Blues Highlight: Otis Redding’s final studio recording session of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”

Otis Redding’s commercial success reached a new height after his career-propelling performance in the summer of 1967 at the iconic Monterey Pop Festival. His historic set featured songs “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and “Respect”, the latter being Otis’s original song which became a monumental hit that year when Aretha Franklin covered it. Although a seasoned player, being exposed to such a mass young audience gave Redding a whole new level of crossover star power. 

Soon after the festival, he was spending some time on his friend’s houseboat at Waldo Point in Sausalito, a hilly beachside town just outside of San Francisco. The tranquility of sitting by the water and the ferries rolling across the waves had inspired him to write the most famous song of his career “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”. The wistful, soulful and emotive, simple yet catchy tune, had Redding convinced the song would become a major hit.

Basically, I like any music that remains simple and I feel this is the formula that makes “soul music” successful. When any music form becomes cluttered and/or complicated you lose the average listener’s ear. There is nothing more beautiful than a simple blues tune. There is beauty in simplicity whether you are talking about architecture, art or music. –OTIS REDDING

As soon as he arrived back in Memphis, he called his producer Steve Cropper who was also the guitarist for Booker T. & the MGs, and the two of them finish the composition and soon booked a studio. Redding was also inspired by The Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and wanted to recreate a similar sound. Stax executives disliked the unconventional melody of Redding’s new song and thought it wasn’t Rhythm and Blues, even bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn feared that it may sully the Stax Records reputation. Though Otis Redding was set on expanding his musical style and pushed forward with the recording against his label’s wishes.

The first session took place on November 22nd, Redding gave an emotional delivery backed by Cropper on guitar and other members of Booker T. & the MG’s. December 7th, 1967 Redding returned to the studio to finish the last touches on the recording. He wanted to add a few more verses to the song, but in the recording session, he decided to improvise them by whistling. Cropper thought it added a cool melody and wanted to leave it in, though Redding considered that just a placeholder and wanted to return to record a final version.

Otis Redding left Memphis with his teenage backing band, The Bar-Kays, to do a few shows around the Midwest on his newly purchased private plane. On the way to a Sunday evening show in Madison, Wisconsin on December 10th of 1967, Redding’s Beechcraft H18 experienced heavy rain and fog. During the attempted landing the plane crashed into the freezing waters of Lake Monona, four miles from the Truax Field airport runway. The Bar-Kay’s founding member and trumpet player Ben Cauley was the only survivor, he unbuckled his seatbelt just before impact and then floated to the surface by clutching onto a seat cushion. About 20 minutes after the crash, Cauley was pulled into a boat suffering from hypothermia and shock. He was unable to help Redding and his other band mates because he could not swim.

Redding never got the chance to finish the extra verses on “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”, he passed away at only 26-years-old. After his death Steve Cropper rushed to the studio to mix and complete the song, adding in the seagull sounds and waves crashing in the background that Redding requested. Stax released the song on January 8th, 1968 and it became Redding’s biggest hit, his only single to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100, and the first posthumous number-one record in history. “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” won two Grammy Awards and was ranked twenty-eighth on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

The six months leading up to his death he experienced a meteoric rise in fame, his iconic performance at The Monterey Pop Festival exposed his music to a whole new audience and he became one of the first soul musicians to perform for a rock audience in the western United States. After his passing, he was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Songwriters Hall of Fame, and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Otis Redding had the ability to convey strong emotions with his signature smooth and soulful voice, full of open-throated vibrato, and an electrifying stage presence that solidified his place as one of the greatest singers in American music.



Devon Ebersold for Keeping the Blues Alive

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