Watching the ships roll in

In a 1990 interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air” (thank you Terry Gross), co-writer and instrumentalist Steve Cropper provided some background:

“Otis was one of those kind of guys who had 100 ideas… He had been at San Francisco playing The Fillmore, and [was staying in a houseboat] which is where he got the idea of the ships 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”, “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)”; 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.”

Otis, of course, was 26 year-old Otis Ray Redding Jr., “The Mad Man from Macon,” songwriter, producer, arranger, soul singer extraordinaire and (“These Arms of Mine”, “Try a Little Tenderness” “A Change is Gonna Come”) one of the great figures in Soul, R&B and popular music in general. It was early December of 1967 when he and Cropper completed the recording of that song and Redding was riding high.

Only a few months earlier he had crossed over from his traditionally black fan base to perform at Monterey Pop, backed by Booker T. & the M.G.’s (including guitarist Cropper) and the Mar-Keys horn section. By all accounts the “Summer of Love” audience was captivated.  When Redding closed with “Try a Little Tenderness” his final line as he left the stage, with the crowd pleading for more, was “I got to go, y’all, I don’t wanna go.”

Although others in Stax Record’s Memphis recording studio were skeptical when they heard the playback, Redding is said to have been pleased with the song conceived on that houseboat at Sausalito’s Waldo Point. It represented a change in style that he liked. Sadly, he would never know what the rest of the world thought.

Three days after whistling those concluding notes (and a day before the anniversary of Sam Cooke’s death) Otis Redding, his manager and five band members were killed when his chartered Beechcraft H18 crashed into a lake outside Madison, Wisconsin where they were to perform the next day (intriguingly the opening act was to be “The Grim Reapers” led by guitarist, Rick Nielsen who would later form Cheap Trick).

“(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” was hurriedly released within weeks, in January 1968, predictably rocketing to Number One on the R&B charts.  A little less predictably it also owned the Pop charts, remaining at Number One for four weeks and becoming the first posthumous single ever to top the Billboard charts. It would go on to win Grammy Awards for Best R&B Song and Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.

An album that (naturally) shared the song’s title soon followed, charting at Number 3 in the UK (Number 4 in the U.S.) and quickly became Redding’s best selling record, with more than four million copies sold worldwide.

 LISTEN TO TODAY’S SELECTION – Thursday 8 November

The Dock Of The Bay

Sittin’ in the mornin’ sun

I’ll be sittin’ when the evenin’ come

Watching the ships roll in

And then I watch ’em roll away again, yeah

I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay

Watching the tide roll away

Ooo, I’m just sittin’ on the dock of the bay

Wastin’ time

I left my home in Georgia

Headed for the ‘Frisco bay

‘Cause I’ve had nothing to live for

And look like nothin’s gonna come my way

So I’m just gonna sit on the dock of the bay

Watching the tide roll away

Ooo, I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay

Wastin’ time

Look like nothing’s gonna change

Everything still remains the same

I can’t do what ten people tell me to do

So I guess I’ll remain the same, yes

Sittin’ here resting my bones

And this loneliness won’t leave me alone

It’s two thousand miles I roamed

Just to make this dock my home

Now, I’m just gonna sit at the dock of the bay

Watching the tide roll away

Oooo-wee, sittin’ on the dock of the bay

Wastin’ time


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