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  • Writer's pictureTony Harris


I'm fairly certain that I am going to run into some flak for my opening assertion in this submission but I really really think "(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay" is one of the most over-rated records in the history of pop music.

There I've said it.

And I'm sure that those with "100 Platinum Soul" CD box sets will want to tell me what a classic it is and always has been and it is simply untouchable. I suspect however, that most of you are far more discerning and will at least hear out my heretical outburst.

Firstly, Otis Redding is one of the finest performers ever. A bear of man with a giant voice and a stage presence as mesmerising as James Brown. "Dock Of The Bay" is simply no reflection of his exceptional talent at all.

The song was started by Redding not long after his performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in California where he had, as ever, set the stage alight. He seldom wrote about himself, but, on this occasion started writing lyrics for this as he was staying at a seaside location in Sausalito. Over time, he added to them and recorded some early takes back in Memphis in late November and early December of this new song with his producer, the legendary Steve Cropper, who was also the guitarist with Stax house band Booker T & The MGs.

He had in September 1967 entered hospital to have polyps removed from his throat and this also seems to have been a contributing factor in a softer delivery than one would normally have expected from him. Perhaps this may be why he was considering less of a soul and more of a pop feel for his upcoming work. Many of his friends, family and band felt this was unwise.

And had I been able, I would have gone right along with them.

Sadly though, with the record far from complete, Otis died in a plane crash with several of his band only three days after the latest take of "The Dock Of The Bay". And of course, it is this tragedy that has given the track such poignancy.

Steve Cropper was tasked with cobbling together a record from what there was and so released Redding's biggest (by far) single and the US chart's first ever posthumous number one. Suddenly, the whole world was aware and wanted part of Otis Redding.

Sadly, for music fans, the memorial was represented by this wistfully sentimental song that should have been on a Country/Easy Listening album - try Glen Campbell's version on his "Wichita Lineman" LP and you'll see what I'm talking about.

It's not the worst song in the world by any means but it is just not a suitable tribute. His voice is too smooth and even the whistling (which I can't stand) was not supposed to be there - he had intended to do a more characteristic ad-lib. Also, he had considered bringing in The Staples Singers to provide a more gospel-like backing and that certainly would have made a considerable difference.

I imagine one or two of you are already up in arms over my sacrilegious view but let me put this hypothesis to you...

What would the world look like if your introduction and enduring musical benchmark for John Lennon had become "Woman".


So instead of this aberration, please point yourself to "Live In Europe" and listen to the excitement that really surrounded such a unique artist. It was his last solo release before his untimely death and included many of the highlights of his equally enjoyable previous albums "Otis Blue" and "The Dictionary Of Soul", both of which I heartily endorse to you.

Redding had been successful in America but (certainly initially) mainly to black audiences, his tour to Europe took him to a whole new level, where the crowds went absolutely nuts from Oslo to Paris. Of course on that side of the Atlantic, his work had found some willing champions in their own musical idols. The Stones had covered his "Pain In My Heart" already and put out a spirited version of "That's How Strong My Love Is" on "Out Of Our Heads" in late 1965."I've Been Loving You Too Long" would also appear on their first live album "Got Live If You Want It" in 1966 and you can tell how comfortable Jagger is with the styling and phrasing that Redding has provided.

Even now, when The Stones put covers into their set, Jagger is always happy to revert regularly to an old Otis number.

The Beatles meanwhile sent a limousine to pick up Redding and his band on their arrival in London. Redding absolutely had the imprimatur of all of the crown princes of the British Beat scene. "Ready Steady Go" devoted a whole episode to him and he performs with some of his many admirers, including Eric Burdon and Chris Farlowe - both of whom look like they've won the lottery. I always think that Burdon is the closest vocalist to Redding - he sings differently every time (he was a famously terrible lip-syncer) as each performance feeds off the audience around and determines the outcome.

What I find so fascinating about Otis Redding was that of all soul artists, he was the first and most successful at returning the favour the beat groups had shown him. He understood these bands' obsession with soul and RnB and could pick out the influence in their writing. He was happy in turn to cover their work and appear at venues more associated with them - he had a hugely successful stint at The Whiskey A Go Go in 1966 and played the Fillmore too . He would return the compliment by covering both "Satisfaction" and "Day Tripper" and succeeds in drawing out all the soul from them and make them sound like standards - even though they were really fairly recent hits..

It was on the back of this tour and the response from the European crowds that he would be invited to play at Monterey and vied with Jimi Hendrix for the most electrifying performance.

He is, as mentioned, a tremendous interpreter of songs and whilst he takes on "My Girl" - The Temptations classic - without over-powering its inherent innocence, it is when he assaults the old 30s standard "Try A Little Tenderness" that he can show his true transformative capabilities.

This should surely be his shining testament. His performance absolutely soars.

The song had been first recorded in 1932 and was covered in time by both Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby but the old-style Tin Pan Alley publishers had tried to stop him recording it - seemingly on racial grounds. Thank heavens he just ignored them. You would be hard pressed to find a song that starts so softly and then finishes to such an overwhelming frenzied crescendo.

If you doubt how good the performance is then remember that it's probably the stand-out performance moment in the fantastic 1991 movie, "The Commitments" and it is a straight lift of Redding's interpretation... and all the better for it.

However, he was also capable of writing some spectacularly emotive songs that can really stoke up a crowd with their pauses like "I've Been Loving You Too Long" and "Back In My Arms" or the gospel like call and response on "The Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa Song". Here he demonstrates all the verve of his contemporary James Brown and the audience love every second of it.

He had also written "Respect" which was of course covered by Aretha Franklin and took on a whole new persona as an anthem to female empowerment once she had thrown her magic larynx around it. But firstly, it is often forgotten that Aretha had been recording for nearly five years before she found her true vocation with "Respect" - right song at the right time.

But Redding's version has a power all of its own as well which in the hands of a massive performer like him sounds almost a musical threat.

Of course, live albums these days are far more polished but "Live In Europe" is all the more memorable for its rawness. His backing band, Booker T & The MGs and his horn section, The Mar-Keys manage to stay tight when all around are freaking out and they manage to keep pace with a performer who never gave the same performance twice.

One of the most interesting tracks on The Smiths "Strangeways Here We Come" is "Paint A Vulgar Picture" which (and I suspect it may be a lyrical first) is about a record company's exploitation of a deceased star's back catalogue with endless repackaging and reissues. Stax Records (whilst not as calculating as Morrissey's target) were certainly not backward in putting out material to satisfy renewed interest and had perhaps their greatest success on the back of it but they would never recover from the passing of Otis and would soon be subsumed into Atlantic Records.

I know some of you, if you've come this far, might still be feeling truly affronted by my attack on "The Dock Of The Bay" but it is lightweight and inconsequential next to his other performances. Of course, the song is not that bad, it's just not the right tribute at all - over sentimental (Michael Bolton would cover it, for goodness sake) and not at all representative of the sheer power and excitement he was capable of generating.

So, please don't tell me it's a classic because you don't want to start me off.

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25 oct 2020

I'm with you, Tony.

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