Somewhere in the annals of albums that never were is Otis Redding’s The Dock of the Bay, and it has to be one of the most anticipated of any of them.
If this sounds curious, it’s because there actually is an album of his called The Dock of the Bay. But rather than being a proper album, it was one rushed out in the wake of Redding’s death and sudden crossover success. The new Rhino/Volt release The Dock of the Bay sessions goes back to 1967 and tries to create the album that Redding didn’t live to finish.
Let’s start with what it isn’t: this isn’t the Beatles-inspired album Redding spoke of creating. It’s not other songs he wrote on that houseboat, and it’s not as pop-oriented or as lushly-produced as the title track. Unlike the complete Whiskey-A-Go-Go box set from a few years ago, there aren’t any Rolling Stones or Beatles covers, either.
Rather, it’s another compilation, this time drawing on his final recordings. Everything here is previously released, but was largely on posthumous albums such as 1968’s The Immortal Otis Redding and 1992’s Remember Me. In this sense, the compilation works well. It shows where he was in late 1967, and a couple of times it points ahead to where he could have gone next: laid back arrangements, chugging rhythms and slight touches of psychedelica.
It opens with the title track, which even a good 50 years after it’s original release still remains compelling. Redding’s voice is fine form, and the light touches of Steve Cropper’s guitar build a laid-back, relaxed atmosphere; “I’m wasting time,” sings Redding, but it’s a song that should have marked the turning point of his career, not the high-water mark.
After his success at the Monterey Pop Festival, Redding decamped to San Francisco where he spent time living on a houseboat, writing songs and listening to the Beatles. “(Sitting On) The Dock of the Bay” came from this period, and from Redding’s desire to write something that incorporated his influence from listening to Lennon, McCartney and company. But always something of a workaholic, Redding died en route to a show in December 1967, his plane crashing in Wisconsin. He was 26.
Throughout the record’s first side, Redding’s voice goes from pleading to shouting, a whisper to a scream. “Think About It” and “Hard to Handle” are two sides of the same coin. One’s a slow-burning ballad, with the instruments mixed down low and Redding carrying the musical weight with his voice, while the other is a stomping barnburner: against a galloping rhythm and a powerful horn section, Redding brags, boasts and begs. And with “Happy Song,” he hits a comfortable medium: against a powerful groove laid down by Booker T and the MGs, he builds up the tension and works himself up a shout.
The back half of the record gets deeper into Redding’s back catalogue and pulls out some interesting deep cuts. “Champagne and Wine” has him moaning the pleading against a simple backing, with just a slight touch of horns at the chorus. Meanwhile, “Pounds and Hundreds” opens with a chiming guitar that suggests Buffalo Springfield before kicking into a double-time groove where the MGs lean into the music.
Things end on a somber note. “The sun has gone away,” sings Redding at the opening of “Gone Again,” as he sings about lost love and “Amen” has him waving a slow goodbye to his listeners, reminding them to share the love and leading them in the chorus. But on a more literal note, they both suggest Reddings sudden end, right as he was posed to become a crossover star.
Instead of this record, or something like it, Stax released The Dock of the Bay. But it was drawn up from loose odds and ends from the previous few years, not these recordings; indeed, only the title track is repeated here. Some songs had been recorded as early as July 1965, over two years previous, and while it’s solid collection, it feels like the odds and end it is.
Which, in a age of Spotify playlists and a vinyl resurgence, means a record like Dock of the Bay Sessions has a certain relevancy. It’s celebrating the 50th anniversary of a landmark single, but it’s also attempting to right a discographical oversight. If you don’t own a single Redding record, this isn’t the one to own, but it’s certainly as good a place to start as any.