“(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” is a song co-written by soul singer Otis Redding and guitarist Steve Cropper. It was first recorded by Otis Redding in 1967, just days before his death. It was released posthumously on Stax Records’ Volt label in 1968 becoming the first posthumous single to top the charts in the US. It charted at number 3 on the UK Singles Chart.
While on tour with the Bar-Kays in August 1967, Redding wrote the first verse of the song, under the abbreviated title “Dock of the Bay,” on a houseboat at Waldo Point in Sausalito, California.1 He had come off his famed performance at the Monterey Pop Festival just months earlier in June 1967. While touring in support of the LPs King & Queen (collaborations with female vocalist Carla Thomas) and his live set Live in Europe, he continued to scribble lines of the song on napkins and hotel paper. In November of that year he joined producer and guitarist Steve Cropper at the Stax recording studio in Memphis, Tennessee. In a 1990 interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Cropper explained the “origins” of the song:
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, 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,” “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)”; 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.
Together, they completed the music and melancholy lyrics of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” From those sessions emerged Otis Redding’s final recordings, including “Dock of the Bay,” which was recorded on November 22, with additional overdubs on December 8. Redding’s restrained yet emotive delivery is backed by Cropper’s memorably succinct guitar playing. The song is somewhat different in style from most of Redding’s other recordings, but one with which he was very pleased. While discussing his latest song with his wife, Redding stated that he wanted to “be a little different” with “The Dock of the Bay” and “change his style”. There were concerns that “The Dock of the Bay” had too much of a pop feel for an Otis Redding record, and contracting Stax gospel act The Staples Singers to record backing vocals was discussed, but never carried out. The song features a machine sounding like the ocean waves, coming and going, as well as Redding’s familiar whistling tune, heard before the song’s fade. Redding had intended to return to the studio at a later date to add words in place of the whistling.
Redding continued to tour after the recording sessions and, on December 10, the charter plane which was carrying him crashed into Lake Monona, outside Madison, Wisconsin. Redding and six others were killed. Only one passenger survived, Ben Cauley of The Bar-Kays. Redding’s body was recovered from the lake the day after the crash.