Inside Otis Redding’s Final Masterpiece ‘(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay’
When the phone rang at the Stax/Volt studios in Memphis in late November of 1967, guitarist Steve Cropper was surprised to hear Otis Redding on the other end, calling from the airport. “Usually Otis would check into the Holiday Inn or whatever hotel he was staying at and then he’d call for me to come over and do some writing,” Cropper recalls. But this time Redding was too excited to wait. “I’ve got a hit,” he told Cropper, so he wanted to come straight to the studio to flesh his idea out into a full-fledged song.
Redding was right. When “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” was released less than two months later, it became the singer’s first million-seller and first Billboard Number One single. But the legendary soul singer never got to hear the finished version of his breakthrough single: He had died in a plane crash on December 10th.
Redding laid down numerous tracks in his final weeks, none more important than “Dock of the Bay.” The roots of the song trace back to June of that year. In the middle of the month, Redding, backed by Booker T. & the M.G.’s, left the largely white crowd at the Monterey Pop Festival awestruck, making an impression rivaled only by the Who and Jimi Hendrix. Redding had won over white audiences in Los Angeles at the Whisky a Go Go nightclub the previous year and in Europe that spring, where his admirers included four guys from Liverpool taking a break from recording their new album. But Monterey Pop was on a different scale, and the unabashed adulation confirmed for Redding that he could cross over to become a major star.
“Monterey had a powerful effect on Otis,” recalls Stanley Booth, who interviewed Redding for the Saturday Evening Post during those final sessions. “He saw a huge crowd of white kids going nuts over him, and he began to believe he could follow in the footsteps of Sam Cooke and Ray Charles.”
Al Bell, then a Stax executive, says that he told Redding he was getting pegged as a genre musician and “would have to come up with something different. We talked back and forth on it. I suggested he write something folk-like, saying we could call it Soul Folk. It was the only time I told Otis what to do.”
Redding had begun listening to Bob Dylan, whom he’d met at the Whisky in ’66 but beginning in June, the singer – like the rest of the world – was playing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band over and over.
The Beatles’ album got Redding thinking. He had always relied on the emotion and energy in his vocals to carry his songs, but now he started paying more mind to the words themselves; he’d also recorded most of his songs live in the studio, but the complex layering achieved by the Beatles and George Martin clued him in to other ways of building tracks. Redding had produced (and co-written) Arthur Conley’s hit “Sweet Soul Music” earlier that year and Cropper says he started talking about getting off the road and spending more time producing in the studio.
“Absolutely his style was changing,” Cropper tells Rolling Stone. “One of the main things Otis told me in the car one day was, ‘I’m coming to Memphis and I’m going to get a place and you and I are going to produce and write songs.’ He really enjoyed being in the studio.”
Still, Redding was committed to the road for the rest of that summer, including a six-night gig at Basin Street West in San Francisco in August. When rock impresario Bill Graham made him an offer to get out of downtown, Redding, a country boy at heart, was happy to spend those days on Graham’s houseboat.
It’s here where Redding began writing the song – and where the first of the myths and misconceptions about it began. Marc Myers, in his book Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits that Changed Rock, R&B and Pop, mistakenly noted that Redding went to the houseboat to catch his breath right after playing Monterey. Meanwhile, the city of San Francisco recently put the lyrics on display on a pier in Brannan Street Wharf. But Redding was more than 10 miles away, at Waldo Point Harbor in Sausalito.
Redding’s Wikipedia page mistakenly claims that the song “was written with Cropper while they were staying with their friend, Earl ‘Speedo’ Simms, on a houseboat in Sausalito.” But while Simms, Redding’s road manager, was there, Cropper was thousands of miles away.
The fact that Cropper wasn’t there is obvious in his reaction to the song – that fall, when Redding first sang him the lines “Watching the ships roll in/And then I watch ’em roll away again,” Cropper says he “always envisioned a ship going under the Golden Gate Bridge.”
“Me being a purist kind of guy I said, ‘Otis, did you ever think that if a ship rolls it’s going to take on water and sink,'” Cropper recalls, “and he said about the lyric, ‘Hell, Crop, that’s what I want,’ and Otis always got his way.”
