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‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay’: the first posthumous No.1 in US chart history

On 10th December 1967 Otis Redding, possibly the greatest soul singer of all time, died in a plane crash in Madison, Wisconsin, at the age of 26. One month later ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay’ was released and became the first ever posthumous No.1 in US Billboard chart history.

Otis and his band were heading from Cleveland to Madison, where they were to play a concert. Though the weather was poor, they went ahead with the flight, in Redding’s private jet. The plane was just four miles from its destination when the pilot radioed in for permission to land. Moments later, it crashed. The plane dove down into the icy Lake Monona, and seven of the eight people on board died. James Brown revealed in his autobiography that he had warned Otis not to fly in the plane, which he had sold to the singer only a few months prior.

The one survivor of the crash was trumpet player Ben Cauley, who was 20 at the time. Cauley, who was sat behind Redding in the plane, had fallen asleep on the flight. Speaking after the crash, he said that he remembered waking up and looking at his bandmate Phalon Jones, who looked out of the window and said “Oh, no!”. Cauley, realising what had happened, then unbuckled his seatbelt, allowing him to escape the wreckage through a hole in the fuselage caused by the impact of the crash. The other victims, including Redding, were found still attached to their seats below the freezing cold water. Cauley, who was unable to swim, managed to cling to his seat cushion in order to remain afloat as the plane sank in front of his eyes. He remembered hearing the cries for help of Carl Cunningham, 18, and Ronnie Caldwell, 19, who were also members of Redding’s backing band The Bar-Kays, as the fuselage went down.

The death of Otis Redding sent ripples through the music world. Already a soul legend, a number of successes in the 12 months prior to his death saw him gain momentum and plenty of mainstream notoriety. In June 1967, a few months before he died, the fabulous Aretha Franklin had covered Redding’s ‘Respect’, and it hit the top of the pop charts. The year before, he had released his groundbreaking cover of ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ to great acclaim. He was also getting a reputation as an electrifying live performer, and, partly due to a seminal performance at Monterey Pop Festival, was moving into the consciousness of the pop mainstream. There are few talents who have had their life cut short at the true height of their success. This was most certainly the case with Otis Redding.

Redding finished the bulk of the recording of ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay’ at the Stax studio in Memphis just three days before he died, and was intending to return to add the finishing touches, including the final verse. He had written the song with Booker T & The MGs guitarist Steve Cropper, who he had worked with for many years. Redding had spent some time staying with a friend on a houseboat in Sausalito, and would sit, looking out over the bay towards San Francisco. It was during this time that he had conjured up the idea for the song. He approached Cropper with the lyric “I watch the ships come in and I watch them roll away again”, along with a bunch of ideas for how it should sound, and the guitarist took this away and wrote pretty much the rest of the lyrics himself. The rest of the lyrics apart from, it turns out, the last verse. So as the pair were in the studio, mere days before the crash, Redding whistled the last verse. It was a placeholder that was intended to be changed. As soon as they were back in the studio a new verse would be written and the song would be complete.Otis never did return to the studio, and that last verse was never added. The whistling outro that remained, however, is beautiful. It captures the mood of the music, and works so well with the lyrics. It’s now hard to imagine this incredible, important song ending any differently. It paints such a picture. You can easily imagine Otis, sitting there, watching the ships coming in, whistling away. It’s the perfect ending to the perfect song.

After Redding died, Cropper finished producing the song, and many others the pair had worked on in the previous few years and put together an album. The single ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay’ was released on 8th January 1968, and raced to the top of the Billboard Charts.

Redding’s death was devastating to the world of music. At just 26, he was at the height of his powers. A wonderful singer, fantastic songwriter and captivating live performer, he was only just getting the mainstream, pop respect that he deserved. He inspired countless singers, wrote some of the most captivating soul songs of all time, and went on to be covered thousands of times over, for years on end. One can only guess as to just how big he would have become. And it is incredibly sad that the world never got to hear what other brilliant music he would have undoubtedly ended up creating. One thing, however, is for sure: the last recording he made was his best, and is quite possibly the greatest soul song of all time.

Words by Adam Rowden