How Otis Redding Got to “The Dock of the Bay”
One of the greatest songs of the 1960s was Otis Redding’s “Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay.” It remains hugely popular even today. A Google search returned more than a million and a half hits for the title on YouTube, most of them amateur performances by individuals who love the song and couldn’t refrain from doing their very own version. According to music licensing company BMI, it is the sixth-most performed song of the 20th century.
The story behind “Dock Of The Bay” is both amazing and tragic. The amazing part is how Otis Redding came to be the hall-of-fame superstar who co-wrote and sang the song, carrying it to #1 on the charts. The tragedy is summed up in the fact that “Dock Of The Bay” was the first song in the history of the Billboard Magazine music charts to ever become a posthumous #1 hit.
The Unlikely Rise of a Superstar
Until 1962 Otis Redding’s life was that of a struggling would-be singer. Born in Dawson, Georgia on September 9, 1941, Otis moved with his family to Macon, Georgia when he was five years old. He was the son of a Baptist minister, and naturally enough, got his start singing in the choir of the Vineville Baptist Church in Macon.
With a father frequently unable to work because of chronic illness, and a family in dire financial need, Otis dropped out of high school in the tenth grade and began using his musical talent to supplement the family’s income. He started competing in talent shows at the historic Douglass Theater in Macon. After winning 15 straight times, he was banned from the contest. But it was at the Douglass that he was spotted by guitarist Johnny Jenkins, leader of a group called the Pinetoppers.
Impressed with Otis’s talent, Jenkins invited him to join with the Pinetoppers as they played local clubs and the college circuit. During this period Otis recorded a couple of sides for local labels: “She’s Alright,” credited to Otis and The Shooters, and “Shout Bamalama,” on which he was backed by Jenkins’ Pinetoppers. But his role with the Pinetoppers was more as a gofer and driver than the singer. When the Pinetoppers recorded their biggest regional hit, “Love Twist,” it was purely an instrumental.
It was in his role as driver and all-around helper that Otis found himself in Memphis, Tennessee in October of 1962.
Video: CBS News Feature
A Fateful Driving Assignment
Guitarist Johnny Jenkins of the Pinetoppers had been invited to Stax Records in Memphis to do a demo recording with the Stax house band, Booker T. and the MG’s. Jenkins didn’t have a driver’s license, so Otis accompanied him in his customary role of driver and general gofer. He was totally unknown to any of the people at Stax, and there was no thought of him performing.
Guitarist Steve Cropper, who would become Otis’s songwriting collaborator, recalls the first time he saw Otis Redding:
"There was this big guy driving the car, and he pulls up and then he gets out and unlocks the trunk and starts pulling out amplifiers and microphones and all this stuff. And I thought he was a roadie, you know? He’s a big, strong guy (Otis was 6’2’’, 220 lbs). I figured, yeah, he’s a bodyguard and then roadie and stuff, valet or whatever."
“I’m a Singer”
According to the Washington Post, the recording session with Johnny Jenkins turned out to be “a disorganized disaster,” and was cut short. Most of the musicians packed up to leave. But there were still about 40 minutes left on the clock for that session. They turned into perhaps the most serendipitous 40 minutes in music industry history. Here’s how Steve Cropper remembers what happened next:
"Otis Redding, as we know him now, came to our drummer Al Jackson and said, “You know, I’m a singer, and sometime I’d like to get somebody to hear me sing.” And so I was kind of the designated A&R director (the person responsible for identifying new artists) at Stax at that time and I used to hold auditions on Saturday. And Al came to me and said, 'This guy that’s with Johnny, he sings with him and he’d like for you to listen to him sing. Can you take two or three minutes and listen to this guy?'”
In a decision that changed music history, Steve Cropper agreed to listen to Otis Redding sing. Going to the piano, Cropper asked Otis what he wanted to do. Otis started by singing an up-tempo number in the style of Little Richard, whom he had often imitated. That’s exactly how it came across, like an imitation, and it did not impress.
