(photo by Jeff Cochran)
Otis Redding was a force of nature. Don’t take my word for it. Watch his brief but fiercely energetic set at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, available on DVD. Otis Redding performed five songs with sheer abandon. He was warmed up the moment his great band hit the first note, launching into Sam Cooke’s “Shake.” He then followed with “Respect,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “Satisfaction” and a riveting “Try A Little Tenderness.” Redding made himself the center of attention, singing with grace and power. It’s such a joyous performance. Here was a brilliant artist confidently reaching new peaks.
Hipsters at the festival knew Redding well. Several of his rhythm and blues hits had crossed over and climbed the pop charts. Still Redding did not seem a natural fit with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, the Mamas and Papas, the Byrds and the Jefferson Airplane. This was, after all, a festival presented for the rock and roll audience. But he gained thousands of new fans with an overwhelming performance. Otis Redding was electrifying. There may have been more energy in him that day than Pacific Gas and Electric could generate.
Redding’s performance at Monterey was the catalyst that would take his career to new heights. Then just a few months later, his life ended in a plane crash. His career continued, however — in a sense. Admiration for Redding’s talent grew. The material he left behind shortly before that plane went down in Wisconsin would confirm his legacy.
When reading about the career of Otis Redding, one senses he sought more, bigger and better with his recordings and in popular acceptance. That ambition does not make him a careerist. It simply indicates he worked at making the most of his talents by taking on more challenges. He felt called upon to broaden his repertoire and move beyond the Stax/Volt base in Memphis that had nurtured his talents since 1962.
Redding took to his mission urgently. His intensity fueled his creativity. He had great musicians such as Steve Cropper, Booker T. Jones and Duck Dunn working with him and sharing in his success. Cropper not only provided singular guitar work; he also co-wrote songs with Redding. Some of those songs arrived in a whirlwind. One day Redding arrived at the studio with a tempo, a title, the words “hip shakin’ mama, I love you” and some horn lines in his head. He had to get it all down. His band joined him and, on the floor of the studio, they worked up the classic R & B number, “I Can’t Turn You Loose.” Actually, what Redding could not turn loose was his drive and desire to take that next big step.
Big steps were being taken in popular music those days. Very quickly pop music had gone from “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” to a more thoughtful approach. And though there was much great music coming from all corners of the world, it still seemed there were the Beatles and then everyone else. Otis Redding understood the vision the Beatles possessed. Not only were they making hit records; they were creating great music that would last. They kept pushing boundaries. Redding wanted to do the same. He listened to the Beatles avidly. Their albums Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band inspired him to make new strides in his career.
Redding’s wife Zelma often served as a sounding board on material he was working up. One day at their farm near Macon, Georgia, he presented her with something quite different than he had written or sung before. It was a song called “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of The Bay.” It was slow, deliberate and devoid of the intensity long associated with Redding. There was a certain urgency to the song but its mood was reflective. It was a tale of one who had left his home in Georgia and headed to the San Francisco Bay. There’s not much for the lonely soul to live for and he feels lonelier in the place he’s made his home. He simply watches “the ships roll in” and he watches them “roll away again.”
This lonely soul has it really bad. Even with the gorgeous views before him, the isolation is like a disease. Redding sings “this loneliness won’t leave me alone.” These are not simply heartfelt words. They are words conveying the utter emptiness the guy feels. Those words with the simple and quiet melody make a poignant picture.
Shortly after his triumphant performance at Monterey, Redding started writing “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of The Bay” on a houseboat in Sausalito, on San Francisco Bay. He brought the song back to the Stax/Volt studio and worked on it more with his band, particularly Steve Cropper, who wrote most of the song’s lyrics. In the studio, the vocal and basic tracks were laid down. The horns and the sound effects featuring seagulls, bells and the tide coming in would be added later. It was time to hit the road. There were concert appearances to make, including one in Madison, Wisconsin.
“(Sittin’ On) The Dock of The Bay” was released on January 8,1968, 30 days after Redding’s death. The song reached Number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Otis Redding pushed himself beyond the boundaries after all. He made great music that would last, just as the Beatles did. The song he felt was an extension of what The Beatles were doing would not only remain a classic but linger in our minds. We would relate to it in many different ways in the years to come.
If one has left his home in Georgia, even for just a week or so, then walks along the San Francisco waterfront by the Embarcadero, Fisherman’s Wharf and over toward the Golden Gate, it’s inevitable this song will come to mind. Over the last 20 years, I’ve enjoyed such an opportunity a hundred times or more. One time stands out. It was September 1991. Along the docks near the wharf’s tourist attractions was a small ship, property of the USSR Navy, with sailors and officers on board. They were leisurely going about their business, greeting a few of the Americans strolling by on a beautiful day. With the Cold War behind us, their presence was simply a good will gesture. I didn’t start a conversation with any of them. That’s a big regret. After all, there had been turmoil in the Soviet Union in the last few weeks. A group of Kremlin hardliners initiated a coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, the progressive who with Ronald Reagan, stunned the world, not just easing but dramatically changing the relationship between the USSR and the USA. The coup was short-lived. Russian President Boris Yeltsin courageously led street protests. The hardliners backed down and Gorbachev would soon turn power over to Yeltsin, a more democratic leader. It was a time of massive change in a part of the world where tight controls made change seem impossible. Naturally, I wondered what the Soviet sailors thought about the events back home, but I did not ask them.
A far more positive memory associated with “The Dock of The Bay” took place four and a half years later. I was in Los Angeles on business. One afternoon I finished my calls early and even if it was a rainy February afternoon, I was ready to walk down Sunset Boulevard, do some shopping at Book Soup and maybe unwind a bit. The House of Blues was just a block or so from my hotel, so I slipped into its bar, hopeful it was open for business. It was. Sort of. A dozen people might have been in the place, including the band making its sound check. The band was The Northwest Airline All Stars. These were real all stars. Among them were drummer Steve Gadd, organist Billy Preston and lead guitarist Steve Cropper. Yes, that Steve Cropper. Their sound check was businesslike. A handful of songs, mostly R&B classics, were played all the way through. It was a good time to be at that bar, and it got even better as the band played an instrumental version of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of The Bay.” There was the band, the sound crew, the bartender and the bar’s one customer. Really, it was as if no one was there. But they played that song as if thousands were. I set aside my beer and looked straight ahead at Cropper, less than a hundred feet away as he played that song for maybe the twenty thousandth time in his life. All that repetition didn’t matter. He played the song with the respect and the love it deserved. He closed his eyes and reverently played the song. As far as he seemed to be concerned, no one else was in the room. It was just him, his guitar and the song he wrote with Otis Redding. Now and then you leave your home in Georgia and witness beautiful things.