The Dock of the Bay Sessions attempts to construct the LP Redding was working on before his untimely death
50 years after his passing, Otis Redding is still regarded as one of the finest soul singers in history. When his plane went down in December of 1967, he was working on an album that would stretch the boundaries of what soul music could be. Although we will never know for sure what that album would’ve sounded like, The Dock of the Bay Sessions, a new set from Rhino Records, is the closest we’ll ever get.
The dozen tracks on this release have all been issued before, and Redding devotees should be familiar with most of them. Yet, this marks the first time that all of Redding’s final recordings are together in one place, giving us more clear idea of where the singer was heading.
“(Sitting On) The Dock of the Bay” was something entirely different. Opening with the sound of the sea and an acoustic guitar, the track is surprisingly sparse. Even Redding himself seems far away, as if he’d already been whisked away in anticipation of the tragedy that would befall him. Guitarist Steve Cropper provides guitar licks that seem to float in the air, like the birds going by.
Yet, “Dock of the Bay” wasn’t the only trailblazing track that Redding was working on. There’s a surprising amount of upbeat songs all featuring a deep groove. The extremely funky, horn-laden “Hard to Handle” was a huge leap creatively. The Stax backing musicians lay down a groove that the Black Crowes only hinted at in their hit remake.
Featuring loud drums and autobiographical lyrics, “Love Man” was one of the hardest things Redding ever laid to tape. He was always at his best playing the role of pleading lover and “Think About It” is spine-tingling good.
Redding was known for his stellar ballads (“I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and “Try a Little Tenderness” are just two examples), yet “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember” has a deep yearning quality all its own, and ranks as one of his finest performances.
“I’m a Changed Man” is another standout. The descending opening lines have a sinister quality while Redding seems possessed in the chorus as he spontaneously spouts the nonsensical “ya ya ya ya ya.”
Redding’s previous albums featured originals interspersed with covers. Here, the emphasis is squarely on his own compositions and it shows tremendous growth – from the gritty “Direct Me” to desperate “Gone Again.”
The disc closes with a gospel-infused rendition of “Amen,” which features pieces of “This Little Light of Mine” as well, ending things on a spiritual note.
After Redding’s passing, “(Sitting On) The Dock of the Bay” shot up the charts in early 1968, giving the singer his first number one, and the crossover pop success that he should’ve received during his lifetime. What should’ve been the beginning of a new direction, ended up being the final word from one of the finest vocalists of our time. –Tony Peters