Actually, the Golden Gate Bridge isn’t even visible from where Redding was, but Cropper never saw that spot until years later when he was on tour with Robert Cray; he got a bite to eat overlooking the water and saw ferries going back and forth and realized that “when a ferry goes to park it pushes up a big wake and comes in sideways and looks like it is rolling in. So a ferry was a ship in his mind.”
On the bright side, Cropper’s misunderstanding about the location led him to add the lines, “I left my home in Georgia [Redding grew up in Macon], heading for the Frisco Bay,” which works much better than “heading for Richardson Bay,” where Redding and the dock were. (Cropper says that years later Neil Young told him he stayed in Graham’s houseboat the week after Redding.)
Redding didn’t have much more than the basic chords and his first verse about sitting and watching the ships, and the chorus. And then he put the song aside for a while. “That was Otis,” Cropper says. “He always carried his guitar with him, but not in the case, and he’d have an idea and just start writing – he always had 14 or 15 ideas in his head, totally unfinished.”
Redding stopped touring that fall when polyps on his vocal cords required surgery, sidelining and even nearly silencing him at first. He had to communicate by writing notes, though he also wrote more songs. By late November, he was turned loose and Cropper says his voice sounded better than ever. He recorded more than 30 new songs in a burst of creativity at the end of that month and the beginning of December. Most would end up on posthumous releases including “Hard to Handle,” “The Happy Song” and “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember,” which he wrote based on a poem by his wife Zelma. Some, like “I’m a Changed Man,” reflect the new emphasis on lyrics, while others, though still recognizably soul songs, feature more of Cropper’s guitar and hint at a move toward rock.
“Otis was a hard worker and he grew as an artist with each record,” Stax co-founder Jim Stewart tells RS. “Each time he came in he took more and more responsibility and more control of his sessions. The musicians respected him and loved him. He really lit up the studio when he was there.”
That desire for more control and responsibility had actually led Redding to chafe at some of Stewart’s decisions. Some biographers say Redding was considering entering into a partnership with Atlantic, feeling he’d need a new home as he looked to expand his sound and his audience, instead of being sent out to headline yet another tour.
“Stewart and Stax were somewhat limiting musically and Stewart was opposed to changes,” says keyboardist Booker T. Jones. He adds, though, that if Redding had firm plans, he “kept them to himself.”
“I was in somewhat the same place after the Europe tour and Monterey,” Jones continues. “We hung with rock stars and I was headed away from Memphis. I felt restricted at Stax. I was heading to California.”
There is debate about when Redding and Cropper wrote “Dock of the Bay” and when it was recorded. Rob Bowman, author of Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records, says he found the American Federation of Musicians session sheet for “Dock of the Bay” in the files of Fantasy Records, which bought Stax in the 1970s and that it places the recording session as November 22nd, the day before Thanksgiving. Tim Sampson, communications director for the Soulsville Foundation, which runs the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, trusts Bowman’s research, and suggests that this sheet may be the most reliable source available.
That date fits with the idea of an excited Redding calling Cropper about his new song from the airport the day before the session started and it also allows enough time for Redding and his band to lay down all those new tracks.
Cropper isn’t certain of the date but remembers recording the song “a week to 10 days” before he laid down his electric guitar part on December 8th, which puts the recording (if not the writing) at the tail end of November. In his article, Booth describes Cropper and Redding writing the song closer to that time period, although now he says it may have transpired during the final week of Redding’s life.
Jonathan Gould, author of Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life, claimed Redding recorded the song over two sessions, finishing on December 8th, but Cropper says that while he added his electric guitar part on that day and played it for Redding, the singer was already done with his vocals.
In Mark Ribowsky’s book, Dreams to Remember, he cited that the Atlantic session logs give the recording date as December 7th. But he also mistakenly identifies that as a Wednesday (not a Thursday) and writes that the log says the band included Cropper, drummer Al Jackson, organist Booker T. Washington (rather than Booker T. Jones), bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, trumpeter Wayne Jackson and saxophonist Joe Arnold. Arnold told Rolling Stone he definitely was not on that song; the sax part was actually played by Wayne Jackson’s Memphis Horns partner Andrew Love.
