On Jan. 8, 1968,Otis Redding‘s “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” was released on Stax’s Volt label. Co-written by Redding and guitarist Steve Cropper, the single reached No. 1 on Billboard’s pop chart in March 1968, where it remained for four weeks. Two Grammys followed, along with the song’s induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.
Redding never heard the single. On Dec. 10, 1967just 18 days after the recording sessionthe 26-year-old singer died in a plane crash in Wisconsin, killing everyone on board except Ben Cauley, the trumpeter in his band.
Mr. Cropper, pianist Booker T. Jones, trumpeter Wayne Jackson and Mr. Cauley recalled how the song was written and recorded, why sounds of surf and gulls were added, and the story behind Redding’s famed whistling. Edited from interviews:
Steve Cropper: In the fall of 1967, I was a producer at Stax Records in Memphis and guitarist in Booker T. & the MGs, the label’s session band. In November, I was at the studio when Otis Redding called me from the Memphis airport.
Usually when Otis came to town, he waited until he checked into the Holiday Inn before calling me to work with him on songs in his room. This time he couldn’t wait. He said, “Crop, I’ve got a hit. I’m coming right over.”
When Otis walked in, he said, “Crop, get your gut-tar.” I always kept a Gibson B-29 around. He grabbed it, tuned it to an open E-chord, which made the guitar easier to play slide. Then Otis played and sang a verse he had written: Sittin’ in the mornin’ sun/I’ll be sittin’ when the evenin’ come/Watching the ships roll in/And then I watch ’em roll away again.
I said, “Otis, hold on. If a ship rolls, it will take on water and sink.” He said, “That’s what I want, Crop.” So we let it go and worked on the rest of the song.
Otis told me he had started writing the song while playing in San Francisco. Producer Bill Graham must have let him stay on his houseboat in Sausalito, because Neil Young told me he had stayed on the boat right after Otis had left to come back East.
When Otis and I finished writing the rest of the song’s music and lyrics, I arranged the song and we scheduled studio time. On the date, I was on acoustic guitar, [Donald] Duck Dunn on bass, Al Jackson on drums, Booker on piano, Wayne Jackson on trumpet and two other horns.
Booker T. Jones: I played piano instead of organ on most of Otis’s songs. The keyboard supported his voice without getting in his way. “Dock of the Bay” was beautifully simplisticall major chords.
For some reason, the piano had been moved across the studioso that the horns were on my right instead of across from me and Otis was to my left. Usually I saw him behind a partition but on this date I was next to him, which made it easier for him to hear me.
Wayne Jackson: We rehearsed the horns with Booker. We always played a chord, with each of us taking a different note. What we put across behind Otis was simple and funkylike a call and response in church.
Mr. Cropper: Otis always liked to ad-lib at the end of songs, so I added in about 10 measures of instrumental background for him to do so. But when the time came, Otis couldn’t think of anything and started whistling, which, of course, made the song.
Mr. Jones: Otis’s lyrics touched meabout leaving home and watching the bay, trying to figure things out as everyone’s pulling at you. My notes on the piano fed into that. I wanted to capture a maritime feelthe sound of a boat on the Mississippi River, and the sounds of gospel and New Orleans. I put those flourishes around Otis’s voice.
Mr. Cropper: On Friday, Dec. 8, Otis stuck his head in the studio before leaving to play a series of regional concerts and said, “See ya on Monday.” After he left, I overdubbed the electric guitar fills on a Telecaster with two pickups and a little Fender Harvard amp. I was trying to imitate the sound of gulls. Otis had been fooling around in the studio before the session by cawing like the sea birds up in Sausalito.
The next day, me, Booker, Duck [Dunn], Al [Jackson] and our singer, Dave Porter, flew up to Indiana State to play a concert. On Sunday, we flew on a puddle jumper to Indianapolis to catch our connecting flight to Memphis. The whole north was icy, and we arrived in Indianapolis late, missing our connection.
David went to call his wife, to tell her we were going to be late. When he came back, he looked like a ghost. His wife had told him that Otis had died in a plane crash. We couldn’t believe it.
Mr. Cauley: I was sitting behind Otis on the planeback to back, next to the door. I fell asleep and the next thing I knew the pilot was telling us he was having trouble. The plane hit the water and I managed to get out and hold on to a seat cushion. I didn’t know how to swim and one of my shoes had come off. It was so cold. About 20 minutes later a boat came and pulled me out. I was in shock. Everyone else was gone.