But then Otis requested that Cropper play what are known as “gospel triplets” on the piano, and he began to sing a ballad he had written, “These Arms of Mine.” The reaction was immediate! As Cropper says, “We all fell on the floor.” He grabbed Jim Stewart, the head of the label, and Stewart, too, was blown away.
By that time, most of the musicians who had been there for the Johnny Jenkins session were gone. Bass player Louis Steinberg had already packed his instrument in his car but hadn’t yet left. Stewart called for him to pull out his bass and come back in. Since keyboardist Booker T. was already gone, guitarist Steve Cropper got on the piano, Al Jackson Jr. was on drums, and Johnny Jenkins played guitar (one can only imagine what his feelings must have been).
That small group then proceeded to back Otis as he recorded “These Arms of Mine.”
"These Arms of Mine"
Incredibly, that improvised, impromptu recording became Otis Redding’s first hit.
It was Otis Redding, not Johnny Jenkins, who went home with a new recording contract that October day. (Jenkins continued to record, and became a highly regarded and influential guitarist).
A Star Is Born
Soon Otis was bringing out albums and singles, both as a writer and a singer, that rose high on the Rhythm and Blues (R&B) music charts. Songs he composed such as “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and “Respect” (taken to even greater heights by Aretha Franklin), as well as his version of a Depression-era classic, “Try a Little Tenderness” became R&B standards.
By 1967 Otis Redding was an R&B superstar. During that year he had a triumphant European tour that resulted in a live album, appropriately titled Otis Redding: Live in Europe, that Rolling Stone magazine would name in 2003 as one of the 500 greatest albums of all time. In the wake of that tour, Otis was named the top male vocalist in the poll conducted by British music newspaper Melody Maker, replacing Elvis Presley, who had held that spot for the previous ten straight years.
Triumph at Monterey
Then came the event that catapulted Otis Redding to fame with an audience he had never reached before. As the only soul music act at the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival, Otis gave a scintillating performance that, according to the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, “stole the show from Janis Joplin, the Who, and Jimi Hendrix.” He now became an ascending star, not just among African Americans, but with pop music fans all over the world.
A Wonderful Year, and a New Direction
That was a great year for Otis. In the wake of his success on the worldwide stage provided by the Monterey festival, he hosted a huge barbecue for about 300 guests involved in the music industry at his 300-acre Big O Ranch about 25 miles north of his former home in Macon, Georgia. “We had our own Woodstock,” says wife, Zelma Redding.
At this high point of his career, there was only one cloud on Otis Redding’s horizon. He had to have surgery to remove polyps from his vocal cords. Under doctors’ orders, he was forbidden to sing or talk for six weeks after the procedure.
Naturally, there was some trepidation concerning what this might mean for his voice. To everyone’s relief, Otis sounded even better after he recovered from the operation than before. But the down time had given him a season for musical reflection that now took him in a somewhat different direction.
Otis had gone to San Francisco to perform at the Fillmore, and while there he stayed at a boathouse in Sausalito, just across the bay. He would literally sit and watch the ferry boats run back and forth. The thought that kept running through his mind was “I watch the ships come in and I watch them roll away again.”
So, he began composing a song unlike anything he had written or recorded before. Steve Cropper remembers the day Otis shared the beginnings of the new song with him.
"Usually when Otis came to town, he waited until he checked into the Holiday Inn before calling me to work with him on songs in his room. This time he couldn't wait. He said, 'Crop, I've got a hit. I'm coming right over.'
"When Otis walked in, he said, 'Crop, get your gut-tar.' I always kept a Gibson B-29 around. He grabbed it, tuned it to an open E-chord, which made the guitar easier to play slide. Then Otis played and sang a verse he had written: Sittin' in the mornin' sun/I'll be sittin' when the evenin' come/Watching the ships roll in/And then I watch 'em roll away again."
From that beginning, Otis and Cropper fashioned the rest of the lyrics and the melody of the song. Then, in two recording sessions, the first on November 22 and the last on December 8, 1967, Otis Redding recorded “Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay.”
