Otis Redding died in a plane crash near Madison, Wisconsin just three days after overdubs of “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” were recorded. Co-writer and producer Steve Cropper completed production, and it was released a month after Redding’s death. It became his only number one song, and the first-ever song to reach the top of the charts posthumously.
Redding had indeed “left his home in Georgia heading for the Frisco Bay.” He lived in a houseboat in Sausalito, California, where he’d “listen to the ships come in, and then watch them roll away again.” Guitarist Steve Cropper of Booker T & The MG’s (the house band for Memphis label Stax Records) helped flesh out the lyrics. The result was a song completely different from Redding’s body of work, and gave a hint of what could have been as the artist expanded into a more pop-based sound.
The story goes that Redding and Cropper didn’t have a last verse of the song, so Otis whistled it until they could fill it in at a later date. The plane crashed ruined that plan, but Cropper felt the whistling fit the mood of the song perfectly, and left it in.
“(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” won the Grammy for Best R&B song and Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. BMI marked it as the sixth-most-recorded song of the 20th century. And in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, it was ranked number 28.