Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: The Sultans Of Sweat
Every Tuesday and Thursday, former Warner Bros. Records executive and industry insider Stan Cornyn ruminates on the past, present, and future of the music business.
Sam Moore and Dave Prater became the greatest “gymnastic moves” singing act of the 1960s. The duo brought the energy and dynamic vocal style from the gospel church (“call-and-response”) to pop music.
And on stage they moved like jazz dancers on fire.
Signed early on by Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler, he felt Sam & Dave would be better recorded by Stax Records, down in Memphis, which made “Southern-sounding” records which Atlantic distributed.
In 1965, Wexler set up the deal so that Sam & Dave would not only be recorded at Stax studio, but their records would be released on the Stax label. Deal.
During those Stax years (lasting ‘til 1968), Sam & Dave got known as “Double Dynamite” for their gritty performances, both in studio and out on stage. Their most valued performances, they believed, where they’d sweat through their clothes, on stage. Then bow and stagger off-stage, leaving puddles behind.
Or as Sam once said, “Unless my body reaches a certain temperature, starts to liquefy, I just don’t feel right without it.”
Bring “soul” to white, pop, “rock” audiences became their specialty; they tied with Aretha Franklin in doing that.
From Miami to Memphis
Dave Prater and Sam Moore had started out separately in Miami, performing first at Amateur Nights. They quickly joined together with their call-and-response style.
Catching this new act one night was another Miami local, Henry Stone, a Miami-based distributor for dozens of independent labels’ releases (including Atlantic’s in Miami), small labels that lacked local distribution and warehouses. Stone, a master at payola, made deals, with radio, with stores, with acts, whatever paid cash.
After catching Sam & Dave at a local club in the summer of ’64, Stone brought the duo to Jerry Wexler’s attention at Atlantic.
The deal got made and written down. Sam & Dave once recalled “We got a signing bonus, $3,000 or $5,000. And a 3 percent royalty rate. I hadn’t seen that kind of money in my life.”
Sam & Dave’s “manager” became Willy Bo Anderson. As Henry Stone put it, Bo was “fast on his feet. He could think fast. He talked fast. And he had two goatees, and he smelled like a rat. He was a big pop-eye. And he dressed well: stingy brim hat and size five shoe. Nice diamond stickpin. Like a gigolo; like a pimp. Like Iceberg Slim.”
Sam & Dave dealt 10% of Atlantic’s signing bonus to Bo, then fired him. Atlantic’s local man in Miami, after getting a call from Wexler, told Sam & Dave they needed to get to Memphis, where they’d be recording. He gave them two bus tickets up.
Why Memphis? Sam & Dave didn’t really care for rock’n’roll or even soul. Gospel was their thing.
But Wexler wanted to preserve Sam & Dave’s Southern gospel style, and the best church he knew of was the Memphis Stax auditorium.
Soon, Stax Records moved Sam & Dave’s paternal A&R care to Isaac Hayes and lyricist David Porter. They focused S&D’s gospel vigor, with its call-and-response vocals and beat, styles Sam & Dave adopted for the rest of their career(s).
Having Hayes and Porter in the booth was, for Atlantic, a strong blessing, and Hayes and Porter became for Atlantic the Sixties’ version of what Leiber and Stoller had been in the Fifties. Hits just started happening.
If you’ve got a minute now, here’s Dave Prater’s recollection of meeting Isaac Hayes for the first time: “Here came a man down the street. He wore a pair of white straw loafers, pink socks, chartreuse green pants, and a yellow flowered shirt. The pants were high waters – you could see the pink socks more than you could see the pants. My eyes came up and then I saw his head – he was bald, man! And couldn’t have been more than about twenty years old. I ain’t never seen anything like that in my life!”
OK, back to making records, with Isaac Hayes leading the way, and David Porter in the booth.
At Stax, 1966-1968
At Stax, Sam & Dave’s voices made hits (Sam’s sweet tenor, over Dave’s preacher-sounding baritone, and together, the sound of hellfire). That fire stoked by the Stax house band (Booker T. & the M.G,’s) and the horn section (The Mar-Keys), back ups by the same bands who’d recorded Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Carla Thomas…
Recording live, like Stax’ big studio was like Sunday in church: you get one take, and mix it on the fly.
Their first hit was “You Don’t Know Like I Know” in 1966. The song came from Isaac Hayes, and is based on a church song, “You Don’t Know Like I Know What the Lord Has Done for Me.” Hayes described this resource simply: “a lot of ideas and titles came from the church,” and put it this way: “ I thought if the Lord can make you feel good and do things for you, why can’t a woman do the same things, too.”
“Hold On, I’m Comin’” in March 1966. In the studio, they were all waiting to record, overdue, so they banged the door to get Prater out of the men’s room. He yelled back, “Hold on, I’m comin’.” They wrote the song in ten minutes. Sam took the first chorus, then the deeper-voiced Dave responded with the second verse; it was a style that worked for Sam & Dave on single after single.
Radio stations objected to the song’s title. “Suggestive,” they complained, so they re-recorded with the phrase and label copy changed to “Hold On, I’m-a Comin’.” A-comin’ was inoffensive, and comin’ was, oh, you know.
