'Dock Of The Bay' At 50: Why Otis Redding's Biggest Hit Almost Went Unheard

Jan 8, 2018
Originally published on January 9, 2018 1:17 pm

"(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" was released 50 years ago Monday, less than a month after Otis Redding died at the age of 26. The song was a departure for the R&B superstar — and it almost never saw the light of day.

"Otis had had a throat operation in the fall that year, and he was very worried about whether he would be able to sing again — and sing like Otis," biographer Mark Ribowsky says. "He needed to sort of make it quieter, make it more poetic. And he came up with this song."

The song was an experiment: It wasn't R&B, it wasn't rock, it wasn't folk. At least one executive at Redding's label, Stax, didn't get it. "Al Bell heard it being recorded that day and said, 'I don't know if we can ever release this song,' " Ribowsky says.

They left the recording incomplete that winter. Then, tragedy struck: Redding died in a plane crash on Dec. 10, 1967. While the music world mourned, Stax began planning.

"Let's face it: When a rock 'n' roller dies, you need a song to come out immediately to cash in on this. That's just the way the business is," Ribowsky says. "Steve Cropper, who wrote [the song] with him and produced it — great guitar player — said, 'Let's do this song.' "

"I mean, I got this call on a Monday, and of course Otis' plane went down on a Sunday morning," Cropper told NPR back in 2000. "And they said, 'Get that thing finished and get it to us.' So, I went to work on it. And probably the music is the only thing that kept me going."

Cropper sent back a completed version within a week. It didn't take at first.

"Jerry Wexler up in New York at Atlantic, the overlords of Stax, said, 'No, we can't release this. His vocal is too recessed. It needs to be remixed," Ribowsky says. "Cropper said, 'OK, I'll change it: I'll overdub it, I'll do this, I'll do that' — [and] didn't change it whatsoever. Sent it back to Wexler, who said, 'Oh yeah, this sounds a lot better now.' "

"(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" went on to win Otis Redding two posthumous Grammys and sell millions of copies, becoming his signature song and his biggest hit.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Fifty years ago today, one of the most performed songs of the 20th century was released. And did you know it almost never saw the light of day?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "(SITTIN' ON) THE DOCK OF THE BAY")

OTIS REDDING: (Singing) Sittin' in the mornin' sun. I'll be sittin' when the evenin' comes.

GREENE: "(Sitting On) The Dock Of The Bay" - it was a departure for the R&B superstar Otis Redding, sort of an experiment. This is biographer Mark Ribowsky.

MARK RIBOWSKY: Otis had had a throat operation in the fall that year, and he was very worried about whether he would be able to sing again and sing like Otis. He needed to sort of make it quieter, make it more poetic. And he came up with this song.

GREENE: A song that wasn't really R&B. It wasn't rock. It wasn't folk. An executive at Redding's label, Stax, he just didn't get it.

RIBOWSKY: Al Bell heard it being recorded that day and said, I don't know if we could ever release this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "(SITTIN' ON) THE DOCK OF THE BAY")

REDDING: (Singing) Cause I've had nothing to live for and look like nothing's gonna come my way.

GREENE: That winter, they left the recording incomplete. And then there was a tragedy. Otis Redding died in a plane crash on December 10, 1967. The music world was in mourning. His recording label had a different reaction.

RIBOWSKY: You know, let's face it - when a rock 'n' roller dies, you need a song to come out immediately to cash in on this. That's just the way the business is. Steve Cropper, who wrote it with him and produced it - great guitar player - said, let's do this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

STEVE CROPPER: I mean, I got this call on a Monday. And of course, Otis' plane went down on Sunday morning.

GREENE: NPR spoke to Steve Cropper back in 2000.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CROPPER: I don't think they found Otis' body until Friday. And they said, get that thing finished and get it to us. So I went to work on it. And probably the music is the only thing that kept me going.

GREENE: Cropper sent them a completed version within one week. Again, here's biographer Mark Ribowsky.

RIBOWSKY: Jerry Wexler up in New York at Atlantic - the overlords of Stax - said, no, we can't release it. His vocal is too recessed. It needs to be remixed. Cropper said, OK, I'll change it. I'll overdub it. I'll do this. I'll do that - didn't change it whatsoever. Sent it back to Wexler who said, oh, yeah, this sounds a lot better now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "(SITTIN' ON) THE DOCK OF THE BAY")

REDDING: (Singing) I can't do what 10 people tell me to do, so I guess I'll remain the same, yes.

GREENE: Well, we're all thankful they saved that song. "(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay" was released 50 years ago today, less than a month after Otis Redding died at the age of 26. It became his biggest hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "(SITTING ON) THE DOCK OF THE BAY")

REDDING: (Singing) Sittin' on the dock of the bay wastin' time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.