The Dock of the Bay
A Tragic Plane Crash
After laying down the vocal for “Dock Of The Bay,” Otis, along with his backup band, the Bar-Kays, left for a series of road appearances. It was as the group was flying in a private plane from Cleveland to Madison, Wisconsin that the aircraft lost power over Lake Monona and went down. The only survivor was the Bar-Kays trumpet player, Ben Cauley. Otis Redding was gone. He was just 26 years old.
The date was December 10, 1967, just three days after Otis finished recording the vocal for “Dock Of The Bay.”
Life Goes On
Otis’s plane had gone down on Sunday. But, as is perhaps to be expected, by Monday unsentimental record company executives were insisting, as Steve Cropper recalls, “We’ve got to get something out.”
At this point, the new song was far from being ready for release. Much production work remained to be done. The intensive effort of adding the necessary finishing touches to the recording would fall to Otis’s collaborator, Steve Cropper. It was, as he says, “very difficult.” Otis’s body had not even been recovered from the crash site. But the rush to complete and release his final recording was actually a good thing for Cropper. He says of that time, “probably the music is the only thing that kept me going.”
The Touches of Irony Surrounding “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”
Ironically, Otis Redding never heard the recording that is so beloved even after almost half a century. As Steve Cropper recalls,
"Otis never heard the waves, he never heard the sea gulls, and he didn’t hear the guitar fills that I did. And I actually went over to a local jingle company there, Pepper-Tanner, and got into their sound library and come up with some sea gulls and some waves and I made the tape loop of that, brought them in and out of the holes, you know. Whenever the song took a little breather, I just kind of filled it with a sea gull or a wave.”
A second surprise concerns the famous whistling coda that concludes the song. It has been called perhaps the most famous whistle in musical history. Yet it was never intended to be part of the song at all.
When Otis finished the recording session on December 8, he and Steve Cropper were still trying to come up with a lyric to end the song. So, Otis’s whistling was intended simply as a placeholder until the final words could be added once he returned from his road trip. That, of course, never happened, and Cropper left the whistling in as a fitting and very poignant ending to the song.
A final irony is that “The Dock Of The Bay” was so different from the style Otis Redding was known for that Stax Records chief Jim Stewart initially didn’t want to release the recording. Nobody at Stax, including Otis’s wife Zelma, liked it. But both Otis and Steve Cropper went strongly to bat for the song, insisting that it could become the first Otis Redding #1 hit. It was only after Otis’s death, and after hearing Steve Cropper’s final mix of the song, that Stewart approved its release.
Cloud 9: High school a capella group singing "Dock of the Bay"
When it was released, “Dock Of The Bay” shot to the top of both the R&B and pop music charts, and became a gold record. As Otis and Cropper had predicted, it became Otis’s first #1 hit, selling more than four million copies around the world. Four albums of previously unreleased Redding recordings were soon produced, including one featuring and titled after “Dock Of The Bay.” All were very popular. (Five Otis Redding albums, including “Dock Of The Bay,” are among Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 greatest albums of all time).
At the 1968 Grammy Awards “Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay” won Best Rhythm & Blues Male Performance for Otis, and Best Rhythm & Blues Song for Otis and Steve Cropper as writers.
The song has been re-recorded by a multitude of singers, including Glen Campbell, Bob Dylan, Percy Sledge, Sam & Dave, Sergio Mendes & Brasil ‘66, and Michael Bolton, whose 1988 version stayed on the music charts for 17 weeks.
And the momentum continues.
In 1992 a compilation CD, “The Very Best of Otis Redding,” went gold, selling more than 500,000 copies.
Justin Timberlake at the White House
In 2013 “Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay” was performed at a certain high-profile Washington, DC venue by Justin Timberlake, who was backed by a previously unknown singing duo going by the name of “Barack and Michelle.”
Otis Redding was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, and the US Post Office issued a 29-cent commemorative postage stamp in his honor in 1993.
But beyond all the accolades, perhaps the greatest legacy of Otis Redding is that with all the upheaval popular music has experienced since the 1960s, “Sitting On Dock of the Bay” has continued to draw fans in each new generation.
© 2013 Ronald E. Franklin