and white photograph. "I bet you they're wearing those canary yellow suits in Heaven," he muses.