When R&B singer Otis Redding played California’s Monterey Pop Festival in the middle of 1967’s hippie-and-flower-powered “Summer of Love,” he was one of only two soul singers to perform at the three-day festival. The event would be a turning point in Redding‘s career, expanding his fan base to include white audiences throughout the U.S. and Europe. California would play a major role in the single that would become his biggest solo hit, an enduring R&B-pop classic which hit Number One 50 years ago today and has since been covered by dozens of artists, including a legendary pair of country outlaws. Redding, however, would not live to experience its success or its enduring legacy.
Days after the festival ended, Redding was on rock promoter Bill Graham’s houseboat, which was docked in WaldoPointHarbor in Sausalito, California. From the boat, looking out at Richardson Bay (not the more poetic-sounding “FriscoBay” as depicted in the lyrics), Redding began writing the first verse to the tune that would become his signature song. Songwriter-musician Steve Cropper, guitarist with Stax Records house band Booker T. & the M.G.’s, co-wrote “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” with Redding, but when the musicians went into the studio in late November of 1967 to cut it, the end result represented a stylistic change for Redding, veering into mellow, yet sophisticated, pop territory.
In early December, Redding and his backing band the Bar-Kays flew to Nashville for the first of three scheduled shows that weekend. On the morning of December 10th, Redding and all but two of the Bar-Kays were killed when their twin-engine plane plummeted into LakeMonona, just three minutes from their destination in Madison, Wisconsin. Redding was 26 years old.
“(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” was released in January 1968 and would become the first posthumous single to top Billboard‘s Hot 100, ascending to Number One on March 16th and holding the top spot for four consecutive weeks. Other contemporaneous versions, by King Curtis and Latin-flavored band Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66, were minor hits, while artists including Cher, Peggy Lee and Glen Campbell also covered it at the time. Others who have cut it include David Allan Coe and GarthBrooks.
In 1982, country music’s reigning outlaws, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, recorded a follow-up to 1978’s Waylon & Willie LP. WWII consisted of five newly recorded duets between the two superstars, with the rest devoted to solo performances by Jennings. The album spawned one country hit, the pair’s tranquil, pop-tinged take on “Dock of the Bay.” Released as a single late in 1982, it peaked at Number 13. Although largely forgotten amidst the numerous other hits Nelson and Jennings had individually and collectively, their impassioned performance is a reminder of Redding‘s wide-ranging influence and of his – and Cropper’s – gift for conjuring nothing less than lyrical and in-studio magic.