It's the song that defines Otis Redding, and one of the most famous songs about San Francisco (or at least San Francisco Bay), ever. It was released 45 years ago today, on Jan. 8, 1968, on the great Stax/Volt label. And despite the song's close association with one of the greats of '60s soul -- and its status as an all-time hit -- it's often forgotten that Otis Redding himself never actually heard the final version of "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay."
Redding, of course, died in a plane crash on Dec. 10, 1967, 18 days after the recording session at which he laid down the tune. He left before the song's co-writer, producer, and guitarist, Steve Cropper, overdubbed the guitar tracks. It was on that trip that Redding's plane crashed, killing everyone board except for Ben Cauley, the trumpet player in his band.
The Wall Street Journal has a great, detailed "Anatomy of a Song" post on "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay," which is definitely worth a read. As it explains, Redding's sudden death precipitated calls for a new single from him. "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay," which had been recorded but not mixed, was rushed to release, and spent four weeks atop the Billboard charts.
But the highlight of the WSJ's oral history, for us, anyway, is Cropper musing about where Redding must have gotten inspiration for the song:
Otis told me he had started writing the song while playing in San Francisco. Producer Bill Graham must have let him stay on his houseboat in Sausalito, because Neil Young told me he had stayed on the boat right after Otis had left to come back East.
Years later, I was in Sausalito on tour and found myself at a place by the bay having a hamburger. I was watching the water when my eye caught something. The ferries crossing from San Francisco turned a little as they came in, creating a rolling wave to cushion their arrival at the pier. That's when it hit me. Otis had been watching the ferries roll in.