Otis Redding Creates a Soul Masterpiece
by Brian M. Reiser for the Joe Bonamassa Official Blog
Posted on March 24, 2017
Otis Redding’s posthumous #1 hit, (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay is one of those songs that happens to be a cultural touchstone. It’s universally agreed to be a soul music classic, one of the biggest, most important songs of the genre.
How does one particular song reach that kind of iconic stature? After all, Otis Redding was a phenomenal performer and writer. Surely, there must have been many songs in his catalog that, in an alternate universe, could have reached the iconic status that this one did.
Yet those did not and Dock of the Bay did. How do we explain this?
Here’s a little bit of song history.
The Beginning of a Hit
Otis Redding was touring along with the Bar-Kays in the sweltering heat of August, 1967. He was wrestling with an idea for a song. But it was a struggle.
The inspiration behind the song came from a houseboat that Redding had been staying in located in beautiful Sausalito, California. Sausalito is across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, still right on the bay.
The abbreviated title of the fledgling song Redding was working on was called “Dock of the Bay”. While on tour, Redding would hurriedly scribble down lines for the song on napkins or whatever scraps of paper were available to him, in short spurts of artistic inspiration.
As Redding got more and more of his ideas about Dock of the Bay down on paper, he suddenly had a realization.
He had a hit on his hands.
Bringing It to the Band
It was December 7, 1967. Otis Redding burst into the studio at Stax, with his still unformed hit in hand.
The Stax house band at the time inculded Booker T., Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, Al Jackson, Wayne Jackson, and Joe Arnold. Otis gushed to them about the song he was bringing into them. He showed them what they had.
The band began scratching their heads. They didn’t really get it.
It was a simple song. It seemed to lack the complexity of Otis’s other compositions. It didn’t even have any horn lines written. What was Redding so excited about?
Recording Dock of the Bay
Redding told Steve Cropper to grab his guitar. Otis took the instrument in his hands and started strumming on Cropper’s Gibson B-29. He played a verse and sang. Cropper, starting to feel the song, encouraged Redding to follow his stream of consciousness based on the first verse.
The dock. The ships. The ocean.
The backing track was improvised by the band that day. Cropper helped Redding tweak the tune. Together they built a bridge that would be sung in a higher key and at a faster pace.
Cropper has said, “[The song was] beautifully simplistic – all major chords. Otis’s lyrics touched me.”
Booker T. Washington could feel it tugging at his heart. His playing on the piano was spurred on by that feeling. He incorporated sounds from Gospel music to New Orleans blues as well.
A Philosophical Soul Masterpiece
What makes “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding a masterpiece of the soul canon? On the surface it’s a breezy song. Simple. Light on the shoulders.
“(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay has a warm glow about it. A certain ambiance. It conjures up images of the beautiful San Francisco Bay. The ships rolling in and sailing back out. The sun gleaming on the water, the majestic Golden Gate Bridge standing tall.
But this joyous veneer hides something deeper and darker. The song is, at its core, morose and melancholy. In sum, it’s a song about the feeling of emptiness. A lingering hunger for something more. Something lacking. Something that would deepen life, make it more meaningful.
“(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” is a deeply intelligent, philosophical and even existentialist song. Otis Redding was tapping into something that had been in the cultural air for awhile. But it wasn’t often captured in quite such stark terms in rhythm & blues or soul music.
A Smash Hit & a Tragedy
Despite the depth and melancholic nature of its lyrics and tone, the song became an enormous hit for Otis Redding. In fact, it was the first ever posthumous #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. An incredible feat, really.
This gives an added layer of cruelty to the song. When Otis Redding prematurely died in a plane crash on December 10, 1967, the world was robbed of musician of elite caliber. Pardon me if I may sound like I am overstepping here, but Dock of the Bay proved that Redding, in addition to being a legendary soul singer, was a songwriter of perhaps genius proportions.
Otis Redding: What Could Have Been
Rolling Stone ranked the song at #161 on its 500 greatest songs ever list. I think it belongs much higher. And I think, had Otis Redding made it past 26 years of age, we’d speak of him in the same breath as we do many of the other great blues, rock, and soul songwriters.
I’m talking people like Willie Dixon, Paul Simon, and Bob Dylan.
We’ll never know of course. It can cause you to feel an aching sorrow in your bones.
An aching sorrow that, I’m sure, Redding could and would have captured perfectly in music.
– Joe Bonamassa Official Blog