Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about music and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the movie urban legends featured so far.
MUSIC URBAN LEGEND: “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” ended with whistling because Otis Redding died before finishing the final verse.
“(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” was by far Otis Redding’s biggest hit recorded by himself.
Tragically, he did not live to see it become a great success, as he died in a plane crash before the song was released.
Reader Jay wrote in with an interesting legend regarding the song that he wanted me to verify or debunk:
I heard a tale that Otis Redding’s Sitting on the Dock of the Bay ending was done with him whistling because he died before it was finished. He went to his label and didn’t have an instrument and whistled the tune while being recorded to give the example of the song. They finished the song from that recording so the story goes.
Is that true? Let’s find out!
Like most legends, there is enough truth mixed into the story that you can easily see how the story slowly morphed into the version that Jay heard.
Redding liked to ad lib at the end of his songs. This is probably most famously shown in his amazing 1966 single, “Try a Little Tenderness,” where he ends the song with a series of ad libs (the show was a staple of his live performances, and he could stretch the end out veeery long).
Steve Cropper, who played guitar on the song as well as produce the track, recalled to Wall Street Journal about the end of “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”:
Otis always liked to ad-lib at the end of songs, so I added in about 10 measures of instrumental background for him to do so. But when the time came, Otis couldn’t think of anything and started whistling, which, of course, made the song.
On the first take, the whistling sure does sound impromptu…
Stax Records’ Al Bell, however, insisted that Redding always intended to end the song with a whistling riff.
Whatever Redding’s INITIAL intent was, however, it was clear that the whistling was quickly agreed on for the song, as there were three takes of the song and they all ended with Redding whistling. Redding even did some overdub work on the song just a couple of days before his tragic death and he didn’t change anything, whistling-wise.
So no, there was no final verse and it is unlikely that Redding intended to add in ad libs later, either.
Fascinatingly enough, when Cropper put together the final mix of the song after Redding’s death, he replaced Redding’s whistling entirely! The whistling on the final tune is done by Sam “Bluzman” Taylor (Cropper also added in the beach sound effects to the song).
So while there is a lot of truth behind the story, ultimately I think it is fair to say that the legend is…
Thanks for the suggestion, Jay!
Everyone else, feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future urban legends columns! My e-mail address is email@example.com