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Otis Redding finished recording "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" just days before the plane crash that took his life. He was only 26 years old. The song was released just weeks after he was buried in Georgia, so it was widely heard as his epitaph. In many ways, it is still inextricable from his tragic death.
But listeners have always been divided on the spirit of Redding's final work. Does it tell the story of a man at peace with the rhythms of life, or does it express a more pessimistic sadness, even defeat?
By the time Redding recorded "Dock of the Bay," he was a major figure in R&B markets. Born in Dawson and raised in Macon, Georgia, he cut his musical teeth in a Baptist church choir. At fifteen, he dropped out of high school and began singing a different kind of music—he joined the Upsetters, the old band of another Macon resident, Little Richard. In 1960, Redding began singing with Johnny Jenkins and the Pine Toppers and, in 1963, he scored his first individual hit with "These Arms of Mine." He followed up this success with a series of hits on the R&B charts, including "Mr. Pitiful" (1965, # 10), "I've Been Loving You Too Long" (1965, #2), "Respect" (1965, #4), "I Can't Turn You Loose" (1965, #11), "Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)" (1966, #12), and "My Lover's Prayer" (1966, #10). In addition to these songs, all of which Redding either wrote or co-wrote, he released a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction," which reached #4 on the R&B charts in 1966.
In 1967, Redding was on the brink of reaching a broader audience. He was far from unknown to pop and rock fans; three of his songs had cracked the pop Top 40. His performance at the June 1967 Monterey Pop Festival in California was a turning point.
His decision to perform at Monterey had been both calculated and risky. After a successful tour in Europe, he was looking for an opportunity to reach a more diverse American audience, but his performance style had been honed before predominately Black fans. It was far from obvious how Monterey's white Northern audience, anxious to hear The Who, Jefferson Airplane, and The Mamas and The Papas, would respond to the "King of Southern Soul."
Stepping on the stage at one in the morning under a light rain, Redding worked the crowd masterfully. Before launching into a Sam Cooke classic, he issued an irresistible demand via call-and-response to "shake." He wooed them with the familiar—his rendition of "Respect" (later recorded by Aretha Franklin—even Redding admitted that it eventually became her song) and the cover of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction." He slowed it down for "the love crowd" with his epically soulful "I've been Loving You Too Long." And then he seduced them with misdirection, a soulful observation that swelled into a driving plea to "Try a Little Tenderness."
By the time Redding left the stage to raucous applause, he had won a legion of new fans and wowed the critics. "Otis blew the place apart,"said one record executive. Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin tore up the stage at Monterey, too. But "when you talk about the one moment when everybody leapt up, it was Otis Redding." (Source) He was on the precipice of cross-market stardom.
After his Monterey triumph, Redding stayed on the West Coast. He gave several performances in San Francisco, including one at Bill Graham's famous Fillmore West auditorium. Eventually, he got tired of the road and tired of living in hotels, so he rented a houseboat across San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge in the bayside town of Sausalito. While he was there, he started writing "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay."
It's understandable that Redding was in a reflective place when he conceived the song in August of 1967. Over the preceding six months, his life and work had taken huge steps. He had concluded a successful European tour and been rewarded for his Monterey gamble with rave reviews. Rolling Stone would soon write that Redding's "Memphis Sound" would replace Motown as the driving force of soul music in 1968. And Redding "was going to become the king of them all, ya'll" (source).
In other words, it's hard to believe that Redding looked out over the lapping waves of the San Francisco Bay with anything other than satisfaction, the sort of contentment that comes with all things being in their place. And that's certainly one way to hear the song that Redding's bayside reveries produced, as a song about a man who has experienced life's trials but now, having found peace, is content to just watch the ships come and go, blissfully wasting time.
At the same time, others have found a far different constellation of feelings in the song, like overpowering sadness, almost unbearable regret, and the sense of time and a life wasted. For example, the song was heavily played on U.S. Army radio stations broadcasting in Vietnam. One GI recalled how the song spoke to him and his friends: "We were absolutely stuck in our situation and lyrics from 'Dock of the Bay' such as 'Looks like nothing's gonna change' evoked the misery and homesickness we felt" (source).
Back home in the States, many African Americans believed the song captured the sadness and frustration that came with hopes unfulfilled. In previous years, the Civil Rights Movement had made huge gains. Court decisions and federal legislation seemed to be opening doors. But in the spring of 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and all of a sudden, all that progress seemed smashed. Despite years of protest and mass action, "Looks like nothing's gonna change, Everything still remains the same."
The combination of lyrics and music that frame these melancholy reflections is not hard to dissect. A lone guitar slowly rises above the sound of waves breaking, and there's a simple bass line, just enough to keep the song moving forward. Redding enters with a voice that is emotional and knowing, but also stoic, as even and reliable as the waves that reflect his mood.
The visceral appeal of the song is just as easy to understand. We've all been there—we've all sat at the water's edge and lost ourselves in its rhythms. We've all watched the ships come in and then watched them go away again, carrying our thoughts to some other place.
And in fact, the simple universality of the experience Redding describes may explain why people disagree over the mood and meaning of the song. We disagree because through Redding's lyrical and musical magic his song becomes ours—and the feelings that it summons are therefore ours as well. For some of us, the song, like the experience, may uncover feelings of contentment, for others feelings of loss; for some, the song, like the experience, will conjure feelings of peace with the passage of time, but for others, regret over its waste.
It may be impossible to separate Redding's death from the song—in fact, this awareness adds depth to its melancholy feel. Redding's death frames the reflective seaside space into which the song carries us. But the song's real power lies in the fact that ultimately, we do separate Redding's death and even Redding from the song. By tapping into a universal experience, it summons reflections on time, it raises questions both cosmic and personal, it draws us into a space that is universally shared but ultimately private and all our own.