‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay’ is one of the definitive Otis Redding songs. It’s not only highly regarded and steeped in legendary mystique because he co-wrote it with the esteemed soul guitarist Steve Cropper, but because they wrote it just a matter of days before the iconic soul singer tragically lost his life in a devastating plane crash.
Redding started writing the lyrics to the song in August 1967, whilst he was living on a rented houseboat in Sausalito, California. He then completed the song in Memphis with the help of Cropper, who was a Stax producer and the guitarist for Booker T. & the M.G.’s. The song was finished on December 7th which was only two days before he lost his life. His tragic death came on a routine commute to a performance on Redding’s Beechcraft H18 aeroplane after they appeared on the Upbeat television show produced in Cleveland.
They played three concerts in two nights at a club called Leo’s Casino. After a phone call with his wife and children, Redding’s next stop was Madison, Wisconsin on December 10th where they were set to perform at the Factory nightclub but alas, tragically, they wouldn’t make it. The other victims of the disaster were four members of the Bar-Kays—guitarist Jimmy King, tenor saxophonist Phalon Jones, organist Ronnie Caldwell, and drummer Carl Cunningham; their valet, Matthew Kelly and pilot Fraser.
The soul legend’s death came five months before Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis, which is the very same place that the track was recorded. Racial tensions were through the roof at this moment in time and the fact that Redding collaborated with the white Steve Cropper and white bassist Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn on the track stuck two fingers up at the people who said white and black people couldn’t get along.
Together, they completed the music and melancholic lyrics of ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay’ which was taken from the sessions which, in the end, would be Redding’s final recorded work. It is widely believed that Redding had considered the song to be unfinished and wanted to add his final touches of magic to the track but this was opportunity taken away from him.
Instead, Cropper did what he was thought to be right after Redding’s death and added the distinct sound of seagulls and waves crashing to the background. This is what Redding had wanted to hear on the track according to Cropper who remembered Redding recalling the sounds he heard when he wrote the song on the houseboat.
In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Cropper explained the origins of the song, “Otis was one of those the kind of guy who had 100 ideas. He had been in San Francisco doing The Fillmore. And the story that I got he was renting boathouse or stayed at a boathouse or something and that’s where he got the idea of 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’. I just took that… and I finished the lyrics,” continued Cropper. “If you listen to the songs I collaborated with Otis, most of the lyrics are about him. Otis didn’t really write about himself but I did. Songs like ‘Mr. Pitiful’, ‘Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)’ they were about Otis and Otis’ life. ‘Dock of the Bay’ was exactly that: ‘I left my home in Georgia, headed for the Frisco Bay’ was all about him going out to San Francisco to perform,” he added.
‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay’ was released just a month following Redding’s death and became his only ever single to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in January 1968. With it, Redding confirmed himself as a talent lost far too soon.
It remains a crying shame that Redding wasn’t alive to witness his song topping the charts with the track becoming the first posthumous number-one single in U.S. chart history. The album The Dock of the Bay also became the first posthumous album to reach the top spot on the UK Albums Chart.