It’s widely known that Otis Redding wrote his signature song, “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” on a Sausalito houseboat, but which one? Conflicting accounts by two historians have fueled a mini-controversy on the docks. On the one hand, Derek Van Loan presents what he calls an eyewitness account in his book “Sausalito Waterfront Stories”:
In 1967 Otis Redding and his band and road crew were driving past the Heliport on U.S. 101 in a couple of dusty old black limos. The aged Cadillacs were so loaded with musicians, roadies and equipment that they’d scrape bottom on a shadow across the highway. Otis and his band were fed up with touring; they’ d been on the road for months. For them life had become an uninspiring series of bland motels. And now they faced additional months of bookings in San Francisco.
As he drove, Otis just happened to look over and spot three large letters in the band practice room windows above the airplane hangars: “LSD farout!”
Otis said, “Let’s go there.” And that’s how Otis Redding and his band came to live on a houseboat behind the Marin County heliport.
It was a long, gray spring that year, and the houseboat they rented did little to dispel the damp, gloomy atmosphere that pervaded everything around them. A big commuter helicopter landed and took off throughout the day, marking the hours. The tang of jet fuel in the chilly air mingled with the muffled cacophony of several acid-rock bands jamming simultaneously in practice rooms at the head of the dock.
At the other end of the dock lay a sunken bay freight boat, a relic of the 1920s and the time before modern paved roads connected the delta cities around San Francisco Bay. The tired hull of the old vessel reclined in the mud, the salt tides washing in and out through her wooden bones. She was dark green, with flecks of white showing beneath her paint, which had cracked and flaked in the sun and salt air. The main deck was covered by a huge deckhouse and above that, on the upper deck, was a neat glassed-in cabin, surmounted by a traditional pilothouse. The tall, skinny smokestack now served as a steel fireplace below. The signboard across the front of the pilothouse proclaimed “South Shore” in genuine gold-leaf letters. Aboard the old “South Shore” lived a collection of people, and some of them got to know Otis. It wasn’t long before Otis developed the habit of leaving his shiny, modern houseboat after he got up in the mid-morning to saunter down to the old South Shore. And there he’d sit on the back deck in a creaky wicker chair and stare out over the bay as the saltwater ebbed and flowed across the mud flats.
And, of course, as we all know, the song “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” tells the rest.
But longtime S.F. Chronicle music critic Joel Selvin tells the story somewhat differently in the following excerpt from his book “San Francisco: The Musical History Tour”:
The dock of the bay, Main Dock,
Waldo Point Harbor, Sausalito
In August 1967, Otis Redding played a six-night engagement at San Francisco’s Basin Street West. When some female fans discovered his hotel room, Redding decided to move to a more remote location, according to road manager Earl “Speedo” Sims. They rented a houseboat on the main dock of the Sausalito houseboat community and holed up.
Sitting not actually on the dock, but inside the houseboat’s living room, Redding, under the spell of the Beatles’ recently released “Sergeant Pepper” album, strummed guitar, while Speedo slapped the tempo on his legs, sketching out a song. On his return to Memphis, Redding underwent surgery to remove polyps from his throat and for some time couldn’t speak above a whisper.
When he finally returned to the studio in November, he was taken with a burst of creative energy, and recorded more than two dozen new songs in a few weeks. The last song he cut was that piece that had begun to take shape on the Sausalito houseboat: “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay.”
The next day, he left for a Midwest swing starting in Cleveland. He left Cleveland for Madison, Wis., but never arrived. His twin-engine Beechcraft crashed into the chilly waters of Lake Monona, just short of his destination. When “The Dock of the Bay” was released in January, the record became the first No. 1 hit of his too-brief career.
The Sausalito Historical Society is attempting to resolve this controversy, in cooperation with the Marin History Museum’s upcoming “Marin Rocks” exhibition. If anyone can shed any light on the matter, or knows of any photographs of Otis Redding on a houseboat, contact Larry Clinton at firstname.lastname@example.org.