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(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay

| October 21, 2010 | 3 Comments

Here’s the story behind “Dock of the Bay” in Steve Cropper’s own words:

One of the things that’s unique about “Dock of the Bay” is that almost every time Otis [Redding] came in to work, to write with me and to record, he would always go check into the hotel or motel first, get settled in and either I would go over there or he would come to the studio. But at this particular time, when he landed, he went immediately to a phone to call the studio. He said, “I’m on my way right now. You gotta hear this.”

He showed up 15 minutes later and and he said, “Get your guitar. Let’s go back in the back.” So we went in the studio and he played me this little bit of thing that he had. I, of course, just flipped out. I thought it was great. All he had was the intro and about half the first verse. I wrote just about all the rest of it, but he certainly got it kick-started!

And now I know that he had been out in San Francisco to play the Fillmore, and Bill Graham had offered him his houseboat in Sausalito to stay in. And Otis said, “Oh man, I’d love to live on a boat house; that’d be fun, put me in there.” So he did. It was years before I realized that when he wrote the lyrics, “I watch the ships come in and I watch them roll away again”—and I always had a problem with that, because to me ships don’t roll in, you know, the waves roll in, or the tide rolls in and rolls out but ships don’t roll in and roll out—he was watching these ferry boats come in from Oakland over to Sausalito and back. So maybe they do roll in, because I know when they are docking they really push up a lot of wake. That might have been the inspiration for it. He was fairly locked in to the rhythm and blues side of things.

He was very, very big in Europe, but he had not crossed over in the States yet. Most of his songs were played on black radio and that was about it. And we had a feeling that this one had just enough pop to it that the white stations would play it. And we were right. It’s credited with seven million performances on BMI.

I believe in magic. I believe in luck. And I believe in instinct. I believe usually your first hunch is right—if you follow your nose, you’ll end up where you need to be. When we were out on the road in ’93 with Neil Young, Neil came back to the dressing room one night and he said, “Hey, I just read an interview you did and you were talking about when you and Otis wrote ‘Dock of the Bay,’ that he started it in a house boat in Sausalito. I just want to let you know that I stayed on that house boat a week after Otis did.” I said, “Wow, after all these years, there’s somebody to validate my story.” It actually was true.

It was in Madison, Wis., where the plane went down. The weather was so bad the plane missed the runway the first time. And the tower told them to pull up, circle and try to make another approach. When they pulled up and went to circle, they circled out over this lake. Well, that was the absolute perfect conditions for the wind and all that and it just iced their plane up and they went down. If they had been wide of the lake, it probably never would have happened. If they could have gotten in some warmer current of air, it probably never would have happened. But the fact that they flew right over this foggy lake, the plane iced up and boom. They went in the water. We were all in shock.

Tom Dowd, the world-renowned record producer, taught me everything I know about engineering and producing, and also writing songs—he was in Vegas at an Atlantic Records convention, and he said when they announced over the intercom that Otis Redding had died in a plane crash, the whole casino just stopped, dealers and everything. He said, “I had never seen that in history in Vegas.” That’s kinda when you know how big somebody is. When it affects everybody.

From Performing Songwriter, Issue 83, Jan/Feb 2005

Category: Behind The Song

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  1. sitting on the dock of the bay songwriter? | Askjis | July 28, 2013
  1. teri says:

    I don’t know but what an amazing song to sit and relax and unwind to after along day . Amazing :D xxt

  2. Fritz S. says:

    I wonder if Otis got the idea for the title of Dock of the Bay from an old Freddie King tune written by Sonny Thompson called “Sittin’ on the Boat Dock” that was made before Dock of the Bay? The lyrics kind of mirror each other.

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