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On This Day In Music… March 16, 1968: Otis Redding Becomes the First Artist to Score a Posthumous No. 1 Single

'Sittin' On The Dock Of The Bay' was recorded just three days before Redding's death – and remains 'unfinished' to this day.

otis redding
Source: YouTube

Otis Redding's masterpiece was an improvised work of 'accidental genius'.

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The terrible irony of Otis Redding’s tragic early death was that had he not died, his most well-loved song might have sounded very different. On March 16, 1968, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” became the first posthumous single to ever top the U.S. charts – and almost certainly remains the only “unfinished” chart topper in Billboard history.

“(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” remained at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for five weeks, peaked at No. 3 in the U.K. charts, and would go on to sell some four million copies (and counting) worldwide.

The version that we know now – the only version of the song – was essentially a cobbled-together demo, with an improvised outro and sound effects added as an afterthought by its co-writer and producer, the Booker T & the MGs guitarist Steve Cropper. It was never intended to be the final cut – and it was only tragedy that kept it as it was.

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sittin on the dock of the bay single
Source: Volt records

'Sittin' On The Dock Of The Bay' was released less than a month after Redding's tragic death.

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The intent behind “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” was always ambitious, however. Until that point Redding had failed to fully crossover from an essentially niche (though solid) soul and R&B following into the mainstream. In 1965 he had broken into the Hot 100 with “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”, which peaked at No. 21, and two years after that his song “Respect” had given Aretha Franklin a No. 1 – but only true afficionados would have even known that he had written it… and Redding himself was astute enough to have admitted that Aretha’s version was, after all, the definitive take on the song.

By the end of 1967, however, things were looking decidedly brighter. At the Monterey International Pop Festival in June that year he had performed an ecstatic set and was recognized as one of the festival’s big winners, alongside fellow “unknowns” Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and The Who.

Two months after Monterey, he toured with the Bar-Kays, to ever-increasing crowds. Whilst playing an extended series of nights at the Fillmore in San Francisco, the buzz around Redding reached the point where his hotel had become besieged by fans – and so Fillmore promoter Bill Graham offered him a berth on his houseboat at the nearby Sausalito harbor.

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It was on that boat, gazing across the Pacific towards San Francisco, that Redding wrote a single four-line sketched verse: “Sittin’ in the morning sun / I’ll be sittin’ when the evenin’ comes / Watching the ships roll in / And then I’ll watch them roll away again…”

He showed the lines to Cropper, who thought they had potential, and added his own ideas – using Redding’s own journey from Georgia as inspiration. In a September 1990 interview with the NPR radio talk show Fresh Air, Cropper explained:

“Otis was one of those [guys] who had 100 ideas… He had been in San Francisco doing The Fillmore. And the story that I got, he was renting a boathouse, or stayed at a boathouse or something, and that's where he got the idea of the ships coming in the bay there. And that's about all he had: ‘I watch the ships come in and I watch them roll away again.’ I just took that... and I finished the lyrics.

“Otis didn't really write about himself but I did. ‘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.”

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On November 22, 1967, at the Stax studios in Memphis, Tennessee, Redding and Cropper laid down the basic structure of the track, and reconvened on December 7 to finish it off. But despite Cropper’s addition of a second verse and a bridge, both men felt it still lacked something. In lieu of a yet-to-be-written third verse, Redding improvised a whistled outro, and the two men agreed to revisit the song once Redding’s tour was over.

Three days later Otis Redding boarded a private plane from Cleveland, Ohio, where he had just played another sold-out show, headed for his next date at Madison, Wisconsin. He never arrived. Amidst worsening weather conditions, the plane crashed into Lake Minona, just four miles from its destination. Seven passengers and crew were killed, including Redding, as well as four members of the Bar-Kays. He was just 26 years old.

Otis Redding’s funeral was held on December 18 in his hometown of Macon, Georgia. More than 4,500 mourners crowded the City Auditorium, and his eulogy was delivered by the legendary Jerry Wexler, the man credited with coining the term “Rhythm and Blues”.

otis redding rockwalk
Source: PHIL McCARTEN/UPI/Newscom/The Mega Agency

Otis Redding is now recognized as one of the 20th Century's most influential artists.

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One month later, Steve Cropper released the “unfinished” version of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay”, after adding seagull and wave-crashing sounds to cover for the initial lack of production. He also kept Redding’s original improvised third-verse whistle, gently fading it out as the song finished.

The effect – though created through accident and unhappy circumstance – was magical. Debuting on January 8, 1968, less than a month after Redding’s death, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” steadily climbed the charts, and on March 16, made No. 1, finally giving Otis Redding the crossover smash he had craved. The following year, the song won Redding posthumous Grammy Awards for Best R&B Song and Best Male R&B Vocal Performance, and in 1998 it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Genius is very rarely accidental – and if the most famous whistled outro in the history of popular music was the result of improvised circumstance, it was also, indisputably, born of a talent that was cut tragically down just as it had begun to flower.

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