"(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" is a song co-written by soul singer Otis Redding and guitarist Steve Cropper. It was recorded by Redding twice in 1967, including once just days before his death in a plane crash. The song was released on Stax Records' Volt label in 1968, becoming the first ever posthumous single to top the charts in the US. It reached number 3 on the UK Singles Chart.
Redding started writing the lyrics to the song in August 1967, while sitting on a rented houseboat in Sausalito, California. He 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 features whistling and sounds of waves crashing on a shore.
While on tour with the Bar-Kays in August 1967, Redding wrote the first verse of the song, under the abbreviated title "Dock of the Bay," on a houseboat at Waldo Point in Sausalito, California. He had completed his famed performance at the Monterey Pop Festival just weeks earlier. While touring in support of the albums King & Queen (a collaboration with female vocalist Carla Thomas) and Live in Europe, he continued to scribble lines of the song on napkins and hotel paper. In November of that year, he joined producer and guitarist Steve Cropper at the Stax recording studio in Memphis, Tennessee, to record the song.
In a September 1990 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. 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.
Together, they completed the music and melancholic lyrics of "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay." From those sessions emerged Redding's final recorded work, including "Dock of the Bay," which was recorded on November 22, with additional overdubs on December 7. Redding's restrained yet emotive delivery is backed by Cropper's succinct guitar playing. The song is somewhat different in style from most of Redding's other recordings. While discussing the song with his wife, Redding stated that he had wanted to "be a little different" with "The Dock of the Bay" and "change his style". There were concerns that "The Dock of the Bay" had too much of a pop feel for an Otis Redding record, and contracting the Stax gospel act the Staple Singers to record backing vocals was discussed but never carried out. Redding had considered the song to be unfinished and planned to record what he considered a final version, but never got the chance. The song features a whistled tune heard before it fades, however it is unclear who it is performed by. Some sources claim Sam Taylor (blues musician), a guitarist/bandleader for Redding during the 1960s, overdubbed Redding’s original, weaker whistle. Cropper, however, insists that Redding’s original whistle was used on the final cut. Redding continued to tour after the recording sessions. On December 10, his charter plane crashed into Lake Monona, outside Madison, Wisconsin. Redding and six others were killed.
After Redding's death, Cropper mixed "Dock of the Bay" at Stax Studios. He added the sound of seagulls and waves crashing to the background, as Redding had requested, recalling the sounds he heard when he was staying on the houseboat.
- Otis Redding – vocals
- Booker T. Jones or Isaac Hayes – keyboards
- Steve Cropper – guitar
- Donald Dunn – bass guitar
- Al Jackson Jr. – drums
- Wayne Jackson – trumpet, trombone
- Andrew Love – saxophone
- Sam Taylor - whistle (rumored)
Phil Walden and Jim Stewart were among those who had doubts about the song, the sound, and the production. Redding accepted some of the criticisms and fine-tuned the song. He reversed the opening, which was Redding's whistling part, and put it at the end as suggested. "The Dock of the Bay" was released early in 1968 and topped the charts in the US and UK. Billboard ranked the record as the number 4 song for 1968.
"(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" was released in January 1968, shortly after Redding's death. R&B stations quickly added the song to their playlists, which had been saturated with Redding's previous hits. The song shot to number one on the R&B charts in early 1968 and, starting in March, topped the pop charts for four weeks. The album, which shared the song's title, became his largest-selling to date, peaking at number four on the pop albums chart. "Dock of the Bay" was popular in countries across the world and became Redding's most successful record, selling more than four million copies worldwide. The song went on to win two Grammy Awards: Best R&B Song and Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.
