One of my favorite songs of all time is Otis Redding’s “Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay.” And I’m not alone. A 1968 gold record megahit that sold more than four million copies in its initial release, “Dock of the Bay,” remains popular today. One recent performance, by Justin Timberlake, was given at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. It featured an enthusiastic sing-along that included the prominent residents of that dwelling, a couple by the name of Barak and Michelle.
Otis Redding was a Rhythm and Blues (R&B) superstar when he co-wrote and recorded “The Dock of the Bay.” The story of how he reached that pinnacle in his career is both incredibly inspiring and incredibly sad. A lot of it is not widely known. So, here are some interesting facts about Otis and his best-known song you may not know about.
Otis Redding’s singing once got him banned from a talent show. Otis used to enter weekly talent shows in his hometown of Macon, Georgia. He was finally banned from the show, not because he was a bad singer, or because his material was inappropriate. It was because he was too good. After he won the contest 15 times in a row, it was decided that the only way anybody else would have a chance was to keep Otis out.
Otis got his big break while driving the car for the supposed star. Redding had been invited to join a band called Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers, but they used him more as a gofer and driver than as a vocalist. In October 1962 Johnny Jenkins was invited to make a demo at Stax Records in Memphis, Tennessee. Since Johnny didn’t have a driver’s license, Otis drove him there. When the Jenkins session went badly and was cut short, Otis asked if he could sing during the remaining time. The rest, as they say, is history. When he drove Jenkins back home, it was Otis who had a new recording contract in his pocket.
Otis wrote “The Dock of the Bay” out of his personal experience. In 1967 Otis lived in a boathouse right across the bay from San Francisco while he performed at the Fillmore there. He would literally sit and watch the ships on the bay coming and going, and that was the genesis of his most famous song.
“The Dock of the Bay” was the first posthumous #1 hit in American music history. Otis finished recording the song on December 8, 1967. On December 10 the plane in which he and his road band were flying crashed. Otis, and all but one of the band members, died. He was just 26 years old. The record company rushed final production on “The Dock of the Bay,” and when it was released early in 1968, it shot to the top of the charts.
Otis’s famous whistling ending to the song was never intended to be left in. At the end of the December 8 recording session, Otis and his co-writer, Steve Cropper, were still trying to figure out a lyric with which to end the song. So Otis did the whistling just as a place-holder until he could return and sing the final fade out. That, of course, never happened, and Otis’s poignant whistling was kept in the recording. It is now one of the most beloved parts of the song.
“Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay” was the greatest musical achievement of Otis Redding’s life. It remains as fresh today as when he recorded it in 1967. One can only wonder, with sadness, what might have followed if not for the fateful plane ride that took him away in the prime of his career.
Photo credit: Stax Records via Wikimedia (public domain)
Ron Franklin is a pastor, writer, radio broadcaster and producer, computer programmer, and musician. Now the founding pastor of Covenant Community Church in Harrisburg, PA, he was an engineer and manager for high-tech companies such as IBM and EDS. He is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and Denver Theological Seminary.