Fifty Years of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”

The story behind one of the greatest Southern songs ever recorded. Plus, a reissue and a tribute concert honoring its legendary singer, Otis Redding

In 1967, Otis Redding was on top of the world. That June, he was the only soul act who performed at the Monterey Pop Festival, taking the stage at 1 a.m. and proceeding to blow away the “love people” (as he dubbed them) with scorching versions of “Shake” and “Respect” and finishing with his customary closer, “Try A Little Tenderness,” that left the audience howling for more. After years of dogged touring, the money had begun rolling in and Redding was on equal standing with Elvis Presley as the most popular singer in the world.

Even a doctor-ordered two-month break after Redding had surgery to remove polyps from his vocal cords didn’t slow him down. He retreated to his Big O Ranch outside of Macon, Georgia, and in a fury of creativity, wrote more than thirty songs to record at the Stax Records studio in Memphis. One of those tracks was “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” The now-classic pushed Redding’s songwriting and singing to new levels of emotion and sophistication, rather than the burly, shouting vocals he was known for. He was slowly reaching a wider audience and Redding knew “Dock of the Bay” was a sure-fire hit.

Tragically, on December 10, 1967, just days after the song’s recording, Redding and members of his band perished when their plane crashed into a frozen lake just outside of Madison, Wisconsin, where Redding was scheduled to perform. He was only twenty-six.

“Dock of the Bay” was released fifty years ago this week, and Redding’s instincts were correct: the song became his first—and only—number one hit. To commemorate the anniversary, Rhino Records is reissuing the single in gold vinyl. The A-side contains the original version, one where Redding’s vocals are noticeably lower in the mix and that showcases the playing of Booker T and the MG’s, the Stax house band. The original mix was pulled off shelves after only a few days, replaced by the version that is ubiquitous today. The B-side remains “Sweet Lorene,” a more traditional Redding soul crusher.

The reissue of “Dock of the Bay” kicks off a year of events celebrating Redding’s life. On January 25, the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem will host a tribute concert. “An Evening of Respect” with Whoopi Goldberg as emcee and will feature performances from, among others, the Dap-Kings, Aloe Blaac, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and Paul Janeway of St. Paul & the Broken Bones, along with Redding’s sons Otis III and Dexter.