#161 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time
“(Sitting On) The Dock of the Bay" is arguably Otis Redding’s finest cut, certainly one of his most popular and thus, his defining moment in pop music history. If there were no alternate means of acquiring that song, that understated piece of sublime pie, then the simple mention of The Dock of the Bay
on any list of greatest albums would be more than warranted. But we live in an otherwise world. And the otherwise says meh.
Now, I’m not the type to rush out and shi
t on an artist like Otis Redding. Redding deserves all the praise in the world, not just for his own music but for his contributions to the whole pop music lexicon. Redding practically defined the rough-hued, country grit sound of Southern soul, a dynamo style birthed from hard-hitting beats, funky horns and raw, authoritative gospel vocals. His voice? His voice is the sound of butter melting, the sound of a running river, a voice dedicated to human emotion. You know how TNT says they know drama? Fuc
k them. Otis Redding knows drama
. Otis Redding rules.
The Dock of the Bay
is worth checking out (and important) for two reasons:
1) The aforementioned “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay" and,
2) The fact that it issued several quality single hits and b-sides that had yet to grace a Redding collection.
Problems. Let’s see. First off, nothing sounds remotely like “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay," which is not surprising since Redding died only weeks after writing it. “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay," co-written by Steve Cropper, prominently features the MGs guitarists’ leads. We literally hear what Redding sings as the mid tempo beat rolls in and away with the tide. It sounds distinctively like California, and Redding makes no attempt to hide that, crooning, “I left my home in Georgia / Heading for the ‘Frisco Bay." It’s all a short commentary on his own circumstance at the time, having just coming in to the Golden state to play the Monterey Pop Festival. Mellow, 60's hippy influenced soul without a doubt, but a startlingly effective synthesis that both musicians and music listeners quickly jumped on.
So like I said, none of the other material on the album sounds anything like that. The rest is “typical" Memphis soul, and by “typical" I mean exceptionally great (because Redding always was an exceptional artist.) It’s ostensibly new Redding material, in that most of it hadn’t been released. Which is really like saying a Best Of album from an artist you’ve never heard is new material because, hey, you ain’t done heard it sucka. In reality, all it does is draw a line between track number one, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay," and every other track. On one side you’ve got, “What may have been," followed up by, “Here’s what’s left."
Despite this, The Dock of the Bay
never ever drifts within the range of posthumous cash-in. Although three tracks were on previous Redding albums, the majority represent songs recorded in 1967, unreleased tracks made just before the subtle stylistic change of the title track. There are some quality ballads here, even after disregarding the awesome “Nobody Knows You [When You’re Down and Out]" (one of those previously released tracks, in this case on The Soul Album
.) “I Love You More Than Words Can Say" stands out in particular.
The Dock of the Bay
sports a couple nice rockers as well. “Don’t Mess With Cupid" opens up strong with another awesome Cropper riff that I’m sure got sampled at some point in history, although I’m drawing a blank. We find Redding working with Booker Jones and Al Jacobson Jr. on “Let Me Come on Home." It’s a sort of a return to the Rolling Stones influence, a combination of the classic Stax sound with a distinct heaviness. Tambourines, too.
You know, it’s weird to say, but if you removed “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay" from this album you might end up with a better album, simply running on the idea of albums being cohesive artistic statements. Content-wise, The Dock of the Bay
would obviously be dramatically hurt if the track was missing. But it would sound a lot more direct.
This is a good album simply because Redding didn’t perform a whole lot of bad music. All the tracks are sharp, some are uncommonly good even for Redding’s catalogue and one is complete epiphany. But the fact is two of the best songs on the album are from previous albums, and that noted one song is a fluke, not a fluke of talent but the last testament, the result of a tragic turn of events. The Dock of the Bay
is a wonderful album, as good a starting place for any new Redding fan as anywhere. But it’s coupled with far too many “what ifs?" and rehashes to be considered pristine.