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"(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay"
Today for Sometimes a Song, let me venture a wee bit outside of my comfort into the musical genre called “soul,” which I surely cannot be the first person to consider something like what happens when Blues marries Gospel. Of course Blues and Gospel didn’t spring from nothing, either. There’s a whole lot of ancestry involved with producing a new sound in music. And to be the best at any kind of music, you need to listen to the best of every kind of music.
Today’s song, “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay,” has a sad story attached to it, although the sad story did not inspire the song. As a child and teen, Otis sang in his church choir, where he picked up basic piano and guitar skills, though his formal musical training was limited to a stint of lessons on drums. He learned to sing quite naturally with the choir, and became a singer with his high school band. But at age 15, when his father took ill with tuberculosis, Otis had to go to work to help support his family. In addition to his other jobs, he began entering talent shows, and once won $5 for 15 consecutive weeks at one such local contest venues. Gradually, he became well known in and around his hometown of Macon, Georgia, and he shortly gained the attention of some serious acts. Notable among these were a group called the “Upsetters,” backup band for Little Richard, who was at that time moving away from his Rock n’ Roll beginnings in the direction of Soul.
The gig with Little Richard was Redding’s springboard to fame, though his rise was far from meteoric. Instead, he earned his living (sometimes barely earned it) by hitting the circuit from coast to coast and everywhere in between. All of his life Otis Redding had been soaking in the music around him and had begun just oozing it back out in what, by the mid-1960’s everyone began to recognize as a great talent. Still in his twenties, he was earning the truly princely sum of $35K per week for his concert work. And evidently, despite his youth, Otis was a terrific businessman who carefully managed his own career — from bookings, to copyrights, to payroll — all of it. He was generally regarded as a likable, trustworthy, and reliable young man who provided well for his wife and four children.
By 1967, Redding’s records sales had surpassed the combined sales of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. But his youthful poverty had taught Otis to be careful with his money, and so when he traveled he took along only a “cheap red acoustic guitar” to have at the ready when the song-writing mood struck. And it’s fortunate for us that he did, because “Dock of the Bay” was among a flurry of songs he wrote with his producer and collaborator, Steve Cropper, while they were in San Francisco for concerts that year. Neither Cropper nor the record company particularly liked the song, but Otis (rightly) considered it his best ever and predicted that it would be a big hit. In very early December of 1967, Otis Redding recorded “Dock of the Bay,” ignoring the suggestions of everyone involved in the production, and adding an impromptu whistling ending, instead of the rap-style fadeout everyone wanted him to do. He was right about the song, which was a little masterpiece of Soul and has since come to be considered a classic American Song.
And here is where the sad part of the story comes in. Otis Redding had hit his stride, musically, and had a half a dozen new great songs “in the bag” ready to record and release. After doing television appearance in Cleveland, Otis called home to talk to his family and then headed out with the band on their late-night flight to their next gig, in Madison, Wisconsin. The plane encountered bad weather and heavy fog and crash landed in Lake Monona. Only one member of the band survived; he had awakened just in time to unbuckle his seat belt before impact and so was able to escape. Otis Redding was only 26 years old. He did not live to see his little masterpiece of Soul win two Grammy awards (1968) and for himself, a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement, nor his own induction into both the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. He left behind his wife of six years, their four children, and his musical legacy as The King of Soul.
And may his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace.
Word & Song is an line magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymn, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber.