Forty five years ago this week, a record was released that would become the first posthumous number-one single in American recording history, sell more than four million copies, and receive more than eight million airplays. I'm speaking of course of Otis Redding's only number one-single on the Billboard Hot 100, his classic tune "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay."
Much has been written about that song, about Otis, and about his tragic death at the age of 26 during a plane crash in my own hometown of Madison, Wis. on December 10, 1967. Even today, there's an eerie sadness that lingers by the "dock of the bay" along the shores of Lake Monona where the plane went down killing him and six others, including the pilot and all but one of the Bar-Kays, Otis's then backup band.
But what isn't as well known is the enduring popularity of "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" among Vietnam soldiers, now veterans, and the power of that song to transport, to connect, and to heal.
My colleague, UW-Madison Professor Craig Werner and I have discovered this in the process of interviewing hundreds of Vietnam veterans for our upcoming book, We Gotta Get Out of This Place: Music and the Vietnam Experience. From its release on January 8, 1968 'til today, "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" continues to hold innumerable Vietnam vets in its orbit.
Obviously, the song's melancholy lyrics have something to do with this, with references to leaving home, the "Frisco Bay" (from where thousands of GIs embarked for Vietnam), "wastin' time" and having "10 people tell me (what) to do." But the lines that most resonate for Vietnam vets are these:
This loneliness won't leave me alone . . .
'Cause I've had nothing to live for
And look like nothin's gonna come my way
Grown men still choke up when the repeat those lines, because in that repeating, in that remembering, they revisit the ache in their hearts, the loneliness they felt, and the despair that nearly overwhelmed them in Southeast Asia. It was a tumultuous and difficult time regardless, but being thousands of miles away from home and in a war zone made it almost intolerable. But what saved those soldiers in Vietnam, and continues to save them today, are songs like "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay."
Ironically, just prior to his death, Otis was strongly considering going to Vietnam himself in response to a request from U. S. Vice President Hubert Humphrey to entertain troops and boost morale, especially among black GIs. One can only imagine the reception Otis would have received if he'd made that trip.
Madison commemorated the 40th anniversary of Otis's death in 2007 with a host of events and activities. Craig and I were honored to be invited by the Wisconsin Veterans Museum to talk about the legacy of "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay." It was another cold, snowy Wisconsin evening but nearly 100 people showed up. Our hearts were buoyed by Otis's spiritual presence and, of course, by his music. And mine nearly burst when we were read a letter by Otis's widow, Zelma, who thanked us for paying tribute to her husband!
Zelma, it's we Vietnam vets who are grateful to him for helping us to try to "remain the same" why the world around us was falling apart.
Rest in peace, brother!