Music: God is in the Details No 8: (SITTIN' ON) THE DOCK OF THE BAY OTIS REDDING, 1967

THE INDEPENDENT'S GUIDE TO POP'S FIDDLY BITS
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
POP MELODIES are the raw material of whistlers. Nicholson Baker, in The Mezzanine, devotes a paragraph or two to the way a whistled tune can live "all day in the men's room, sustained by successive users, or remembered by a previous user as soon as he re-entered the tiled liveliness of the room." So hit songs with famous whistling bits - from "Big Noise From Winnetka" to "Sweet Pea" - are irresistible. When Roxy Music's Bryan Ferry broke into a respectful whistle at the end of "Jealous Guy", a thousand builders, delivery men and short-order cooks pursed lips in tribute to the late John Lennon.

And it's the whistling at the end of Otis Redding's "(Sittin' On) the Dock of the Bay" that elevates it to greatness, while giving it a natural, throwaway style, in which the soul legend takes on the role of a dignified loser. Like the earlier hits "Mr Pitiful" and "Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)" the song was composed by Redding with the guitarist Steve Cropper from Booker T and the MGs. "Dock of the Bay" became Redding's biggest-ever hit, selling nearly 2 million copies in the first part of 1968. Why the whistle? Cropper said: "Otis couldn't think of anything... so he started whistling." "Dock of the Bay" was one of several songs that Redding had laid down using the newish technology of four-track, which meant that his vocal was recorded cleanly on to a separate track rather than embedded in the backing.

The effortlessly simple line "Watching the ships roll in" sets up the chromatic fall accompanying "And I watch 'em roll away again." It's so simple, it seems as though anyone could have made it (though of course they couldn't) and this feeling is compounded by the understated vocal performance; he was still recovering from surgery to remove polyps from his throat. Redding never had the opportunity to add or change anything; he died three days later (on 10 December 1967), when his light aircraft crashed. Cropper completed the recording, pushing Redding's fragile lead to the front in an inspired mix that includes sea and seagull "samples", brooding horns and an emotional guitar part wrapped around the vocal.

And after two-and-a-third minutes we hit the legendary coda, little more than 20 seconds long. With its McCartneyesque bass, Redding slides into an inspired four-bar whistled phrase, which he repeats with slight variations. As the third repeat begins, the track fades to silence, leaving the hook etched in the memory.

There may be nothing more to speak about, but you want him to keep going, and in a way he does, if you know how to whistle.

Comments