For many, this is Otis Redding’s signature song. I’ve always liked it, but I can think of several I’d place above it on my Otis Pantheon (and he’s one of the great artists whose pantheon is really, really big). I’ve been thinking about “Dock of the Bay” recently as I learned a few things about it, basic stuff that I’d somehow missed over the decades.
For instance, Otis was in Sausalito when he wrote the first verse of the song, and '”the Bay” is thus in my neck of the woods. I’ve always thought of Otis as a Southern man, never as a Bay Arean, and in truth, he was only visiting Sausalito when he began writing “Dock of the Bay”. In retrospect, it’s hard to believe I never understood what bay he was singing about … there is a line in the song, “I left my home in Georgia, headed for the Frisco Bay”, that kinda gives it away. (Wikipedia offers an interesting addendum from Steve Cropper, who co-wrote the song, talking on NPR: “If you listen to the songs I wrote with Otis, most of the lyrics are about him. He didn't usually write about himself, but I did. ‘Mr. Pitiful,’ ‘Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)’; they were about Otis' life. ‘Dock Of The Bay’ was exactly that”.)
I do know the basics of the song’s release. Otis recorded it just before he died in a plane crash; the single was released posthumously and hit #1 on the charts. I was 14 at the time, and it was always good to hear it on the radio. (Plus, its status as a refreshing #1 on the Billboard charts was bookended by two pieces of dreck, Paul Mauriat’s easy-listening instrumental “Love Is Blue” just before Otis, and Bobby Goldsboro’s perennial entry on Worst Song Ever lists, “Honey”, which replaced Otis at the top.)
He never played it live, of course, so the only YouTube videos are audio-with-pictures. This one has almost 12 million views, so it’ll do as well as any:
I mentioned I’d been thinking about the song lately. That’s due to its appearance in a book by Rebecca Solnit, Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas. Solnit’s book takes various aspects of San Francisco history and culture, connects them to maps drawn by various contributors, and supplements her own writing with a series of collaborators. One chapter, “Shipyards and Sounds”, features a map by Shizue Seigel that highlights “The Black Bay Area Since World War II” alongside an essay, “High Tide, Low Ebb” by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro. The map and text tell the story of the migration of Southern African Americans to the Bay Area during World War II to fill the explosion of jobs in the ship-building industry. When the jobs left, many of the families remained. Jelly-Schapiro explains how “Dock of the Bay” fits into this tale:
Even Redding’s own perch [where he began writing “Dock of the Bay”], on a houseboat moored on mudflats at Sausalito’s north end, had been the site of a major wartime shipyard … [which] was dismantled as soon as the war was over – but it left behind, just across Highway 101, the housing projects that had been built for the wartime work force. Many of the now unemployed African American shipyard workers were unable to find other housing, and the projects became an island of impoverished blackness is the sea of white affluence that is Marin County. That community, Marin City, is best known today as the teenage home of rapped Tupac Shakur.