Otis Redding was big news by the summer of 1967. Having spent most of his career performing in black clubs, his breakout appearance at the Monterey International Pop Music Festival that year introduced mainstream America to soul music’s most electrifying new star. All that was missing was a major hit.
After Monterey, Redding busied himself on the road with his backing band, the Bar-Kays. In August a week’s residency at San Francisco’s Basin St. West finally afforded him some time to write. Accepting promoter Bill Graham’s offer of his houseboat in nearby Sausalito, Redding spent his days idly gazing out at the water, guitar in hand, watching the ferries roll by. Soon he had the first lines of a song: ‘Sittin’ in the morning sun, I’ll be sittin’ when the evening comes.’
During a break in touring in November, Redding called his writing partner and producer, Steve Cropper, from Memphis.
“He’d been home to Macon [Georgia] first, then got on a plane to Memphis, because he really wanted to record,” remembers Cropper, then the guitarist in Stax Records’ house band, Booker T & The M.G.’s, who’d backed Redding at Monterey. “So we sat down together and finished this song he’d started to write in Sausalito.”
Redding was looking for a change of pace from the raw balladeering of Try ALittle Tenderness and I’ve Been Loving You Too Long, or the high-powered R&B of I Can’t Turn You Loose. Inspired by The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, which he’d been listening to all summer, Redding tried something different. The sweetly melancholic (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay was just that.
On the track, Booker T & The M.G.’s, with Isaac Hayes on additional keyboards, are a study in restraint as Redding contemplates his lot against the faint sound of the lapping tides: ‘Sittin’ here resting my bones, and this loneliness won’t leave me alone, listen/Two thousand miles I roam, just to make this dock my home, now.’
"It was a crossover for Otis,” Cropper says. “It was medium tempo, but it wasn’t a dance song and it wasn’t a ballad either. It was somewhere in the middle. We just thought that maybe this was the one. Because Otis wasn’t on tour at that time, we had him in the studio for at least a week or more. The Dock Of The Bay was in the can, and after each recording session we didn’t have anything better, so we’d get that one out and listen to it again. We’d listen to it over and over, and we all kind of knew it was a hit.”
A distinctive moment comes not long before the fade-out. Given the singular mood and tempo, Redding had trouble ad-libbing one of his habitual raps at the end. Instead he whistled a simple melody. “The thing is, Otis wasn’t that good a whistler, and Ronnie Capone, the engineer, told him so,” Cropper recalls. “But he proved him wrong, didn’t he?”
That said, the track wasn’t quite there.
“Otis and I both agreed it wasn’t finished,” explains Cropper, who also produced the track. “It needed something else. We decided that maybe background vocals would be good. I told Otis: ‘If you can wait a week or so, I’m doing the Staple Singers next, and I know they would love to sing on an Otis Redding song.’ He thought that was a great idea. But of course he died before that ever happened.”
Tragically, Redding perished soon after, along with most of the Bar-Kays, in a plane crashed en route to a gig in Madison, Wisconsin. He was just 26. A devastated Cropper was left to mix (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay, incorporating the sound of seagulls and waves – as per Redding’s request – into the final mix. He also overdubbed electric guitar licks, imitating a seabird.
With Redding’s body yet to be recovered from the crash site, Cropper remembers that finishing the song was “maybe the toughest thing I’ve ever done”.
Released in early January 1968, less than a month after Redding’s death, (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay was an instant success on the R&B listings. By March it had reached the top of the Billboard chart. It was a huge hit in the United Kingdom too, making the top three.
As with parent album The Dock Of The Bay, sales outstripped any of Redding’s previous releases. Redding’s single (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay went on to sell more than four million copies, and won two Grammys.
Cropper is quick to refute any suggestions that it was only successful because of what happened to Redding. “I’ve read articles that said if Otis had not been killed in a plane crash, the record would’ve never made it,” he says. “I disagree with that. I think it’s as good as anything you’ll ever hear. But the fact that he passed away probably helped the sales some, made people more aware of it.”
The song has enjoyed a long afterlife, prompting scores of covers from such disparate names as Bob Dylan, King Curtis, Willie Nelson, Pearl Jam, T. Rex, Glen Campbell, Michael Bolton and Sammy Hagar. Cropper himself has returned to the source a number of times. When he and the surviving members of Booker T. & The M.G.’s backed Neil Young on tour in 1993, they closed every show with it.
Just as the song continues to endure, so does Cropper’s memory of Redding.
“I always looked up to Otis like an older brother,” he says. “I didn’t know until I saw his obituary that we were actually the same age, because he always seemed so much more streetwise. And he was always so great in the studio. He sang every song like it was going to be his last.
"All the other musicians on those sessions couldn’t wait to play with Otis again, because they had so much fun. It never felt like work when Otis was around. It was a party."
Steve Cropper's Fire It Up is out now (opens in new tab).