Friday night, I watched The Commitments in a charming little theater close to Princeton, N.J., where they featured the Irish musical comedy in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. It must have been the third or fourth time I saw the picture about a lad putting together a soul band of working class youngsters on the northside of Dublin. Apart from being pretty hilarious, the movie features great Stax-like soul music. One of my favorites is Mustang Sally.
While the tune is most closely associated with Wilson Pickett, who released it in 1966 and scored a hit, it was actually first recorded the previous year by Stax fellow artist Bonny “Mack” Rice, who also penned the song. Apart from Mustang Sally, Rice is best known for co-writing Respect Yourself with Luther Ingram. I like both the original and Pickett’s cover of Mustang Sally but have to say the added pep in the version by The Commitments kicks it up a notch for me.
Andrew Strong, who plays the band’s obnoxious lead vocalist Deco Cuffe, just has a fantastic raspy soulful voice. According to Wikipedia, all other band members acting in the movie were actually performing as well and selected because of their musical talents. The only exception was saxophonist Joey ‘The Lips’ Fagan (gotta love that name) played by Johnny Murphy.
At the end of the day, whoever was playing what you hear in the picture or on the soundtrack did a phenomenal job. Apparently, there is a still-active touring version of the band called Stars From The Commitments featuring various members from the movie’s cast.
Sam & Dave were Stax top act along with Otis Redding
With the country teetering from one crisis to the other, the news isn’t great these days, but not all is bleak. When I spotted this recent story from the Memphis Commercial Appeal, it put a smile on my face. Sam & Dave will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 61st Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on February 10, 2019. While I don’t ever need a reason to cover great music, this well-deserved honor provides a great angle to celebrate “The Dynamic Duo” that became Stax Records’ top performers in the ’60s, together with Otis Redding.
Sam Moore, born on October 12, 1935 in Miami, and Dave Prater, born on May 9, 1937 in Sycamore, Ga., met at the King of Hearts Club in Miami in 1961 while working on the gospel music circuit. At the time, they had already individually established themselves in the gospel groups The Melionaires and the Sensational Hummingbirds, respectively. They decided to team up but success didn’t come right away.
Shortly after meeting at the above Miami club, Moore and Prater got a contract with Roulette Records. They released a series of six singles that went unnoticed. In late 1964, Billboard journalist turned record company partner Jerry Wexler signed them to Atlantic Records. Moore and Prater were excited about the prospect to record at the label’s headquarters in New York or perhaps at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala. But, as the above Commercial Appeal story notes, “instead they were given two bus tickets to Memphis, home of Stax Records.”
To further quote from the article, “When Moore and Prater got off the bus, they were shocked at what they found: an integrated collection of musicians working out of a funky old studio on the city’s south side.” And I might add all of that during a time and in a place where racial segregation was still very much a reality despite the enactment of the Civil Rights Act on June 2, 1964.
Initially, Sam & Dave worked with Stax producer and engineer Jim Stewart and songwriter Steve Cropper, guitarist of Stax dynamite house band Booker T. & The M.G.s. Then they moved to Isaac Hayes and David Porter, who at the time were still relative newcomers to writing and producing music. Sam & Dave’s first two singles didn’t make the charts. But success came with the third release You Don’t Know Like I Know, a no. 7 on the R&B chart.
In April 1966, Sam & Dave released their debut album Hold On, I’m Comin’. And comin’ they did. Both the record and the title track became hugely successful. Over the next three years, Sam & Dave scored eight additional consecutive top 20 R&B chart hits. Then their luck ran out. After a series of unsuccessful singles in 1969 and early 1970, they broke up in June that year.
Each went on to record some solo singles that didn’t make an impact, and in August 1971, Sam & Dave decided to reunite, just before their contract with Atlantic expired. While they didn’t have a label, they continued to be a sought after live act. In 1975, they released a new studio album, Back At ‘Cha via United Artists. Produced by Steve Cropper and featuring the M.G.s and The Memphis Horns, the record yielded a top 100 single appropriately titled A Little Bit Of Good(Cures A Whole Lot Of Bad).
The emergence of The Blues Brothers in the late ’70s and their cover of Soul Man brought Sam & Dave back into the limelight. A series of concert appearances and two compilation albums (Soul Study Vol. 1 and Soul Study Vol. 2) followed, before The Dynamic Duo gave their last concert as a pair on new year’s eve in 1981.
Following the second and final break-up, Prater hired singer Sam Daniels to perform the Sam part and started touring under the “Sam & Dave” name or as “The New Sam & Dave Revue.” This didn’t go over well with Moore, who tried to block Prater from using the name. On April 9, 1988, Prater was killed in a car accident in Sycamore, Ga.
Since 1981, Moore has continued to tour with other famous soul artists, such as Wilson Pickett, Booker T. & The M.G.s and Carla Thomas. He has also done some recording, for example, You Must Not Be Drinkin’ Enough, together with Don Henley for his 1984 album Building The Perfect Beast. In 1986, he also re-recorded Soul Man with Lou Reed for a motion picture with the same name. In October, Moore turned 83 and still appears to be active. Let’s get to some music!