This fixed one went #1, and stayed up on the album charts, too.
Oh don’t you ever,
Oh do’nt you ever, be sad,
I want you to lean on me, when times get bad,
When the day comes, and I know you been around,
In a river ‘o trouble, you you you you about to drown
Hold on I'm coming
Hold on cause I'm coming
Hold on cause I'm coming
Hold on I'm coming
(Just hold on baby)
Hold on, I'm coming (here I come)
Hold on, I'm coming (take my hand)
Hold on, (don’t you ever) I'm coming (here I come)
“Hold On, I’m a-Comin’” became the biggest hit Stax had ever had, and nearly the biggest for Atlantic.
Then, get this, ten consecutive Top Twenties on the R&B charts:
“When Something Is Wrong with My Baby,” a ballad which the Mar-Keys’ trumpet player Wayne Jackson called “the greatest song I ever heard.”
When something is wrong with my bab-ay (sho' nuff)
Something is wrong with me
Now, say it again
When something is wrong with my baby
Something is wrong with me
Oh hey, yeah.
Lyrics by David Porter, who confessed he wrote the song while married to a girl he’d gotten pregnant when they both were in high school. Interviewed by Rob Bowman, Porter recalled, “I was quiet honestly miserable with her. There was no love there. I was in bed one night feeling miserable. Big house and big car but I’m not in love.” Porter got out of bed at two in the morning, went downstairs, and wrote the whole song. The next morning, he called his partner, Isaac Hayes, and sang it to him over the phone. He felt a bit better, and told Isaac, “Man, we got a smash.”
And more 1966: “Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody” and “You Got Me Hummin’.”
Sam & Dave were killers on stage. Writer Jerri Hershey described it this way: “They carried red suits, white suits, three-piece lime green suits, all with matching patent boots and coordinated silk hankies woefully inadequate to absorb a soul man’s nightly outpourings.”
1967: The Stax/Volt Tour
While Sam & Dave stayed busy recording, their label decided to include them in a Stax Revue tour of Europe, along with Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MG’s, Carla Thomas... For Sam & Dave, this choice felt like “we’re superstars now.”
In March-April, they experienced amazing cities. Paris and London compared favorably to Memphis and even Miami.
Sam & Dave personally called this Europe tour “Hit the Road, Stax.”
On stage, Sam & Dave performed six: “You Don’t Know Like I Know,” “Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody,” “Hold On! I’m Comin’,” “You Got Me Hummin’,” “When Something Is Wrong with My Baby,” and “Soothe Me.”
Tour organizer Phil Walden recalled, “I think Sam and Dave probably will stand the test of time as being the best live act there ever was. Every night was awesome.”
Mar-Keys trumpeter Wayne Jackson described it more fully: “Every night you would feel sorry for Otis” (who followed Sam & Dave). “They’d taken the audience to heaven and back.
“They would jump out in the audience and just go crazy like they were having a fit, and then jump back onstage and faint. They’d have to carry Dave off like he was dead, and then they would carry him back on like he was resurrected.
“By the time that was over with, all the wax on the floor was gone, burnt up. Otis would be standing there in the corner, praying.”
1968: From Stax to Atlantic
Atlantic’s distribution agreement with Stax would end in May of ’68. But for 1968’s first five months, singles came out like glands on fire:
“I Thank You” backed with “Wrap It Up,” which became a hit on both the R&B (#4) and Pop (#9) charts. Over a million sold. Sam & Dave were touring, even to Europe now.
Their “Soul Men” album in 1967, on Stax, includes their singular single, “Soul Man.”
Comin' to you on a dust road
Good lovin', I got a truck load
And when you get it, you got something
So don't worry, 'cause I'm coming
I'm a soul man, I'm a soul man
I'm a soul man, I'm a soul man, I've got it all
“Soul Man” emerged in 1967 with the new black viewpoint: “Black Is Beautiful.” It became an anthem for black America.
Then, the Atlantic-Stax deal expired, Sam and Dave were moved over onto the Atlantic label:
“You Don’t Know What You Mean to Me,” which Sam & Dave called “our favorite” of all.
Then “Can’t You Find Another Way (of Doing It)” and “Everybody Got to Believe in Somebody.” Their 1968 sum up album (their fourth) was named I Thank You.
By now, the duo’d become Main Street America famous. Time magazine wrote, “Of all the R&B cats, nobody steams up a place like Sam & Dave. …Weaving and dancing (while singing!) they gyrate through enough acrobatics to wear out more than 100 costumes per year.”
But away from Stax, their hits slowed down. 1969 did bring “Soul Sister, Brown Sugar.” On Atlantic. But then, it all felt quiet.
Sam Versus Dave
As their recordings for the Atlantic label weakened, so did the team-spirit of Sam (Moore) and Dave (Prater). Their partnership continued for 21 years, but for the last 13 of those years, they never spoke to each other off-stage.
They would show up for show separately, insist on separate dressing rooms, wouldn’t look at each other onstage.
Prater died in a car accident in Sycamore, George, on April 9, 1988, driving to his mother’s home.
Sam Moore then traveled the world as a solo Soul Man.
“Call and Response” gospel singers had moved, higher and deeper.
-- Stay Tuned