The song is a true classic. Stax guitarist Steve Cropper wrote this with Redding. Cropper produced the album when Redding died, including this track with various songs Redding had recorded the last few years.
Redding died in a plane crash on December 10, 1967, a month before this song was released (January 8, 1968) and three days after he recorded it. It was by far his biggest hit and was also the first-ever posthumous #1 single in the US.
Stax Records chief Jim Stewart did not want the song released because it was unlike his other music. Redding and Cropper both insisted that it would be his first #1 single. Stewart relented when he heard the finished master recording put together by Cropper after Redding’s death.
The music licensing company BMI named this as the sixth-most performed song of the 20th century, with around 6 million performances.
The song peaked at #1 in the Billboard 100, #7 in Canada, #3 in the UK, and #3 in New Zealand in 1968.
Steve Cropper: “Otis was one of those kind of guys who had 100 ideas. Anytime he came in to record he always had 10 or 15 different intros or titles, or whatever. He had been at San Francisco playing The Fillmore, and he was staying at a boathouse (in Sausalito, across the bay from San Francisco), which is where he got the idea of the ship coming in. That’s about all he had: ‘I watch the ships come in and I watch them roll away again.’ I took that and finished the lyrics.
If you listen to the songs I wrote with Otis, most of the lyrics are about him. He didn’t usually write about himself, but I did. ‘Mr. Pitiful,’ ‘Sad Song Fa-Fa,’ they were about Otis’ life. ‘Dock Of The Bay’ was exactly that: ‘I left my home in Georgia, headed for the Frisco Bay’ was all about him going out to San Francisco to perform.”
Redding ended up sitting on a dock on the San Francisco Bay thanks to Bill Graham, who ran the Fillmore West Auditorium. Redding played three shows there, December 20-22, 1966. Graham gave Redding a choice: he could stay at a hotel, or at a boathouse in nearby Sausalito. Redding liked the outdoors, so he chose the boathouse.
Redding was the star recording artist for Stax Records, a Memphis label that made classic soul music. The death of Redding was a big blow to the label, and while it certainly had an impact on their demise in the ’70s, there were other factors as well, including financial mismanagement and a change in musical tastes. In 2001, construction started on a soul music museum where the studios once stood, and it opened in 2003. To learn more about the museum and the Stax legacy, check out Stax Today.
The end of this song contains perhaps the most famous whistling in music history. It wasn’t planned, but when Steve Cropper and Stax engineer Ronnie Capone heard it, they knew it had to stay. Cropper explained on his website: “If you’re an Otis Redding fan you’d know that he’s probably the world’s greatest at ad-libbing at the end of a song. Sometimes you could go another minute or two with Otis Redding’s ad-libs – they were so spontaneous and felt so great. And this particular song I think baffled Otis a little bit because of the tempo and the mood, so when we got down to the end of it he really didn’t have anything to ad-lib with, and he just started whistling. That just sparked Ronnie Capone and myself off, and almost immediately we said, ‘Hey man, that’s great, leave that in there.’ It sure is a cool melody to go out with.”
Beach sound effects (waves, seagulls, etc.), were dubbed in after the recording. Steve Cropper explained why: “I played acoustic guitar on the session and there are some outtakes on the record where you can hear Otis clowning around with seagulls – he was always kind of a funny jokester in the studio and he was going ‘caw, caw, caw.’ That was where I got the idea of getting the seagull sounds. I went over to the soundtrack library at Pepper Records – a jingle company – and I got one of their sound effect records. I got the seagulls and the waves and I made a little tape loop on a two-track machine. I ran that as I mixed the record – I would bring them up and down in the holds. And I overdubbed the guitar. We were cutting on 4-track in those days – we had moved up from mono and stereo and up to big ol’ 4-tracks, so we had a lot of tracks to work with. So we had 6-tracks because I had the 2-track going on one side with seagulls and one side with waves. I got that record mixed and got it off to Atlantic and it came out.”
He added: “The licks that I overdubbed on ‘Dock Of The Bay,’ I don’t know if there was anything really special about them except that that was probably as high a position as I’ve ever played those licks when I did it. I was trying to get something that felt like seagulls – that real high thing. So, I was playing some high licks that were not necessarily imitating seagulls but the thought of seagulls being really high. I was trying to get something a little moody like that.”
Redding recorded this with Booker T. & the MG’s, the house band for Stax Records. They played with all the Stax artists, including Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, and Albert King, and had a hit on their own with “Green Onions” in 1962.
Redding died five months before Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot in Memphis, where this was recorded. Amid the angry racial tensions, “Dock of the Bay” stood out as an integrated collaboration in a segregated city; Redding’s co-writer/producer Steve Cropper was white, as was Donald “Duck” Dunn, who played bass on the track.
The plan was to use background singers on this track, possibly the Staple Singers, but when Redding died there was no time for that.
Booker T. & the MG’s were on tour when they found out about Redding’s death. They were in an Indiana airport with their flight delayed because of snow when one of their members called the Stax office and got the horrific news. When they returned to Memphis, Steve Cropper mixed the song for release. He said it was “maybe the toughest thing I’ve ever done.” Redding’s body had not even been recovered when Cropper finished the song.
Redding started to compose this song while he was recovering from surgery removing polyps from his vocal cords. The doctors told him not to sing or talk for six weeks after the operation.
Under pressure from the record company, Steve Cropper rushed to get this song finished as soon as word got out that Redding had died. “That’s just the way record companies operate,” he said. “They actually had me go in and try to finish the song up – they had not even found Otis’ body yet, which was a very difficult time for me, but somehow I got through it.”
The hit potential was obvious when this song was being recorded. Cropper explained: “Really being different from most Otis Redding songs, it was a little more middle-of-the-road tempo-wise. It wasn’t a ballad and it wasn’t an uptempo, hard rock, dancing kind of thing that he was known for. It was more laid back, and we had been looking for a crossover song – a song that leaves the R&B charts and crosses over to the pop charts – and in this song we knew we had it. It was just something we had a feeling about. We listened to it and went, ‘This is it!’ We just knew beyond a doubt that this was the song. This was a hit.”
During the Vietnam War, this was very popular with American troops fighting there, as the song portrayed quite the opposite of their reality. Accordingly, it was used in two 1987 films that take place during the war: Platoon and Hamburger Hill.
This won 1968 Grammy Awards for Best Rhythm & Blues Performance, plus Best Rhythm & Blues Song for writers Otis Redding and Steve Cropper.
If you equate the beach and bird noises to putting stickers on a Picasso, there are two very good outtakes of the song available on the Otis Redding collection Remember Me
that are free of the overdubs. Stax Records had recently purchased a 4-track recorder, which made it easy to add the extra sounds.
Dock of the Bay
Sittin’ in the mornin’ sun
I’ll be sittin’ when the evenin’ comes
Watching the ships roll in
Then I watch ’em roll away again, yeah
I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooh
I’m just sittin’ on the dock of the bay
I left my home in Georgia
Headed for the Frisco Bay
‘Cause I’ve had nothin’ to live for
It look like nothin’s gonna come my way
So I’m just gon’ sitt on the dock of the bay
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooh
I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Look like nothing’s gonna change
Everything, still remains the same
I can’t do what ten people tell me to do
So I guess I’ll remain the same, yes
Sittin’ here restin’ my bones
And this loneliness won’t leave me alone, listen
Two thousand miles, I roam
Just to make this dock my home
Now I’m just gon’ sit, at the dock of the bay
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooh yeah
Sittin’ on the dock of the bay