Fifty years after Stax Records’ Volt label released one of the true all-time classic songs, Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” the song routinely appears on Pandora’s weekly list of our 150 most-streamed tracks. Inspired by Redding’s growing admiration for the Beatles and Bob Dylan, the song was famously recorded just a few days before the singer’s tragic death in an airplane crash in Wisconsin in December, 1967.
March 16 marks the 50th anniversary of the day “The Dock of the Bay” hit the No. 1 spot on the Billboard chart, becoming Redding’s first No. 1 and the first posthumous No. 1 in the chart’s history. Redding’s influence still runs deep: Among the artists most often streamed on Pandora stations that feature his music, contemporary names such as Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder are accompanied by several next-generation singer-songwriters, including Amos Lee, Ray LaMontagne and Chris Stapleton.
Stapleton, the country singer whose soulful style has revolutionized Nashville, grew up listening to outlaw country records with his father, “but then also old R&B — Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Otis Redding,” he told EW. LaMontagne, too, has said he studied Redding’s music alongside Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Neil Young — “all the mainstays, I guess… When I wasn’t working, I was listening to records over and over again,” he told American Songwriter.
Dylan once tried to get Redding to record a version of his song “Just Like a Woman,” and he has been known to cover “The Dock of the Bay” in concert. The list of artists who have covered Redding’s masterpiece is long and impressively varied, from Glen Campbell and Neil Young to Garth Brooks, Pearl Jam and Sara Bareilles.
At the time of the original recording, Redding and Steve Cropper, the great Stax guitarist who played on “The Dock of the Bay,” discussed the possibility of having the Staple Singers add backing vocals to the song. But after Redding’s death, Cropper went in another direction, adding
the sound of ocean waves and seagulls and giving the song its striking sense of solitude and reflection. In May, Rhino Records will release a new collection of recordings from the “Dock of the Bay” sessions.
“I stayed up 24 hours mixing the song,” Cropper told Rolling Stone a few months ago, on the anniversary of his friend’s death. “The next morning I went out to the airport, went out on the tarmac and a stewardess came down to the bottom of the steps and I handed her that master.”
In his book The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, Dave Marsh named “The Dock of the Bay” the fifteenth best pop song of all time. The song, he wrote, is “as abstract as anything that the Beatles ever did.” It’s “a contemplation of the ideas of time and space, their interaction and how passing through either, let alone both, affects a man’s life.”
Redding’s lyric “speaks of what matters to him,” Marsh continues, “of home and loneliness, of time that speeds by and can never be recaptured, and of repetition without end or meaning. Finally, to speak of things for which there are no words, he simply whistles the melody.” The tenderness
with which Redding sang his crowning achievement was like “the way a father’s huge, calloused hands hold a tiny baby for the first time.” And every generation discovers it anew.