In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
As of right now, it’s happened six times. A popular recording artist has died young in some shocking, out-of-nowhere way. And we, as a public, have mourned by taking a song from that artist and pushing it to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. It’s a peculiar form of public mourning, honoring a departed artist by buying and playing a song from that artist as often as possible.
Three of those deaths were murders. Two were plane crashes. Just one, Janis Joplin’s heroin overdose, was a result of some long-festering disease. The oldest of those posthumously chart-topping artists, John Lennon, was 40 when he died. The youngest, XXXTentacion, was 20. In all but two of those cases, those posthumous #1 singles have been the first times that the artists in question topped the charts. And in every last one of the cases, the songs have taken on whole new meanings after their creators died.
On a December night in 1967, Otis Redding was flying in his own small private plane from Cleveland, where he’d just performed, to Madison, where he was slated to appear next. It was a rainy, foggy night, and Redding shouldn’t have flown, but he wanted to make it to that next show. Four miles away from the Madison airport where Redding’s plane was supposed to land, the plane crashed into Wisconsin’s Lake Monona. Seven people died in that crash, including Redding and four members of the great Stax Records band the Bar-Kays. (Bar-Kays trumpeter Ben Cauley, the crash’s only survivor, held onto a seat cushion and managed to stay afloat.) Redding was 26 when he died.
Otis Redding never really became a crossover star in his lifetime. His singles always did well on R&B radio, but his highest-charting single on the Hot 100, 1965’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” peaked at #21. Aretha Franklin got to #1 with 1967’s “Respect,” a cover of a song that Redding had written and recorded two years earlier, but Redding would be the first to admit that “Respect” wasn’t really his anymore after Franklin had gotten done with it.
But by the time he died, Redding’s career was changing. A few months before his death, he melted the brains of thousands of white hippies, headlining the Monterey Pop Festival alongside Jimi Hendrix and the Who. And inspired by Bob Dylan and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, he was hoping to switch his sound up, to come up with something more layered than the hard Southern soul on which he’d made his name.
If Redding hadn’t died, there’s a good chance that we never would’ve heard the version of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” that went to #1 in 1968. Redding recorded the song as little as three days before he died, and the song wasn’t yet finished. It might’ve had backing vocals from the Staples Singers. It might’ve had a whole new arrangement. It might not have had that famous whistling outro, which Redding ad-libbed when he either disregarded or forgot the vocal rap that was supposed to end the song. Instead, Booker T & The MG’s guitarist Steve Cropper, who produced the song and who co-wrote it with Redding, simply added the seagull-squawking sound effects, and Stax released it as it was. (Stax boss Jim Stewart didn’t like the song and thought it might hurt Stax’s reputation as a source for soul music, so if Redding hadn’t died, we might’ve never heard it at all.)
Redding started to write “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” while he was staying on a houseboat that he’d borrowed from the San Francisco rock promoter Bill Graham while he was playing a week-long stand at Graham’s Fillmore. He only wrote the first verse, the one about watching the ships roll in. Cropper wrote the rest of the lyrics, and he wrote them about Redding. But I think the song resonated the way it did because of reasons that go beyond Redding’s death or the specific conditions that Cropper was writing about. It’s a deeply soul-weary song about moving all the way across the country, trying to change your situation, and just finding yourself completely alone. If anything, it’s only gained in resonance since its release, as people from the younger generations have had to do that more and more often.
For a while, I thought there was something messed up about how Redding, arguably the greatest hard-soul rasper of all time, only hit #1 with a song where he abandoned that gospel-grown style and went for a soft and tender croon instead. But that’s the direction that Redding wanted for his new music. He’d had surgery to remove throat polyps shortly before he recorded the song, and he was in the process of changing up his singing style, making it into something more sustainable. And if anything, the understated style he uses on the song is even more expressive than his full-throated howl. On that song, his voice is lithe and ruminative, and it submits to the melody rather than dominating it. Meanwhile, the song itself is full of sharp little musical touches: The humid bassline, the liquid Cropper guitar chimes, the perfectly-timed bursts of horn. It’s a quiet miracle of a song.
We can only guess at what might’ve happened if Redding hadn’t died. But if this was the direction he was pushing in, he could’ve just cranked out one masterpiece after another. He’d clearly come to a new understanding of his own unbelievably powerful voice, and he was pushing it in new directions. It’s a genuine tragedy that we never got to hear where he was going with it. But at least we got this song.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Pearl Jam, with Steve Cropper guesting, covering “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” in Tennessee in 1994, a recording of which was all over alt-rock radio when I was in high school:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s De La Soul rapping over the “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” whistling outro on their 1989 single “Eye Know”: