Recording Dates: November 22 and December 7, 1967
Credits: Otis Redding (vocals); Steve Cropper (guitar); Donald “Duck” Dunn (bass); Al Jackson (drums); Booker T. (piano); Wayne Jackson (brass)
Backstory: In the fall of 1967, soul singer Otis Redding was staying on his friend’s houseboat in Sausalito, California, just outside San Francisco. At 26, he was “the Crown Prince of Soul” — a former well driller who got his start after winning 15 consecutive Sunday night talent shows back home in Macon, Georgia. He’d been picked up by Stax sister label Volt in 1962, and released a stream of R&B hits — Mr. Pitiful, I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now), Respect, — and was now finally crossing over to the mainstream, due in no small part to an incredible appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival that previous June. So in San Francisco he took a little time to sit on the water, watching the ferries come in and out of the bay, when a few lyrics came to him. “Sittin’ in the mornin’ sun,” he wrote. “I’ll be sittin’ when the evenin’ come/Watching the ships roll in/And then I watch ’em roll away again.” Otis knew right away it would be a hit.
When he flew back to Memphis in November, before he even hit the Holiday Inn, he called his producer and frequent collaborator Steve Cropper, the guitarist of house band Booker T. and the MGs. “Crop,” he said. “I’ve got a hit. I’m coming right over.” They fleshed out the lyrics and booked a studio, and before long they were putting the final touches on the song. Otis wanted one more verse, so Cropper added a few bars at the end. “When the time came, Otis couldn’t think of anything and started whistling,” he later recalled to the Wall Street Journal. Otis didn’t have a chance to come up with any extra verses, though — he took off that weekend for a string of shows in the Midwest when his private plane went down in Lake Monoa. He wasn’t around to see his first number one hit on the “white” pop charts.
Added Scenery: As the band was recording, Otis, forever a joker, started doing some seagull impressions to go along with the song. “When we were in the studio in the outtakes and just working the song,” Cropper later said, “Otis was making all these ‘ca-ca-ca’ — you know, making these funny sounds.” When Cropper was finishing up the song, he called on a friend in sound effects to help him out. “I wanted to enhance the bay image,” he said. “Sort of like a secret message to Otis.”