The Enduring Power of Otis Redding’s ‘Dock of the Bay’
By GAVIN EDWARDSJAN. 23, 2018
Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” became a hit after his 1967 death. This week in New York, it will be celebrated at the Apollo. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
A posthumous pop hit collapses triumph and sorrow into a single song. Only a handful of performers have reached No. 1 with a single after their deaths, including John Lennon, Janis Joplin and the Notorious B.I.G. But the first person to do it was the soul singer Otis Redding, who died in a plane crash in late 1967 at 26 and topped the charts for four weeks the following March and April with a beautifully melancholy song, “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay.”
The song ranked as the sixth-most-played composition on American radio and television in the 20th century. It has gone triple platinum and been covered by artists from Cher to Bob Dylan. Rolling Stone named it No. 26 on its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. To celebrate its endurance across 50 years, the Otis Redding Foundation is organizing a benefit concert on Thursday at the Apollo Theater, hosted by Whoopi Goldberg and featuring a lineup including Warren Haynes, Aloe Blacc and Booker T. Jones. The Dap-Kings and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band will provide the backup.
Paul Janeway of St. Paul and the Broken Bones is scheduled to perform “Down in the Valley” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” at the event. He said that before his band had any original material, it performed complete albums by Redding. The lesson: “As a singer, range is great, but you got to learn to sing the right notes the right way. Otis was one of the masters of that — he was so emotive.” And the reason behind the success of “Dock of the Bay”? “It sounds like the title,” Mr. Janeway said.
Otis Redding – (Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay (Official Video)
Otis Redding – "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay" Video by RHINO
“Dock of the Bay” emerged from a period of Redding’s life when he was going through dramatic transitions; had he lived, it might well have been remembered as the beginning of the second half of his career. In early 1967, Redding had made a name as the biggest star on the Stax label and the author of “Respect,” a song commandeered by Aretha Franklin. He was also famed for his electrifying performances, which were expanding beyond the R&B circuit.
Grace Slick, the lead singer of Jefferson Airplane, saw him at the Fillmore West in San Francisco in 1966. “It was the most stunning performance I had seen up to that point,” she said in a phone interview from Malibu. She remembered the stage swaying as he moved around it: “I’d never seen anybody with that much positive thrust, for lack of a better term.”
The next summer, Redding delivered a barnburner set at the Monterey Pop Festival. “This was the ‘love crowd,’” the record producer and Monterey organizer Lou Adler said in a phone interview. “He was aware of what he was getting into but had no idea of what the response would be. As much as the performer gave at Monterey, the audience gave it right back.”
Zelma Redding, the singer’s widow, said that after her husband had flown from the festival to their ranch in Macon, Ga., he told her, “I got a new audience.”
Otis Redding, "I've Been Loving You Too Long", from MIPF 1967
Otis Redding – "I've Been Loving You Too Long" Video by Monterey International Pop Festival
Redding threw himself into the project of reinventing himself. “It was clear that his bread and butter, which was these big 12/8 ballads, had plateaued,” Jonathan Gould, the author of the recent biography “Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life,” said in an interview. “He had done what he could do with them, which was more than anybody else could do.”
Like most of the world, Redding spent the summer of 1967 listening to the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” “He thought it was the greatest thing he ever heard,” Ms. Redding said, speaking from her office in Georgia. “I guess he was thinking about ‘How can I be this creative?’”
In August 1967, Redding returned to San Francisco for a week of shows at the jazz club Basin Street West. When he was besieged by female fans at his hotel, the promoter Bill Graham let him stay at his houseboat in Sausalito.
Redding spent his days quietly looking at the water; freed from the usual demands of travel, he could relax and write songs. His road manager, Earl Sims (known as Speedo), said he was the only witness the day Redding picked up his guitar and wrote a new song that began “Sittin’ in the morning sun/I’ll be sittin’ when the evening comes.”
Mr. Sims was used to tapping out a simple beat when his boss was writing songs, acting as a human metronome. The rhythm of this new one was totally different, he said in an interview. “It took me a minute to get into what he was doing. He was away, and he was on the water, and he was relaxed. That’s why he started that song.”
When Redding returned home, he played the song for his wife. “My comment at the time was that it was very different, unusual for him,” she said — meaning she didn’t care for it. “He said, ‘Well, I’m going to change my style, going to be different.’”
That October, Redding had surgery to remove polyps from his vocal cords; while recuperating, he couldn’t speak, so he grew a beard and spent hours in silent contemplation. Five weeks later, his voice sounded better than ever, and he was eager to get some of his new ideas on wax.
Steve Cropper, who regularly backed Redding up as the guitarist for Booker T. and the MG’s (a.k.a. the Stax house band), remembered Redding calling him from the Memphis airport to make sure he was at the studio. When Redding arrived, the pair sat on beige folding chairs, hammering out the song. “I helped him with the second verse a little bit, helped him with the bridge,” Mr. Cropper said in a phone interview. “After he sang, ‘I watch the ships roll in, watch them roll out again,’ I said, ‘Have you thought that if a ship rolls, it’s going to take on water and sink?’” Redding told him, “That’s the way I want it, Crop.”
The duo went into the studio in November, joined by Donald Dunn (known as Duck) on bass, Al Jackson on drums, Booker T. Jones on piano and three horn players. In an interview, Mr. Jones remembered the sessions as having “kind of a hectic feeling — so much so that I remember a number of people sleeping over at the studio.” Redding and Mr. Cropper planned to ask the Staple Singers to contribute backing vocals to “Dock of the Bay,” which never happened. The whistling at the song’s end came in a section earmarked for vocal ad-libbing; on one early take, Redding sputtered and the engineer Ron Capone told him, “You’re not going to make it as a whistler.”
In the middle of the sessions, Redding went back on the road. “I’ll see you on Monday,” were his last words to Mr. Cropper. He had recently acquired a Beechcraft Model 18 airplane so he and his touring band, the Bar-Kays, could fly around the country to play shows on weekends, letting him regularly return to Memphis. But on Dec. 10, 1967, as he flew into Madison, Wis., the plane stalled and crashed into Lake Monona, killing seven people, including Redding. It fell to a shattered Mr. Cropper to finish “Dock of the Bay” for a rush release. “If I had a week to work on it, it probably would have been overembellished,” he said. (He finished the job in 24 hours.)
Different lines of the song resonate with those who have covered it over the years. Michael Bolton recorded the second-most-successful version of the track (a No. 11 hit in 1988). In an email, he said he thinks the song’s key lyric is “look like nothing’s gonna change, everything remains the same.” “It states the obvious lack of our evolution as a society,” he wrote.
Mr. Jones agreed that line has a special power. “It’s one of those lyrics that has the capability of touching anyone who’s been through changes, loneliness, trying to find a secure place in the world,” he said. Over the past 50 years, that’s proved to be just about everyone.