It’s a cruel twist in an already tragic story that the biggest song in Otis Redding’s entire catalog is the one that he never saw become a crossover anthem. His posthumous No.1 “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay,” co-written with his great friend Steve Cropper, was released on January 8, 1968, a month after his death in a plane crash at the age of just 26.
Of course, it was partly the raw grief of Otis’ countless admirers that helped lift it to the top. But there’s some comfort in the certainty that this extraordinarily atmospheric and evocative piece would surely have been a major hit anyway. He had taken two passes at the vocal, once on November 22, 1967 and then when he returned to Stax Studio in Memphis on December 7, with Cropper playing acoustic and electric guitar. Three days later, Otis was gone.
Daydreaming on a houseboat
The daydreaming mood of the lyric was based in truth, as Redding had started writing “Dock Of The Bay” when he was in California, sitting on a rented houseboat in Sausalito. Perhaps he was reflecting on the memorable year he’d experienced.
June 1967 had brought Otis’ famous performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, and his R&B hits that year included “Shake” and his duets with Carla Thomas, “Tramp” and “Knock On Wood.” Aretha Franklin took his song “Respect” to No.1, both pop and R&B, and 1967 was also the year in which Otis was named in UK pop weekly Melody Maker’s annual readers’ poll as world’s best male vocalist, ending Elvis Presley’s eight-year ownership of that title.
But for all that success, and 21 R&B chart entries, none of them had fully crossed over to the pop market. Redding’s best showing in that market was the No.25 peak, in late January 1967, of another of his signature songs, “Try A Little Tenderness.” But “Dock Of The Bay” was different. It entered the Hot 100 on January 27, at No.67 and was in the Top 30 just two weeks later.
The song climbed to No.1 on the pop chart in March, for a four-week reign, also topping the R&B listings for three of them. It was the first time that a posthumous single had gone to the top of either chart. In 1998, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” entered the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Buy or stream “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” on the 3-CD Soulsville USA compilation.