The Dock Of The Bay (1967)
Otis Redding and his collaborators at Stax/Volt Music in Memphis, most importantly Steve Cropper his co-writer on “Dock Of The Bay,” carved a song that is one of the most memorable in the American Rock songbook. It contains countless musical influences and cross currents that, to speculate loosely, could not have been brought together any place else but in Memphis.
“Dock Of The Bay” ranges across Folk, Funk, Soul, Jazz, proto-Reggae, Country and Gospel. This combination may not seem unique now, but in 1967-8 it was extraordinary. Even now, the effortless- ness with which the synthesis is achieved leaves the listener in appreciative awe.
“Dock Of The Bay,” released January, 1968
Redding’s voice stands as one of the premier vocal instruments of the 20th century, in the top 10, along with Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, Patsy Kline, Ray Charles, Elvis and Ella Fitzgerald, among others. In “Dock Of The Bay” he expresses perfectly through phrasing and tone the dreaminess and anxiety any young person might go through.
The setting off on the voyage of life is thrilling and scary, giddy with future prospects, pregnant with possible defeats. At the time the song was created, an entire generation – a big, sort of crazy generation – was beginning to step into the world. Change was coming fast and furious – personally, socially and politically. ”Dock Of The Bay” managed to capture the first aspect perfectly, and almost accidentally the second two.
I left my home in Georgia
headed for the Frisco Bay
because I’ve had nothin’ to live for
and look like nothin’s gonna come my way
Otis’s “home in Georgia” was everyone’s home, whether you came from Kalamazoo, Kansas City, Burlington or Birmingham. And his explaining that he was “headed for the Frisco Bay,” indeed illustrated what tens of millions of young people were doing literally or figuratively. The generation of the ‘60s was shoving off from home, and from the past.
There is a whiff of rebellion in the song,
though there is a price to be paid for
breaking new ground:
Looks like nothin’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
“Dock Of The Bay” took on new poignancy since it became, tragically, the first posthumous #1 song in history soon after its release in January of 1968. Otis Redding had been killed in a small-plane crash outside Madison, Wisconsin, in early December of 1967 while on his way to perform.
The music that backs Redding’s transformative vocals represents Booker T. & The M.G.s and the Stax Records brass section, the Mar-Keys, in their most restrained, most mainstream effort. They were funk, soul, and blues players, not hybrid musicians, but they rose to the dizzying heights of the occasion. (They were also one of the few fully racially-integrated bands in the world at the time.)
Various members of the Stax family, including famed bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, thought “Dock of The Bay” was a mistake not just for Otis Redding but for the record label itself. Even Redding’s wife disliked it. But, under the shepherding of co-writer/lead guitarist Steve Cropper, the song came to life. In a short time it sold 4 million copies.
For the record, Cropper added some of the most stately, unobtrusive guitar licks ever laid down.
View from a Sausalito dock
By listening to “Dock Of The Bay” a number of times, while imagining a 26-year-old man who had just been launched into superstardom sitting on a houseboat in Sausalito overlooking San Pablo/San Francisco Bay, an enthusiast of Rock music can grasp without difficulty how much was lost upon Redding’s death.
His version of “Try A Little Tenderness” took a standard, pretty, 1930s tune and restyled it into a Rock-N-Roll classic. He wrote “Respect,” which Aretha made the flag-bearer of Soul. “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and “Pain In My Heart” are A-list tearjerkers. “I Can’t Turn You Loose” is a giant among dance songs, frantically sexy. And he wrote “Sweet Soul Music” with Arthur Conley, a two-minute, twenty-second musical encyclopedia of great soul singers up to that moment (in 1967).
At the close of “Sweet Soul Music,” Conley slides in the ad-lib line “Otis Redding got the feeling.” It serves as a coda for Redding’s life and accomplishments in five all-too-brief years. His most fitting epitaph would be from “Dock Of The Bay,” however.
I’m just gonna sit at the dock of the bay
watchin’ the tide roll away
We’ll always miss you Otis.
- The whistling at the end of “Dock Of The Bay” was intended to be merely a “place-holder” for lyrics that, because of Redding’s death, were never added. The feature is part of the song’s trademark feeling.
- BMI, the group that assesses and collects music royalties for artists and music companies, lists “Dock Of The Bay” as the 6th most-played song of the 20th century.