Wednesday, September 24, 2008

From Sittin' On the Dock of the Bay to Cigarettes and Coffee

Otis Redding - (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay

Otis Redding - Cigarettes and Coffee

Before dying tragically at the age of 26, Otis Redding rose to prominence as one of America’s most talented and promising young soul singers. Born on September 9, 1941, Redding gained notoriety singing in his Church choir in nearby Macon, Georgia. Otis Redding’s career at Stax records started with a handshake from Jerry Wexler. After recording a session with the group The Pinetoppers, Redding took the last few minutes of studio time to record a solo track. The song “These Arms of Mine” appeared on the album “Pain in My Heart” and eventually reached #20 on the R&B charts. Before his death he released 6 more albums. The highest charting early single, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”, reached #2 on the R&B charts. Though he never charted high on the pop charts until after his death, his posthumous song “(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay” hit #1 on the pop charts and sold over one million records.

While many cite “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” as a departure from Redding’s signature sound, the framework for the track is based largely in 1966’s “The Soul Album.” Each was recorded in Memphis at the legendary Stax studios, although “Dock of the Bay” was produced posthumously by Redding’s writing partner Steve Cropper. Lyrically the soul album contains several slower more intrapersonal reflections that foreshadow the progress towards “Dock of the Bay”, but they are largely framed in reference to another person.

The album’s stand-out track, “Cigarettes and Coffee”, highlights Redding’s direct but simple lyrical style. The slow meandering bass and intermittent piano lines leave the song’s framework open for Redding’s confessional storytelling lyrics. Here he writes to a lover about the simple pleasures prolonging their time together. The genius of the lyrics lies in the simple subject matter and the earnest scene cast by Redding. Slow crescendoing horns accent Redding’s emotional dependence on the simple joy provided by his late night chats with his lover. The refrain “over cigarettes and coffee” becomes a plea, with Redding begging for help smoking a last cigarette and enjoying the early recesses of the morning.

Redding’s largest and only #1 hit “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” is a direct progression in lyrical and musical style from “Cigarettes and Coffee.” Steve Cropper’s guitar lines, so quiet they verge on ambient, serve the same function in each song as a chord change signifier. The bass line is faster in “Dock of the Bay”, incorporating the theme of movement into the rhythm of the song. In both songs the bass sets the speed of Redding’s vocal delivery.

Topically each of the songs deals with prolonging a simple moment in time in order to fully absorb the emotions associated with it. The progression from “Coffee and Cigarettes”, which was co-written by Jerry Butler, Eddie Thomas, and Jay Walker, to “Dock of The Bay”, co-authored by Steve Cropper, shows a Redding maturing to less simplistic emotional conceits. “Dock of the Bay” is all introspection, focusing on Redding’s personal drives and motivations, or lack thereof. Its spirit is undoubtedly more rebellious, possibly fueled by a recent influential meeting with Bob Dylan. While Redding still dissects a small moment in time and space to explain to his listeners just what it means to him, this time it seems mores solipsistic. Redding discounts the ability to “do what ten people tell me” and focuses on the die-hard individualism of the traveler with plenty of time to waste, another similarity to the ideas of Bob Dylan.

Where the emotions do differ, they are addressed in a similar manner. Redding frames a simple scene to expose the emotional undercurrents of an everyday situation. The progression from relationship themes to more individualistic ideas shows a strange progression of Redding as an artist. His largest pop hit is lyrically his least traditional and most individualistic. Gone are the immediate heartfelt pleas towards a lover from “Cigarettes and Coffee”. They are replaced by a different type of soul, a more progressive, folksier brand of introspection previously unseen in his work.

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