Musically, "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" was a departure for Otis Redding. An established R&B star, Redding had set out to create a song with cross-market appeal when he recorded his famous 1967 hit. It was not a narrowly commercial decision. Redding was buoyed by his success in reaching a wider audience at the Monterey Pop Festival, and he was intrigued by the Beatles' recently released Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The evolution in Redding's style is immediately apparent in this song. At the beginning, the only sound rising above the ocean waves is Steve Cropper's acoustic guitar, which fills an almost folk-like rhythm role. The bass guitar that also enters early is equally reserved, providing just enough force to move the song forward, but not enough to break the wave-echoing, rhythmic feel of the song.
The spare feel of the song was about more than just pace—after all, Redding had sung plenty of slower songs. But in others, he had used more instruments to build a layered, complex sound, as with the fanfare-blowing horns in "I've Been Loving You Too Long" and "A Change is Gonna Come," and the piano and electric guitar in "These Arms of Mine."
What's not surprising about "Dock of the Bay" is the emotional strength of Redding's vocals. Booker T. Jones (a member of the Stax Records house band, and later, leader of Booker T. and the MGs) emphasized that Redding did not bring unusual range to his singing: "He had no really low notes and no really high notes," Jones explains. But what he had was emotional power. "Otis would do anything that implied emotion, and that's where his physicality came in, because he was such a strong, powerful man." (Source)
Oh, and about that whistling—the story goes that Redding had just whistled as a placeholder for another, unfinished verse, which he never had time to complete. Even if he planned to eventually cut the whistling out, we think it actually works great with the sit-and-watch-the-waves feel of the song.
"(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" got its start on a houseboat docked in Sausalito, Marin County, on the San Francisco Bay. After the Monterey Pop Festival, Redding remained in California and spent more than a month playing shows in San Francisco, including a concert at the Fillmore West. When he got tired of the road and tired of hotels, he and his band rented the houseboat.
There is some disagreement over which small harbor Redding's boat was docked in. One account places Redding's sanctuary just behind the Marin County heliport; another says he was docked at the Issaquah Dock in the Waldo Point Harbor.
The uncertainty has not stopped one local tour company from including a stop at the "actual dock" at which Redding wrote the song and showing visitors the "actual desk" he used while writing it.
Otis Redding was not the only artist to find inspiration in Sausalito's houseboat community. Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead was a resident; so was Shel Silverstein, the children's author and writer of Johnny Cash's hit "A Boy Named Sue." Comedian Robin Williams also owned a houseboat in Sausalito, as did novelists Isabel Allende and Amy Tan.
But even though we can point to the specific setting of the song, it really draws much of its power from the fact that it taps such a familiar feeling: the experience of sitting by an ocean, river, or lake, and losing yourself in the movement of the water. In this sense, the song's setting is universal—it is what each listener makes it out to be.