BY JIM D’VILLE | FROM THE SUMMER 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE
The great R&B singer Otis Redding had only one Billboard #1 pop hit: “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay.” Sadly, Redding was killed in a private plane crash just weeks after recording the song, in December 1967. Redding began writing “Dock of the Bay” while staying on a rented houseboat in Sausalito, California, on San Francisco Bay, in August of that year. Later, he finished the song, collaborating with Stax Records producer and session guitarist Steve Cropper in Memphis.
“Dock of the Bay” is in the bright key of G major, a tonality that is somewhat at odds with its weary lyrics. The verse kicks off on the I chord, G. One of the most memorable aspects of the song is the second chord, the III (B). In a major key, the iii chord is minor, but in the case of “Dock of the Bay,” where it is stated as major, it seems to almost jump into your ears.
Another interesting feature of the song’s progression is that all of the chords are major, rather than the usual mix of major and minor.
After the I–III change, the progression moves up a half step, to the IV chord (C). The progression then slides neatly down to the III (B) and the bIII (Bb), before settling in on the II (A). That II is another interesting choice, as in a major key, the ii (in this case, Am) is usually expressed as minor. The chords go by quickly here—see the main strumming pattern for their exact placement.
In the chorus, our ears are treated to more unexpected harmonic colors through a I–VI progression (G–E). As with the III and II chords, the VI (E) here is played as major, rather than minor, as it diatonically (within the key) occurs in the key of G major. It isn’t until the bridge that “Dock of the Bay” includes a common chord progression, the I–V–IV–I (G–D–C–G), played three times. The section ends with another chord from outside of the key of G, the bVII (F) and ends on the triumphant V chord (D).
The outro to “Dock of the Bay” incorporates Redding’s famous whistled part, over the I and VI chords introduced in the chorus. Legend has it that Redding originally intended to do a spoken-word fadeout, but—having forgotten what he was going to say—chose to whistle instead.
As shown in the notation in the print edition of this article, this part translates quite nicely to the ukulele—try it for yourself!
Due to copyright restrictions, we are unable to post notation or tablature for this musical work. If you have a digital or physical copy of the Summer 2021 issue of Ukulele magazine, you will find the music on page 43.