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The Sad Story Behind Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay

One of the greatest songs of all time, marred with sadness.

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Back in 1967, Otis Redding was an up and coming sensation. He had left many people ecstatic with his voice. After all, the depth of emotion his voice captured was second to none. However, he captured the real beauty of his voice with the depth of the lyrics in his famous song Dock of the Bay. But, the singer’s tragic death in 1967 marred this song with eternal sadness.

How he wrote ‘Dock of the Bay’

Dock of the Bay was Otis’s first million-seller and first Billboard number 1 single. However, he never once heard its final version. This was because days before the song was ever released, he died on 10th December 1967.

He started work on the song back in June of the same year, after his performance at Monterey Pop Festival. The crowd was awestruck of him! Moreover, earlier that year he also made a strong impression on four boys from Liverpool, whom we know as The Beatles. This happened while Otis Redding was on his trip to Europe. However, after the Monterey Festival, he knew he was ready to emerge onto the next stage.

For that, he realized he needed more soul in his lyrics. He started listening to Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, like everyone else in the world. This is what got him thinking that his deep voice needed more soulful lyrics. Thus, the foundation of Dock of the Bay was laid. That album almost changed the way he saw music, as Steve Cropper, his co-writer and lead guitarist told The Rolling Stone Magazine:

Absolutely his style was changing, One of the main things Otis told me in the car one day was, ‘I’m coming to Memphis and I’m going to get a place and you and I are going to produce and write songs.’ He really enjoyed being in the studio.

Recording and Tragic Death

The Sad Story Behind Otis Redding's Dock of the Bay
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Both, Steve Cropper and Otis Redding had a lot of fun while recording the song. For instance, when Otis wrote “Watching the ships roll in/And then I watch ’em roll away again,” Cropper said:

‘Otis, did you ever think that if a ship rolls it’s going to take on water and sink,’ and he said about the lyric, ‘Hell, Crop, that’s what I want,’ and Otis always got his way.

Moreover, I’m sure you remember the whistling at the end of the song? It was only a placeholder for some concluding lyrics. Steve Cropper had left it there for Otis Redding to fill it with vocals that he would fill in some other time. Sadly, that recording session never came.

Both the artists persevered and did some exceptional hard work. The last recording session took place somewhere between the 7th and 8th of December 1967. Two days later, Redding died in a tragic plane crash in a lake near Maddison. But a tragic death meant a money-making opportunity.

Release after the crash

As soon as the crash occurred, Atlantic Records approached Steve Cropper for anything that was ready. This was on the very next day after his death. Thus, Cropper had to spend the next 24 hours in the studio giving the song its finishing touches. The song was still missing some background vocals, as the two had decided in their last session.

I got to thinking about Otis clowning around on some of the outtakes. He was trying to make seagull sounds but he sounded like a dying crow.

Therefore, to honor Otis, he added the sound of seagulls and ocean waves in the background. That is where the iconic background music came from. However, Steve Cropper still recalls those 24 hours of recording as,

One of the hardest things I ever had to do was mix that song.

This is the tragedy behind Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay. Even though the song’s inception was filled with creativity, its release was truly tragic and lives long in the memory of the fans.

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