“(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” — Otis Redding, February 1968

Behind the Beat


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Otis Redding wrote “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” in Sausalito, Calif.

SENIOR LIFE Creative Commons

 

Sittin’ in the morning sun/I’ll be sittin’ when the evening comes

Otis Redding was at peace — sort of — when he began his best-known creation on a friend’s houseboat in Sausalito, Calif. On one lazy, sunny afternoon in 1967, Redding strummed his acoustic guitar and softly sang whatever lyrics drifted into his head.

He was going somewhere with a tune, he just didn’t know where.

Looks like nothing’s gonna change/Everything still remains the same

Were those lines meant to be ironic? At that point, Redding was really all about change. He had wowed the (overwhelmingly white) crowd at the recent Monterey Pop Festival. Aretha Franklin had taken his “Respect” to No. 1 on Billboard’s pop chart. He had been listening to Bob Dylan and the Beatles. He talked of starting his own record label.

Born in 1941, Redding had grown up in Macon, Ga., the home of Little Richard and James Brown, both early major influences. Redding left school at age 15 and went on the road to sing with the Upsetters, Little Richard’s former backup group.

Later on, Redding hooked up as lead singer with another Macon outfit, Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers. They had scored a regional hit called “Love Twist,” and Atlantic Records was showing interest. In October 1962, Atlantic invited Jenkins to do some recording in Memphis. Jenkins didn’t drive, so Redding chauffeured his friend in a borrowed station wagon.

The Memphis house band that day included a future Redding collaborator, guitarist Steve Cropper. The Jenkins session never came together, but in the studio that afternoon Redding cut an original soul ballad called “These Arms of Mine.” It became the first of 21 hit singles he would record in his brief lifetime.

On Oct. 4, 1967, Redding met with Cropper in a Memphis recording studio to polish Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay.”

“We knew we finally had the song that would cross him over to the pop market,” Cropper would say later.

But only Redding and Cropper believed in the future classic. The power people behind Volt Records (Redding’s label) hated what was offered and condemned the song as being too “pop” for Redding’s hard-core fans. Where was that signature Otis Redding soul? And what was with that ad libbed whistling of Redding’s that showed up at the end?

Three days after finishing recording “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” Redding died at age 26 when his small private plane slammed into a Wisconsin lake. He and his five-piece band, the Bar-Kays, had been heading to Madison for a club date. One band member survived the crash.

Cropper ended up tinkering with Redding’s work by adding sound effects of gently lapping waves. The result was a fine point on what rock historian Dave Marsh once declared being “as whole, as fully realized and mature, as any record ever made.” Music fans obviously agreed; by the end of the century “Dock” had earned a phenomenal 6 million spins on the radio. 

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