What better tune to start off this playlist than with Hold On, I’m Comin’, the title track of Sam & Dave’s debut studio album released in April 1966. The song was co-written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter. Initially, I was going to include a clip of the studio recording. Then I came again across this killer live footage. Damn’, if this doesn’t make you get up and dance or at least groove along by snipping your fingers, you’ve probably had too much eggnog or too many Christmas cookies!
In addition to Hayes and Porter, other Stax musicians were involved in writing music for Sam & Dave. One such example is If You Got The Loving, another tune from the debut album, for which Steve Cropper received a co-writing credit, along with Hayes and Porter.
Here’s Soul Man from Sam & Dave’s third studio album Soul Men, which appeared in October 1967. Another Hayes-Porter composition, Soul Man became a no. 1 single on what was then the Billboard Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles chart, nowadays known as the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs. It also peaked at no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Like for many other Stax recordings at the time, the label’s killer house band Booker T. & The M.G.s provided the instrumentation. It’s acknowledged in the second chorus with the line, I‘m a soul man, play it Steve, a reference to guitarist Steve Cropper.
Next up: Broke Down Piece Of Man, another great tune from the Soul Men album. This song was written by Cropper and Joe Shamwell, a frequent co-writer of Stax music.
In 1968, Sam & Dave released I Thank You, their fourth and final studio album prior their first official breakup. Here’s the title track
I Thank You was the title track from Sam & Dave’s fourth studio album from 1968, the final record prior to their first official breakup. Another great Hayes-Porter co-write, the tune became Sam & Dave’s last top 10 single.
Here’s another hot tune from the record: Wrap It Up, yet another co-write by Hayes and Porter. If the song sounds familiar, yet you haven’t heard this version, you may know it from The Fabulous Thunderbirds, who included a great cover on their January 1986 studio album Tuff Enuff.
I’d like to close this post with two tunes from Sam & Dave’s final studio album released in May 1974. First is the above mentioned A Little Bit Of Good (Cures A Whole Lot Of Bad). The song was co-written by Gary Dalton and Kent Dubarri, who also performed as Dalton & Dubarri and released four records in the ’70s.
Last but not least, here’s Shoo Rah, Shoo Rah, a nice cover of a tune written by Allen Toussaint and first recorded by American soul and R&B singer Betty Wright.
In addition to the upcoming Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Sam & Dave have received various other accolades. In 1992, they were induced into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. According to Wikipedia, they are also members of the Grammy Hall of Fame,Vocal Group Hall of Fame and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame – gee, frankly, I didn’t know there were so many different halls of fame. Apart from Soul Man, their songs have been covered by many other top music artists, such as Aretha Franklin, The Temptations, Bonnie Raitt and Eric Clapton & B.B. King.
As I previously noted, the storied Stax label is celebrating its 60th birthday this year. Among others, they are issuing compilations with music from some of their biggest stars like Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Albert King, Booker T. & The M.G.s and, of course, the unforgettable Sam & Dave. I was reminded of the anniversary this morning, when I saw some of the celebratory compilations in Apple Music, which leads me to the above clip. Check out this extended killer performance of Hold On, I’m Comin’ – damn! If this doesn’t get you up and moving, you’re probably dead!
Written by songwriter team Isaac Hayes and David Porter, the tune was released as a single in March 1966 and became the title track to Sam & Dave’s debut album, which appeared in April that year. Like for pretty much all Stax recordings at the time, Sam & Dave were backed by Booker T. & The M.G.’s, and what a kick-ass band they were! It’s very how cool how they are called out during the above performance, which apparently was captured in 1966: The singing, the groove, the craftsmanship – I don’t think music can get better than this!
In a short amount of time, Southern Avenue has become one of my favorite new bands. It all started when fellow blogger Music Enthusiast included this firecracker Memphis blues and soul quintet and their tune Don’t Give Up in a recent post. I immediately liked what I heard.
Don’t Give Up and the tune I’d like to highlight in this post, 80 Miles From Memphis, an uptempo blues with a cool groove and amazing singing, are both on the band’s eponymous debut album. Produced by Kevin Houston and released in February this year,the record appeared on none other than Stax Records, the storied Memphis soul label (now based in Los Angeles) that in its heyday had artists like Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Booker T. & the M.G.’s and Albert King under contract. According to a story in the Commercial Appeal, Southern Avenue is the first Memphis act signed to Stax in five decades – pretty incredible! For more on Stax, see my recent post.
Named after the street that runs from the east of Memphis to Soulsville, the original home of Stax, Southern Avenue was formed in 2015. The band’s line-up includes Ori Naftaly, an Israeli blues guitarist who came to the U.S. in 2013; Tierinii Jackson (lead vocals); her sister Tikyra Jackson (drums, vocals) and Jeremy Powell (keyboards). Daniel McKee, who plays bass on the recording, has since left Southern Avenue. The band is currently relying on a couple of different bassists during shows.
I just find it very refreshing to listen to these guys. Oh, by the way, their album entered the U.S. Billboard Top Blues Albums Chart at no. 6 during the week ended March 18 and remained in the chart for four weeks. Not bad for a debut – I hope they’re just getting started!
Sources: Wikipedia, Commercial Appeal, Billboard Charts, YouTube
Some of my favorite artists who recorded at the legendary Memphis record label
This year marks the 60th anniversary of Stax Records. I’ve always been impressed with the amazing array of artists who are associated with this record label: Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Albert King, Carla Thomas, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes, Kim Weston and The Staple Singers, to name some of them. I thought this would be a great theme for a list, but before I get to it, a bit of history is in order.
Stax Records was originally founded as Satellite Records in 1957 in Memphis, Tenn. by Jim Stewart, a banker who played the fiddle in a country band on the side. Initially operating in a garage, Stewart started out focusing on country, rockabilly and straight pop. In 1958, his sister Astelle Axton co-invested in the company by mortgaging her family home.
In 1959, Satellite set up a small recording studio in Brunswick, Tenn. and released its first record in the summer of that year, Fool In Love, by R&B band The Veltones. Following the release of the record, Satellite moved back to Memphis and set up shop in an old movie theater. In the summer of 1960, Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla became the first artists to record at the new facility. Their record Cause I Love You was nationally distributed by Atlantic Records, laying the foundation for an important yet fateful distribution partnership.
Due to a legal dispute, Satellite Records changed its name to Stax in September 1961, using the first two letters from the siblings’ last name – Stewart and Axton. In addition to a recording studio in the movie theater’s former auditorium, the company also set up a record store in the cinema’s old foyer. The store carried records from many different labels and became a popular hangout for local teenagers, which gave the company valuable insights into what music was selling.
Stax also established a house band that backed up the company’s artists during recordings. Eventually, that band consisted of the members who formed Booker T. & the M.G.’s in 1962: Booker T. Jones (organ), Steve Cropper (guitar), Lewie Steinberg (bass) and Al Jackson Jr. (drums). They served as the session band during most recordings until 1970.
In 1962, Stax also signed Otis Redding, who would become its biggest star until his untimely death in 1967. By the mid ’60s, Stax had also signed other major artists, including Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, Wilson Pickett and Isaac Hayes. Stax’s Booker T. & the M.G.’s and other ethnically integrated bands, along with a racially integrated team of staff and artists was unprecedented amid the civil rights-era racial strive and deep-seated tensions of the late ’50s and ’60s, especially in Memphis and the South.
In 1968, Stax ended its distribution deal with Atlantic Records and in the process lost the rights to all recordings Atlantic had distributed between 1960 and 1967. A new co-owner, Al Bell, stepped up and substantially expanded the label’s operations in an effort to better compete with its main rival Motown Records. In 1972, Bell got a distribution deal with CBS Records, but CBS lost interest in Stax, which eventually forced the label to close in 1975.
In 1977, Fantasy Records purchased the post-1968 Stax catalog and some of the pre-1968 recordings. In 1978, Stax under Fantasy’s ownership began signing new acts. But by the early ’80s, no new material appeared on Stax, and it became strictly a reissue label. In 2004, the Stax label was reactivated after Fantasy had been acquired by Concord Records. Today, Stax continues to be owned by Concord and issues both new recordings and its 1968-1975 catalog. Atlantic Records still owns most of the Stax material from 1959 to 1968.
Following is a selection of songs from some of my favorite artists whose records have been issued on Stax, old and new:
Booker T. & the M.G.’s/Green Onions (1962)
Otis Redding/I’ve Been Loving You For Too Long (1965)
Wilson Pickett/In the Midnight Hour (1965)
Sam & Dave/Soul Man (1967)
Isaac Hayes/Theme From Shaft (1971)
The Staple Singers/I’ll Take You There (1972)
Albert King/That’s What the Blues Is All About (1974)
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats/S.O.B. (2015)
Melissa Etheridge/Hold On I’m Coming (2016)
Southern Avenue/80 Miles From Memphis (2017)
Between its initial establishment and 1975, Stax has released more than 800 singles and nearly 300 LPs, winning eight Grammys and an Academy Award. The label has had 243 hits in the Top 100 R&B Charts and more than 167 hits in the top 100 Pop Charts. In April this year, Concord and Rhino Entertainment, which manages the Stax catalog owned by Atlantic Records, announced a joint campaign to celebrate the 60th anniversary with multiple albums, boxed sets and live performance releases throughout the year. Among others, this includes the Stax Classic Series, which consists of collection albums for each of the label’s 10 biggest stars, the Complete Stax Singles boxed set series, as well as a 4-CD anthology of Isaac Hayes to coincide what would have been his 75th birthday.