Rolling Stone learned that two more horn players – Mickey Gregory and Tommy Lee Williams – dubbed additional parts on the track on Friday December 8th. Gregory says they were not in the union so Cropper paid them cash. Gregory also recalls hitting up Redding for a loan. “Otis said he just gave away $200, but he gave me his last 20,” he says.
“The Atlantic log book is riddled with errors,” Bowman says in an email, explaining that “most of the Stax entries in that book are the dates when Atlantic received the final tapes from Stax, not when the sessions actually occurred,” although in this case Atlantic did not receive the tapes until December 13th.
(Some books and articles say Redding recorded the song on the same day he and Cropper wrote it, but this may be based on a misreading of Booth’s narrative article; both Cropper and Booth insist they were two discrete events.)
As for the writing of the song, Cropper says he and Redding were alone in the studio when they wrote the song – Redding said, “Crop, get your gut-tar,” as he pronounced it, and they got right to work. But Booth says he was there too. He had just interviewed Al Jackson when Redding pulled up in his limo. Booth says he went inside with Redding and watched as he and Cropper hammered out the song.
Booth’s story describes the musicians “sitting on folding chairs, facing each other, in the dark cavern-like grey-and-pink studio” and depicts Redding playing his “bright red dime-store guitar strumming simple bar chords” and that “the front of the guitar is cracked as if someone has stepped on it.” (Cropper explains that Redding always kept his acoustic open tuned to an E chord so he could easily play major chords.)
Most stories credit Cropper with the “Frisco Bay” line while Booth’s original narrative reported Redding coming up with it.
Cropper came up with the chords for the bridge, which also changed the song’s tempo. “It was a thing I had in my head, real simple – 1, 5, 4; 1, 5, 4; 1, 5, 4, 1; 6, 7, 5 – and Otis just kind of ad-libbed those lyrics. It felt good and we kept it.”
Redding did make one change in the recording session: on take one, he sings that he “can’t do what 20 people tell me to do,” before halving that number for the second and third takes.
“We didn’t put stuff down when we were writing, we just put it in our head,” Cropper says.
On whatever day it was that the band recorded, Cropper played a Gibson acoustic rhythm guitar, which he describes as a “country western flat-top round-hole guitar.” He strummed the chords until Dunn found a bass groove and then Al Jackson kicked in with his part.
Jones says he “tried giving the piano parts a marine feeling, building on fourths.” Then Redding and Cropper created horn parts for Love and Wayne Jackson by singing the notes they wanted.
At the end of the first take, Redding started whistling, poorly enough that engineer Ron Capone joked that he wasn’t “going to make it as a whistler.” Redding nailed it on the third take.
The whistling has been the subject of much debate. Cropper says that he always left space at the end of a song for Redding to add extra vocals, frequently ad-libbed on the spot. On this day, Cropper says, Redding simply forgot what he wanted to sing and whistled instead, merely as a placeholder to be fixed at a later date.
“If he had come back that Monday, it would definitely have been different,” Cropper says.
While Redding and Cropper planned more work on the song, the fact that Redding whistled on all three takes gave many the impression that this was an intentional touch that perfectly suited the song’s mood.
“That was no placeholder,” says Al Bell. “That was Otis – the very essence coming out of him.”
Later, a rumor began swirling that Redding’s whistling wasn’t good enough and that Cropper used musician Sam “Bluzman” Taylor to dub in a stronger take. Cropper vehemently denies that. “I don’t even know where that story came from,” he says.
While “Dock of the Bay” is now hailed as an influential classic – placing at number 26 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time – the initial reaction to the song was mixed. Cropper says he played the song for Zelma Redding and Johnny Lee “Blue Moon” Odom, the major-league pitcher who hailed from Redding’s hometown of Macon, Georgia, and was hanging out during some of those sessions. Zelma Redding didn’t like the new approach.
She reportedly felt his post-surgery songs were too strongly Beatles-influenced and has been quoted as saying that her husband told her, “Boy, when I go back out there, I’m gonna be the new Otis Redding,” to which she replied with a hint of dismay, “Oh, God, you are changing.” Redding responded, “It’s time for me to change in my music.”
Cropper and Jones loved the tune, but Dunn was unimpressed. “It has no R&B whatsoever,” the late bassist said in interviews, adding that he thought it “might even be detrimental” to Redding’s career. Redding’s manager Phil Walden thought it was “too pop” and Jim Stewart didn’t love it either.
