A posthumous hit transforms loss into an artistic triumph through one song. Otis Redding, who tragically passed in a plane crash in late 1967, became the first musician to top the charts after his death with his melancholic, signature song "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay."
In his final weeks, Redding laid down multiple tracks, including the soul standard "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay." In June of that year, Redding had wrapped his performance at the Monterey Pop Festival a changed man, convinced by his ability to win over massive white audiences that his next releases would fuel his crossover into mainstream stardom.
Redding continued to play on the road that remaining summer, including a gig in San Francisco in August. Rock promoter Bill Graham offered country boy Redding a stay at his houseboat in Sausalito, on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Georgia-born singer happily accepted.
Relaxing in leisure at Waldo Point Harbor, Redding scribbled down the words that would become the first verse of his smash single, "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."
“That was Otis,” co-writer Steve Cropper recalled to Rolling Stone. “He always carried his guitar with him, but not in the case, and he’d have an idea and just start writing – he always had 14 or 15 ideas in his head, totally unfinished.”
“Usually Otis would check into the Holiday Inn or whatever hotel he was staying at and then he’d call for me to come over and do some writing,” Cropper continued. But Redding couldn't shake the feeling that this song had a different feel to it and he was too excited to wait. “I’ve got a hit,” he told Cropper, with a vision to flesh his idea out into a full-fledged song.
There are mixed accounts of how Redding incorporated his magical moments of whistling into the song. Cropper shared with Rolling Stone that Redding "had worked up this little fadeout rap he was gonna do, an adlib,” but blanked on the precise verbiage when the time came and instead, " started whistling."
Redding also “was trying to make seagull sounds, but he sounded like a dying crow." Inspired nonetheless, Cropper worked with a local jingle company to recorded a loop of seagulls on one track and ocean waves on another, filling the song with these memorable backtrack vibes.
The song was released on January 8th, 1968. Redding’s death - just a month earlier (December 10) - certainly propelled the mainstream awareness of the song, but the song's lyrics resonated with everyone - from the weary working man to the soldiers in Vietnam.
The single topped the charts on March 16th, eventually selling more than 2 million copies. “I remember giving the gold record to Zelma in a presentation,” Stax co-founder Jim Stewart reminisced. “But I kept thinking about how Otis never got to experience this.”