Otis Redding's 'Sittin' On The Dock Of The Bay:' A #1 Hit From Beyond The Grave
When Otis Redding's "(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay" was released in January 1968, it was a final gift to music lovers. Only weeks earlier, Redding had passed away in a tragic plane crash that took the lives of six other men. The song, whether audiences could hear it or not, was technically unfinished. Redding was aware of the power that his soulful anthem to mindfulness and contemplation was destined for pop stardom, but in its current form the song lacks the singer's final touches.
Even though the song remained unfinished in Redding's mind, today it's one of the most beloved soul tracks of the '60s. It's a song that can be listened to in any setting, whether you're slow dancing at a wedding or if you find yourself on the dock of a bay watching the tide roll away.
Otis Redding Was Looking For A Change
Otis Redding's early work set the template for R&B music of the '60s and '70s. His oversexed, funked up work like "Try A Little Tenderness," "Respect," "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," "I Can't Turn You Loose" and "Mr. Pitiful" still get toes tapping and audiences dancing, but the work that Redding will most be remembered for shares little of the bombastic nature of his early singles.
His work that will outlast everything else he ever recorded is a contemplative tune that Redding hoped would be vastly different from everything else in his catalogue. "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" began its life on tour with Redding in 1967 as he searched for something more soulful in his own work. The earliest version of the song was literally written overlooking the water in Sausalito, California. Longtime co-writer and producer Steve Cropper explained the catalyst for the song to NPR:
He had been in San Francisco doing the Fillmore. He had rented a boathouse or stayed out at a boathouse or something [and] that’s when he got the idea of watching the ships coming in the bay there. And that’s about all he had: ‘I watch the ships come in and I watch them roll away again. Sittin’ on the dock of the bay.’ I just took that… we just sat down and I just kind of learned the changes that he was kind of running over and I finished the lyrics…Otis didn’t really write about himself but I did. ‘Dock of the Bay’ was exactly that: ‘I left my home in Georgia, headed for the Frisco Bay,’ it was all about him going out to San Francisco to perform.
Recording Went Quickly But The Track Was Unfinished
The "Dock Of The Bay" session wasn't lengthy, and in spite of the laid back style of the song the atmosphere in the studio was one of excitement. Cropper, a producer for Stax Records who played guitar with Booker T. & The M.G.'s was behind much of the sound of the single, but he took his inspiration from the vibe of Redding's first verse.
Also playing on the track were Booker T. Jones on piano and Al Jackson on drums. Redding guided the musicians through the track by singing the melodies for them, but Cropper explained that the singer was looking for a specific feel, one that was the complete opposite of his most well known work:
With Otis, it was all about feeling and expression. Most of his songs had just two or three chord changes, so there wasn’t a lot of music there. The dynamics, the energy, the way we attacked it—that’s hard to teach... I knew this was it. It was just a great song. We knew we finally had the song that would cross him over to the pop market.
The Higher-Ups At Stax Didn't Like The Song
It's hard to hear Redding's posthumous single out of context, but after the session Stax president Jim Stewart didn't get what the singer was going for. Bassist Duck Dunn explained:
It was too far over the border for Jim. It had no R&B whatsoever. I agreed with Jim. It didn’t impress me. I thought it was out of context. Otis was soulful, and for him to change over and go that way, it wasn’t as soulful as the Otis I knew. I thought it might even be detrimental.
Redding refused to ditch the song, he knew that it was the best thing he'd ever recorded and wouldn't budge on his art. He didn't think that the song was finished after the Memphis session, but he knew that he was on the right track for a pop crossover.
Redding Died Before He Could Finish The Song
Initial tracking on "Dock of the Bay" was finished on November 22, and he finished overdubs on December 7th, after that he went back out on tour with thoughts of finishing the song as soon as he had a break. He'd never touch the song again.
On December 10, after Redding and his group played three shows at Leo’s Casino in Cleveland, his Beechcraft H18 crashed into Lake Monona, outside Madison, Wisconsin. Redding, four members of the Bar-Kays, their valet, Matthew Kelly and the craft's pilot died instantly.
Without Redding to finish the song, Cropper mixed "Dock of the Bay" at Stax Studios. He added the sound of waves crashing against a beach and seagulls as Redding instructed. The whistling section in the outro that was meant to be cut and covered with something else was kept in the song. What was initially a guide for a later recording has since become one of the touchstones of the track.
The Single Made Redding More Popular Than Ever
Unfinished or not, Cropper's mix of "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" was released in January 1968, only a few weeks after Redding's death. Whether it was rushed to capitalize on the moment or if that was just the schedule is unclear. Either way, radio stations put the song in heavy rotation as a way to mourn the fallen singer while celebrating his legacy.
The single quickly went to the top of the R&B charts, which was no surprise. Redding basically owned the R&B charts in the '60s, but in March of '68 the single went to number one on the pop charts, something that Redding had never achieved. In fact, Redding had never cracked the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100. The posthumous album containing the single peaked at number four on the album chart and gave Redding the crossover success he yearned for in life.
That year, the single won two Grammy awards and the album went quadruple platinum. No one knows what would have happened had Redding lived to see the song become a smash hit, but at least we have the work that Redding left the world and sometimes that's all you need.
The Lyrics To '(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay'
Sittin' in the mornin' sun
I'll be sittin' when the evenin' comes
Watching the ships roll in
Then I watch 'em roll away again, yeah
I'm sittin' on the dock of the bay
Watchin' the tide roll away, ooh
I'm just sittin' on the dock of the bay
I left my home in Georgia
Headed for the Frisco Bay
'Cause I've had nothin' to live for
It look like nothin's gonna come my way
So I'm just gon' sittin' on the dock of the bay
Watchin' the tide roll away, ooh
I'm sittin' on the dock of the bay
Look like nothin's gonna change
Everything, still remains the same
I can't do what ten people tell me to do
So I guess I'll remain the same, yes
Sittin' here restin' my bones
And this loneliness won't leave me alone, listen
Two thousand miles, I roam
Just to make this dock my home
Now I'm just gon' sit, at the dock of the bay
Watchin' the tide roll away, ooh yeah
Sittin' on the dock of the bay
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