Redding's body of work at the time of his death was immense, including a backlog of archived recordings as well as those created in November and December 1967, just before his death. In mid-1968, Stax Records severed its distribution contract with Atlantic Records, which retained the label's back catalog and the rights to the unreleased Otis Redding masters. Through its Atco subsidiary (Atco had distributed Otis Redding's releases from Stax's Volt label), Atlantic issued three more albums of new Redding material, one live album, and eight singles between 1968 and 1970. Reprise Records issued a live album featuring Redding and Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival. Both studio albums and anthologies sold well in America and abroad. Redding was especially successful in the United Kingdom, where The Dock of the Bay went to number one, becoming the first posthumous album to reach the top spot there.
In 1999, BMI named the song as the sixth-most performed song of the twentieth century, with about six million performances. Rolling Stone ranked The Dock of the Bay number 161 on its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, the third of five Redding albums on the list. "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" was ranked twenty-sixth on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, the second-highest of four Redding songs on the list, after "Respect" (in this case the version recorded by Aretha Franklin).
Jim Morrison made reference to "Dock of the Bay" in the Doors' song "Runnin' Blue", written by Robby Krieger, from their 1969 album The Soft Parade. Morrison sings an a capella intro for the song, singing directly about Otis Redding. "Poor Otis dead and gone, left me here to sing his song, pretty little girl with a red dress on, poor Otis dead and gone." And during the verse, the lyrics "Got to find a dock and a bay" appear more than once; as well as several other references to Redding's song.
"The Dock of the Bay" has been hugely popular, even after its stay at the top of the charts. The song has been recorded by many artists, from Redding's peers, like Glen Campbell, Cher, Peggy Lee, David Allan Coe, Bob Dylan, Don Partridge, Percy Sledge, Dee Clark, and Sam & Dave, to artists in various genres, including Jimmy Velvit (whose cover version was included on his 2001 Grammy-nominated album Sun Sea & Sand), Widespread Panic (who opened their New Year's Eve 2005 concert with the song), Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson (whose duet peaked at number 13 on the U.S. Hot Country Songs chart), Kenny Rankin, Dennis Brown, Michel Pagliaro, Jacob Miller, Pearl Jam, the Format, T. Rex (as the B-side of "Dreamy Lady", released in 1975), Brent Smith of Shinedown (during an acoustic set in 2008 and with Zach Myers in a 2014 EP) and Garth Brooks (for the 2013 Blue-Eyed Soul album in the Blame It All on My Roots: Five Decades of Influences compilation) as well as John Hartford on the Retrograss album with David Grisman and Mike Seeger (1999).
Sammy Hagar released a version of the song as a non-album single in 1979. His version features the song's co-writer, Steve Cropper, on guitar and members of the band Boston—Brad Delp, Sib Hashian and Barry Goudreau—on backup vocals.
In April 2013, Justin Timberlake performed the song as part of a tribute to Memphis soul music at the "In Performance" concert series performed at the White House. The series was attended by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.
Chart performance of other versions
In addition to the original Otis Redding version, several other versions have charted on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States. King Curtis's version charted for five weeks starting in March 1968 and peaked at number 84 (during the same month, the original was number one). A year later, Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66's version charted for five weeks starting in June 1969 and peaked at number 66. Sammy Hagar's version charted for five weeks starting in April 1979, peaking at number 65. The Reddings, who included two of Otis Redding's sons, released a version which charted for nine weeks starting in June 1982 and peaked at number 55.
Reception on other versions
Music critic Thor Christensen in 1994 listed the Sammy Hagar version as one of the "five worst song remakes".
Michael Bolton version
Michael Bolton included the song on his 1987 album The Hunger. His version peaked number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 12 on the Album Rock Tracks chart. The version peaked number 77 on the UK Singles Chart on the week ending April 3, 1988, its third week on the Chart.
Zelma Redding, Otis's widow, said she was so moved by Bolton's performance "that it brought tears to my eyes. It reminded me so much of my husband that I know if he heard it, he would feel the same." In a framed letter that hangs on the wall of Bolton's office, she referred to the record as "my all-time favorite version of my husband's classic."
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- Inside Otis Redding's "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay"