First published – 14 July 2020
Mr Prater and Mr Moore met in 1961 in Florida. They were both singers who liked gospel and who also used to sing in some of the clubs in and around Miami. One night they decided to team up and thus the duo of Sam and Dave was created.
By chance Steve Alaimo, a Soul singer and record producer, was on the same bill and immediately signed them to Marlin Records. They quickly moved on to sign for Roulette Records in New York and then, two years later, they came to the attention of Jerry Wexler, who signed them to Atlantic Records. Wexler liked the gospel flavour of Sam & Dave’s singing, the call and response, the energy of their stage act. He wanted to get that Southern Soul feel, so he sent the duo to Stax Records to record, although they remained Atlantic artists. A good decision!
At Stax, Sam & Dave worked firstly with Jim Stewart as producer and engineer, whilst Steve Cropper lent a hand with song-writing. They then switched to working with Isaac Hayes and David Porter, who produced their first hit single “You Don’t Know Like I Know”. Of course, the backing group was Booker T & the MGs, with the Mar-Keys horn section. As a set-up, it was perfect and it is no surprise that some classic Memphis Soul hits soon followed.
“Hold On, I’m Comin’” was released in March 1966 and became a huge hit for Sam & Dave, topping the R&B charts. Billboard chose it as the best R&B song of that year and in 1988, Rolling Stone magazine included it in their list of the best 100 songs of the last twenty years. Finally, in 1995, “Hold On, I’m Comin’” received gold certification for sales of one million copies, a mere 29 years after its release. The single was followed by an album, released in April 1966, which went to number one, spending nineteen weeks in the charts.
Stax founder Jim Stewart was largely responsible for the creation of the Memphis Sound. He set Stax up, brought in the musicians and led the sound engineering. He recorded whole performances live in a single take and yet achieved good separation of the various voices and instruments. Hayes and Porter, an excellent song-writing and production team, developed the gospel feel that had initially attracted Jerry Wexler, ensuring that the call and response of the two singers fitted perfectly. Reversing the usual order, they suggested that Sam take the lead and Dave took the response. Magic doesn’t happen by accident.
Over the next two years eight more singles were released, all making the top twenty of the R&B charts. The first of these was “When Something is Wrong With My Baby,” a ballad, released in January 1967. Dave sang the first verse solo this time. The song is not a typical Sam & Dave number, but the quality of the harmonies suggests that they should maybe have explored this style more often.
Later in the year “Soul Man” was released. It went to number 1 on both the Billboard Hot R&B chart and the Cash Box Top 100 listing and to number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Sam & Dave won the Grammy Award in 1967 for “Best Performance – Rhythm & Blues Group“ for “Soul Man” and the song was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. It was Sam & Dave’s first gold record. In 2019, “Soul Man” was added to the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
According to co-writer Isaac Hayes, the title was inspired by news reports of soul pride that emerged after the 1967 race riots, where the word “soul” was painted on shop doors as a message for looters to leave the shop intact.
Sam & Dave’s third Stax LP, “Soul Men”, was released in October 1967. The musicologist Rob Bowman considers the album “One of the greatest soul music albums of all time”.
The distribution agreement between Stax and Atlantic Records came to an end in May 1968, so “I Thank You”, a gospel-inspired single, was Sam & Dave’s final release on Stax. They continued to work at Stax with Hayes and Porter, but subsequent recordings were released on Atlantic Records. “I Thank You” sold over one million copies, earning it gold record status.
Phil Walden, Otis Redding’s manager, said “I think Sam & Dave will probably stand the test of time as being the best live act that there ever was. Those guys were absolutely unbelievable. Every night they were awesome.” They also ensured that the term Soul Music and the town of Memphis were and still are inextricably linked.
Photo 1: Stax Publicity Photo 1967 (Wikimedia Commons)
Photo 2: Atlantic Records Publicity Photo 1968 (Wikimedia Commons)