It may not quite rank as the greatest commercial mistake of all time – Decca turning down the Beatles takes the title – but the coolest and most influential record label, Stax, knocking back Aretha Franklin for 10-year-old Lena Zavaroni is right up there.

It was in 1974 and the Memphis-based label was in its death throes, with songs like (Sittin’ On_ The Dock Of The Bay – which celebrates the 52nd anniversary of its release this week – a thing of the past. Indeed, death had been its constant backbeat. Stax didn’t just lose what was left of its soul signing Zavaroni and putting out her risible album Ma He’s Makin’ Eyes At Me, but also its commercial pulse as its R’n’B following walked away.

This had been the home of WiIson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd, house band Booker T & The MGs and, pre-eminently, Otis Redding. Taking on Zavaroni, in a desperate attempt at mainstream success, seemed to defile its past. Zavaroni, from Rothesay, died at the shockingly-young age of 35 after a troubled life of depression and anorexia. But it was the death of Redding, aged 26, a former oil well driller from Macon, Georgia in 1967, in a plane crashing into a freezing lake in Wisconsin, which set Stax on its way to inevitable bankruptcy eight years later.

In 1989, the Southside Church of God in Christ, in another sullying of Memphis heritage, tore down the original Stax studio at 926 E McLemore Avenue. The sole survivor of the Redding plane crash, Ben Cauley, played a requiem on his trumpet as the bulldozers tore it apart.

Five teenagers, Cauley’s fellow members of The Bar-Kays, Redding’s touring band, also died in the crash on Sunday, December 10, 1967. Booker T & The MGs were too busy in the studio to tour and the guitar player, Steve Cropper, was also the A&R man and record producer for the studio. The young and upcoming Bar-Kays were the tragic substitutes.

Redding had been living temporarily on a houseboat at Waldo Point Harbor in Sausalito, California and he spent time watching the ships coming and going to and from port at San Francisco. It had given him the germ of a song idea which he picked out on a cheap, bright red, battered guitar. He and Cropper then kicked it around with the guitarist adding lyrics and chords to the bridge of the song.

No-one was quite sure when this happened, apart from agreement that it was some time in the late part of November. Cropper recalls being alone with Redding in the studio and the singer saying, “Crop, get your gut-tar” as he pronounced it.

Later, it might have been the same day, the other members of the MGs took part. The bass player, Donald “Duck” Dunn, laid down the introductory, distinctive bass part, the drummer Al Jackson Jnr – the heartbeat, or metronome, of Stax – joined in and then Booker T Jones on piano. Redding and Cropper then sang the parts they wanted Memphis Horns saxophonist Andrew Love and trumpet player Wayne Jackson to copy.

On the first take Redding whistled, rather badly, at the end of the song, which was meant to be a temporary fill for Redding to add the vocals later. By the third take, with the whistling still there, the (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay session was over.

Cropper went back to the studio on Friday, December 8 to add guitar parts and remix what they had. He recalls Redding popping his head round the door saying “See you Monday”.

He had also discussed what else they could put on the track because there was something missing. The Staple Singers were due to come into the studio and Cropper suggested using them. Redding thought it was a great idea and said that he planned to be there for that session. If he had been if would have been a completely different record. Two days later he was dead.

Someone’s tragic demise is a massive profit opportunity for another. Stax, and sister label Volt (which would put out the single) had a distribution deal with Atlantic. On the day after Redding’s death, Atlantic boss Jerry Wexler called, demanding to know what they had of Redding’s which could be put out immediately.

There was nothing so the next day, Tuesday, at 7.30am, Cropper went back into the studio and worked for 24 hours on the track.“One of the hardest things I ever had to do was mix that song,” Cropper said years later.

There was no time for background vocals but Cropper recalled Redding clowning about in the studio trying to make seagull sounds but he “sounded like a dying crow”. But the idea stuck. He went to a local jingle company and got a tape loop of seagulls cawing which he added to the mix. Next morning, without sleep, he went to the airport and “went out on the tarmac and a stewardess came down to the bottom of the steps and I handed her that master”.

The track was released on January 8, 1968, 52 years ago. It went to number one in the US – the first posthumous chart-topper – and to number three in the UK. It has sold more than two million records.

Ben Cauley died in 2015 but Steve Cropper is alive, aged 79. The Dock Of The Bay will surely live forever.

Stax of hits

Respect, I’ve Been Loving You Too Long, Knock On Wood, In The Midnight Hour, Hold On I’m Coming and, of course (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay … Booker T & The MGs played on them all, and countless more.

It all began on a hot summer’s afternoon in 1962 with four session musicians playing about in the Stax studio, out of which came the instrumental Green Onions and the formation of the band.

The drummer, arguably the most influential in popular music, was Al Jackson Jr, who became the backbeat of the Stax sound. He was also a songwriter and record producer, but he had a violent personal life.

In July 1975, he was shot in the chest by a bullet from a .22 pistol fired by his wife Barbara. He testified that he had followed her out of the house and assaulted her several times. Back inside Barbara fired two shots, one to warn him, the second into his chest.

After being hit Jackson took the gun from her and hit her again. He then retrieved a .38 pistol and shot it into the floor, later saying it was to relieve frustration, that he wanted to kill his wife but couldn’t do it.

He refused to press charges and the case against Barbara was dismissed,

There had been a history of trouble between them, and both had separately filed for divorce then reconciled. But Jackson was now going to move out, renting an apartment in East Memphis from the beginning of October.

Just after midnight on October 1, a police sergeant driving past the house found Barbara Jackson on the pavement, screaming and crying, her hands tied behind her back. Inside the house Al Jackson was face down on the floor dead, shot five times in the back. The pulse of the Memphis Sound was no more. As a police statement rather obviously put it: “Whoever killed him really wanted him dead.”

Barbara witnessed the killing, tied to a chair by an iron cord. It was a burglary, she claimed, by a young black man with an Afro haircut. Some jewellery was taken, and Al’s pockets were emptied, but the police, certainly then, suspected it cover for an ordered killing. Barbara was suspected, as was an unnamed black police officer whose car passers-by had seen in the driveway that evening. But he passed a polygraph test and that was enough to clear him.

Two more suspects were a friend of Barbara’s, a blues singer called Denise LaSalle (or Jones) and her boyfriend, a man on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, Nate Doyle, whom she had harboured previously while he was on the run. As he was again when she gave her statement to police.

If Doyle did it we’ll never know – he died in an unrelated shoot-out with police in 1976. LaSalle died in 2018 and the whereabouts of Barbara and the police boyfriend, or if they are alive, isn’t known. The case remains open, the files and whatever they may reveal closed to the press and public.