Redding died in a plane crash on December 10, 1967, a month before this song was released (January 8, 1968) and three days after he recorded it. It was by far his biggest hit and was also the first ever posthumous #1 single in the US. Redding was a rising star moving toward mainstream success at the time of his death. There is a good chance he would have recorded many more hits if he had lived.
Stax guitarist Steve Cropper wrote this with Redding. Cropper produced the album when Redding died, including this track with various songs Redding had recorded the last few years. In a 1990 interview on NPR's Fresh Air, Cropper explained: "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 (in Sausalito, across the bay from San Francisco), 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,' 'Sad Song Fa-Fa,' 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."
When Otis recorded this, he and Cropper didn't have a last verse written, so he whistled it. He planned to return to Memphis and fill in the verse after performing in Madison, Wisconsin, but he died before he had the chance. When Cropper produced the song, he left the whistling in, and it fit the mood of the song perfectly. It is probably the most famous whistling in any song. (Thanks to Nashid at the Stax Museum for his help with this.)
Steve Cropper was a big fan of The Association, who had hits in 1966 with "Cherish
" and "Along Comes Mary
." He wrote the bridge for "Dock Of The Bay" based on their music, which he thought would help give the song a pop sound. Cropper thought The Association were a great example of an R&B influenced pop group.
Redding was the star recording artist for Stax Records, a Memphis label that made classic soul music. The death of Redding was a big blow to the label, and while it certainly had an impact on their demise in the '70s, there were other factors as well, including financial mismanagement and a change in musical tastes. In 2001, construction started on a soul music museum where the studios once stood, and it opened in 2003. To learn more about the museum and the Stax legacy, check out Stax Today
Beach sound effects (waves, seagulls, etc.), were dubbed in after the recording. If you equate this to putting stickers on a Picasso, there are two very good outtakes of the song available on the Otis Redding collection Remember Me that are free of the overdubs. Stax Records had recently purchased a 4-track recorder, which made it easy to add the extra sounds.
Redding recorded this with Booker T. & the MG's, the house band for Stax Records. They played with all the Stax artists, including Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, and Albert King, and had a hit on their own with "Green Onions
" in 1962.
In 1993, the three remaining members of Booker T. & the MG's (Steve Cropper, Donald "Duck" Dunn, and Booker T. Jones), backed Neil Young on his tour. They ended each show with this.
Redding died five months before Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot in Memphis, where this was recorded. The mood of peace and harmony evoked in this song gave way to angry racial tensions. Booker T And The MGs contained two whites and two blacks, standing out as an integrated band in a segregated city.
Booker T. & the MG's were on tour when they found out about Redding's death. They were in an Indiana airport with their flight delayed because of snow when one of their members called the Stax office and got the horrific news. When they returned to Memphis, Steve Cropper mixed the song for release. He said it was "maybe the toughest thing I've ever done." Redding's body had not even been recovered when Cropper finished the song.
Redding started to compose this while he was recovering from surgery removing polyps from his vocal cords. The doctors told him not to sing or talk for six weeks after the operation.
Redding wrote this soon after listening to The Beatles album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
, which had just been released. Shortly before he started recording "Dock of the Bay," Redding alluded to it as an extension of the Beatles' music. In 1966 and 1967, Redding performed "A Hard Day's Night
" and "Day Tripper
" at some of his concerts.
This was so unlike any other Otis Redding composition that Stax Records chief Jim Stewart did not want the song released in any form - even after hearing both Redding and Cropper insist that it would be his first #1 single. Stewart relented when he heard the finished master recording put together by Cropper after Redding's death.
During the Vietnam War, this was very popular with American troops fighting there. The song portrayed quite the opposite of their reality.
The song is featured in the 1987 film Platoon.
Music licensing company BMI named this as the sixth-most performed song of the 20th century, with around 6 million performances.
Michael Bolton's 1987 version hit #11 in the US, his highest charting song until "How Am I Supposed to Live Without You
" hit #1 in 1989. Neal Schon of Journey played on Bolton's recording.
This won 1968 Grammy Awards for Best Rhythm & Blues Performance, plus Best Rhythm & Blues Song for writers Otis Redding and Steve Cropper.