The recent 50th anniversary of “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” hitting No. 1 did little to reinforce the hit’s most devastating bit of trivia — that the artist who sang and composed it had died months earlier in a plane crash. In fact, Otis Redding’s final vocal overdubs were completed only three days before the tragedy.
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Such anniversaries aren’t lost on record labels, though, and the reissue kings at Rhino Records came up with the idea of honoring the hit status of Redding’s most enduring hit (as well as his only chart-topping single and pop music’s first posthumously issued No. 1 tune) with a collection that gathered works recorded during the singer’s last days. The result is a single disc set aptly titled “Dock of the Bay Sessions.”
While the title is technically accurate, there is no way of knowing whether the 12 previously-released songs making up this collection were, in fact, the ones Redding and the production team at Stax Records were envisioning as the singer’s seventh studio album. The 1968 Stax release “Dock of the Bay” certainly wasn’t. It relied on B-side tracks from as far back as 1965 to fill it out.
But in listening to the “Sessions” tunes straight through, what does emerge is a portrait of a singer in transition. An electrifying performer with an earthquake voice, Redding exuded a more relaxed and conversational soul stance on most of these recordings.
Obviously, “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” embodies that feel. But the compilation starts to sparkle when the familiarity fades. “Think About It,” for instance, is as full of strife as “Dock of the Bay” is of leisurely reflection. But the vocal performance, a ballet of elegant torment, is equally reserved. Also, the exquisite horn arrangement that enters unassumingly reaffirms that we are again witness to the golden age of Memphis soul.
The same holds true for “Champagne and Wine,” where the temperament heats up slightly. The Stax horns and rhythm section hold steady, though, to a sense of cool even as Redding works his way to a slow boil.
There are other hits here, as well — specifically the grittier “Hard to Handle,” “I’ve Got to Dreams to Remember” and “Love Man,” all of which would maintain Redding’s visibility on the pop and soul charts through 1969. But perhaps the most revealing performance here is of the only entry on the album Redding didn’t write or co-write. On the gospel standard “Amen,” Redding testifies with regal a capella reserve, yet he can’t help but surrender to the soul soldier within him as the performance progresses and the tax players are ushered in (“Amen, with the horns now”).
Sure, there are more definitive Redding anthologies. But “Dock of the Bay Sessions” is still a sumptuous summer listen, a musical postscript from a giant yearning and learning to embrace his inner cool.