In a Blink of an Eye: It’s Been Forty-Five Years Since Otis Redding’s “(Sitting On) The Dock of The Bay” Was Recorded
I had gotten a heads up on this Sunday through Facebook, but of course, I was either on my way to work or at work when it was shown yesterday. So here it is.
I’m just floored about this anniversary, perhaps because it shows how long I have lived and what I have seen along the way. (Imagine the whooplah later this year when the Kennedy assassination 50th anniversary comes up in November.) And it seems as if it was only yesterday. The older I get, the more I realize how young everyone was, from the Beatles to Otis. Otis Redding will remain always 26, fun-loving, and surprisingly with that voice, shy, grown up only in his professional life and business dealings. He will never grow gray; we won’t ever hear about his excesses or a stint in jail, or a divorce from his wife, or better: having an album-CD with B.B. King or Eric Clapton, or his writing collaborator on this single, the great Steve Cropper. However, his legend, like another Genius of the Sixties, Jimi Hendrix keeps expanding exponentially. What would have been…
I always thought that this song was a somber bow to the hippies who also lived in the city where that dock was located: San Francisco. (It’s such a lonesome, sad song that it made me think the singer was ruminating on suicide—and the Golden Gate Bridge is nearby, too. But it is more about being a singer (Otis had to spend time in the hospital for nodes on his vocal cords), and being on the road away from family.) Otis died in the same year of the Summer of Love in San Francisco’s Haight; he died in the same year he appeared in the first and only Monterey International Pop Festival, where he headlined on the second night and drew even more ecstatic praise and fans. If Aretha was the Queen of Soul, Otis was already the acknowledged King of Soul among his youthful white as well as black fans. When Aretha (who made Otis’ “Respect” her own) appeared live at The Fillmore in 1971—thus performing for the first time to the hippies, street and love people—the circle that broke with Otis’ death closed once more with her performances.
People may think that Otis was discovered at Monterey, because that was where he really burst onto the national consciousness. Nada. Otis appeared a year before on the Sunset Strip at the Whisky-a- Go-Go, and blew everyone, including Bob Dylan, away. He was the first soul singer to cross over and to appear in venues on the West Coast.
It appears that Redding was inspired by the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which had been released that spring. As a result, “Dock of the Bay” was nothing like any of his previous songs, and his wife Zelma and Donald “Duck” Dunn of his backing horn section, The Mar-Kays, didn’t like it. It was a song that for the first time, showed introspection in his work. They were used to his stylings à la Little Richard and Sam Cooke, his usual influences. But Otis liked “Dock of the Bay” a lot; he thought that it was one of the best songs he had ever written, and knew that it could be a chart-topper.
Otis was one of those kind of guys who had 100 ideas. Anytime he came in to record he always had 10 or 15 different intros or titles, or whatever. He had been at San Francisco playing The Fillmore, and he was staying at a boathouse, which is where he got the idea of the ship coming in. That’s about all he had: “I watch the ships come in and I watch them roll away again.” I took that and finished the lyrics. If you listen to the songs I wrote with Otis, most of the lyrics are about him. He didn’t usually write about himself, but I did. “Mr. Pitiful,” “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)”; they were about 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.
Otis never heard his song. He never got to bask in the acclaim and the outpouring of love that it would receive. Three days later, Otis died when his plane crashed into the icy waters of Lake Monona. A month later, in January 1968, the song was released. Wikipedia states:
[It]…became Redding’s only number-one single on the Billboard Hot 100, and the first posthumous number-one single in US chart history. It sold approximately four million copies worldwide and received more than eight million airplays. The album The Dock of the Bay was the first posthumous album to reach the top spot on the UK Albums Chart.
Whereas all the recordings Otis made for Stax Records are now owned by Warner Bros., Otis owned the copyrights on all his songs. And this particular song has been covered by the likes of Sammy Hagar, Percy Sledge, Kenny Rankin, Pearl Jam, T-Rex, and Sam and Dave. It is the sixth most performed song of the last century, with over 6 million performances. According to Wiki, Jim Morrison referenced both Otis and “Dock of the Bay” in one of The Doors’ songs, “Running Blue.”
Sitting in the morning sun
I’ll be sitting when the evening comes
Watching the ships roll in
Then I watch them roll away again
I’m sitting on the dock of the bay
Watching the tide roll away
I’m just sitting on the dock of the bay
I left my home in Georgia
Headed for the Frisco bay
Cause I’ve had nothing to live for
It looked like nothing’s gonna come my way, so
I’m just gonna sit on the dock of the bay
Watching the tide roll away
I’m sitting on the dock of the bay
Looks like nothing’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
Sitting here resting my bones
And this loneliness won’t leave me alone
Two thousand miles I roam
Just to make this dock my home
Now Im just gonna sit at the dock of the bay
Watchin the tide roll away
Sitting on the dock of the bay
At the time Otis Redding recorded “Dock of the Bay” in Memphis, he had not finished a final verse for the song. He was going to complete the song after his club date in Madison. So instead, he whistled the rest of the way. The whistling stayed in, because Otis had gone.
It was a fitting farewell.
- Saunders: Remembering the power (and pain) in Otis Redding’s voice (newsobserver.com)
- It Was 45 Years Ago Today: “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” (3minuterecord.wordpress.com)
- Otis Redding Memorial Madison Wisconsin (itishowyouthink.com)
- If You Like Otis Redding. . . (nytimes.com)
- On This Day In 1967, Otis Redding Dies In Plane Crash (rememberinghistory.wordpress.com)