Jones believes Redding would not have been deterred. “It wasn’t consequential what they thought,” he says. “Otis was determined to do what he was going to do.”
Redding did brush off their concerns with a confident aura, telling Walden, “This is my first million-seller,” but it seems the doubters did get to him somewhat. On Friday, December 8th, he had lunch with labelmates David Porter and William Bell; Bell says they ate at the Four Way, a popular Memphis restaurant, and then went back to Stax to listen to the preliminary mix. Without the masterful touches Cropper would later add, the drums and the horns are more prominent, undermining the song’s wistful vibe.
“I think he was just a little bit unsure of himself and how it would turn out,” William Bell says, adding that he loved the song in part because it was different. “He wanted confirmation from all of us.”
The same day, on December 8th, Cropper laid down the electric-guitar track, using his Fender Esquire that he has since donated to the Smithsonian Museum. “The last time I saw Otis, I was setting up with my guitar in the control room. I’d face the amp away from the speakers so I wouldn’t get any crosstalk or feedback. Otis popped his head in and said, ‘I’ll see you Monday.'”
Booth now tells a story that doesn’t jibe with the facts, writing in an email, “The day after the song was recorded, I went in the control room, where it was being played back. All of a sudden there were seagulls on it! ‘Steve,’ I said, ‘Where’d you get them birds?’ He gave me a blank look. ‘Sound effects,’ he said.”
But Cropper says he hadn’t yet even conceived of adding the sound of birds and waves that now feel so intrinsic to the song. Instead, he says, he and Redding felt the track was missing some special something and had a plan to give “Dock of the Bay” a more traditional soul feel. Cropper suggested background vocals and told Redding that the Staple Singers were coming in shortly, adding that “I know if I asked them they’d be more than happy to sing on the song. Otis said it was a great idea. He planned on being there.”
Two days later, Redding was dead. Unwilling to no-show for a gig, he boarded his small plane for Madison, Wisconsin, from Ohio. The plane plunged into a lake near Madison, killing the pilot, Redding and his entire road band except trumpeter Ben Cauley.
Unfortunately for Cropper, a tragic death meant a business opportunity for the record labels. Redding died on Sunday and on Monday, according to Cropper, Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler called Jim Stewart demanding a new song. “Jim asked, ‘What do you have ready,’ but I said, ‘I don’t have anything mixed,'” Cropper remembers.
So, on Tuesday morning at 7:30 a.m. he entered the studio, devoting the next 24 hours to finishing “Dock of the Bay.”
“One of the hardest things I ever had to do was mix that song,” says Cropper.
There was no time for background vocals but Cropper knew the song “really needed something.”
“I got to thinking about Otis clowning around on some of the outtakes. He was trying to make seagull sounds but he sounded like a dying crow.”
As homage to his friend and partner, Cropper went to a local jingle company and recorded an extended loop of seagulls and ocean waves on separate tracks. He then used trial-and-error to figure out where to bring the sounds up in the song.
“I stayed up 24 hours mixing the song. The next morning I went out to the airport, went out on the tarmac and a stewardess came down to the bottom of the steps and I handed her that master,” Cropper recalls. The tape was flown to New York and disc jockeys had preview copies in their hands by Christmas.
A story has circulated in books like Gould’s that Wexler sent the tape back demanding the vocals be mixed higher – this was a constant source of friction between Atlantic and Stax executives – and that the change was made. That never happened, Stewart says. “It was released in its original form.”
“No way I could have mustered up the energy to mix that record again,” Cropper says, adding that Wexler often took credit for the remix but that the executive may have later listened to the mono version created for a posthumous album, which would have naturally brought the vocals higher, and thought he had gotten his way.
The song was released on January 8th, 1968. Redding’s death certainly fueled interest, but the song’s lyrics spoke to every working man who wanted to get away from the bosses and just relax a little. Those lyrics also resonated powerfully with soldiers in Vietnam, according to Doug Bradley and Craig Werner’s We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War.
The single topped the charts on March 16th and eventually sold more than 2 million copies. “I remember giving the gold record to Zelma in a presentation,” Stewart says. “But I kept thinking about how Otis never got to experience this.”
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