Sam Moore and Dave Prater, otherwise known as the legendary Stax duo Sam & Dave, will be honored at the 2019 Grammy Awards with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Joining Moore and Prater in the Lifetime Achievement class will also be Black Sabbath, George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, Billy Eckstine, Donny Hathaway, Julio Iglesias, and Dionne Warwick. These awards are part of the Recording Academy’s “Special Merit Awards” (AKA the category best understood as, “These artists have not won sufficient Grammys so we are trying to make up for it”).
Who are Sam & Dave, and why are they deserving of this particular Grammy honor? If you’ve ever heard the song “Soul Man” or watched The Blues Brothers, you’ve heard Sam & Dave — Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi even loosely based their characters on the pair. But the duo had thirteen songs in the Billboard Hot 100 between 1966 and 1969: “Hold On, I’m Coming,” “I Thank You,” “You Don’t Know Like I Know,” “You Got Me Hummin’,” “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby,” and “Soothe Me” are just a handful of numbers from their vast catalog that appeared on both the pop and R&B charts. And to be fair to the Academy, Sam & Dave are the recipients of two previous Grammys: In 1967, their third album, titled Soul Man, won in the Best Performance – Rhythm & Blues Group category, and in 1999, the single “Soul Man” was inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame, “to honor recordings of lasting qualitative or historical significance that are at least 25 years old.”
And then there’s their live show, known as “Double Dynamite” and “The Sultans Of Sweat,” Sam & Dave were so notoriously super-charged that no less than Otis Redding himself declared, “I never want to have to follow those motherf*ckers again.” It was the energy in their live act that attracted interest from Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun, who signed the pair after a night “boogalooing [their] asses off,” as noted in Robert Gordon’s book, Respect Yourself.
When you listen to Sam & Dave, the first thing you hear is the unexpected and blissful fusion of their voices, Sam’s soaring tenor against Dave’s lower range; while they were a duo, they didn’t harmonize, they blended — noted Memphis musical historian Robert Gordon characterized their vocal dynamics as “they weren’t harmonizers, they were combatants.” Their style, built on a call-and-response straight out of gospel, happened purely by accident. Sam Moore was known around his hometown of Miami, Florida, as a gospel voice. He had the opportunity to take Sam Cooke’s place in the Soul Stirrers, but essentially ghosted them the day he needed to go on tour because he didn’t want to miss out on the carnal delights available in the more secular world. As noted in Sam & Dave: An Oral History, Dave Prater came from Georgia farm country, but he, too, had his roots in the church, singing with his older brother in The Sensational Hummingbirds.
The universe put the two of them together at a Miami nightclub called The King Of Hearts, a stop on the local Chitlin’ Circuit, where Sam had talked his way into a gig as the emcee of the weekly amateur night. Dave Prater showed up to try his hand, but was concerned he wouldn’t remember the words of the song he wanted to sing, “Doggin’ Around” by Jackie Wilson. Sam told him not to worry, that he’d back him up and feed him the words if necessary. When Dave got to the chorus, sure enough, he blanked on the words, and Sam came up behind him to help out: Sam would sing a line, and Dave would repeat it. It was working out fine, passing the microphone between the two of them, until Sam got tangled in the mic cord, and the microphone stand starts to fall. Panicked that the club owner would charge them for damage to the mic, they both dove for it.
Moore explains what happened next: “So he and I both drop down on our knees to get this mike — simultaneously. I’m screaming now, preaching and hollering, ‘cause I’m scared. We caught the mic stand! I caught the top, he caught the bottom. And we came up. Oh, we came up! Doin’ the Joe Tex thing. Hot damn were we bad! People thought it was part of the show!” The club owner’s response was unsurprising: “Do it again.” And that’s how Sam & Dave were born.
Wexler and Ertegun wisely made the decision to have Moore and Prater record with Jim Stewart at Stax Records, sending them to Memphis to work in the old movie theater turned recording studio. That’s where they first met the songwriting team of Isaac Hayes and David Porter, who began to write material specifically for them. Hayes and Porter didn’t just write the songs, they coached Moore and Prater in the studio, line by line, sometimes word by word, encouraging the ad libs, pushing the two slightly out of their comfort zone. They would become the pair’s main collaborators throughout the rest of their Stax career. “That was the chemistry,” said Sam Moore. “Sam and Dave, Hayes and Porter. Just like the chemistry between Berry Gordy and Motown and between Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones.”
You can hear this beautifully in “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” the pair’s first big hit on both the pop and R&B charts, and their first No. 1. Moore takes the lead, and then riffs behind Prater, that wonderful gospel call-and-response, and then that gorgeous blend front and center on the chorus. Of course, half the credit has to go to the backing band, which were the fabled Memphis Horns — Andrew Love and Wayne Jackson — alongside 75% of Booker T & the MG’s, which included Steve Cropper on guitar, Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass, and Al Jackson, Jr. on the drums. (Hayes would take the place of Booker T. on keyboards here.) These three absolute titans of their craft were the house band at Stax, the musicians assigned to your session if you didn’t have a band of your own.
The story behind the duo’s (and probably Stax’) biggest hit was inspired by current events. Hayes explains he was watching news footage of riots in Detroit and Watts, “…and one of the news commentators said, ‘If the Black businesses write soul on the building, the rioters will bypass it.’ … And I realized the word soul keeps them from burning up their establishments. Wow, soul. Soul. Soul man. ‘David, I got one!’” Add to this apocryphal story Steve Cropper’s now-indelible guitar riff that opens the track, the Memphis Horns laying down lines both ecstatic and declaratory, and then Sam Moore flashes on like a lightning bolt for the first verse. Prater slides in on the chorus, of course, and then, absolutely inspired, takes the next verse. Moore continues to ad lib behind him, including that definitive “Play it, Steve!” when Cropper peels off a particularly delectable riff. None of this is present in The Blues Brothers version (despite the presence of Cropper and Dunn, to Ackroyd and Belushi’s credit) so if you’ve never spent time with the original and think that you never need to hear the song again, give it a try.
The golden partnership lasted until Atlantic Records pulled in their chips with Stax, when Wexler and Ertegun decided to sell their company to Warner Bros. In a story that’s heartbreakingly familiar, Jim Stewart hadn’t read his contract with Atlantic closely enough and didn’t realize that they, not Stax, owned the master recordings. On top of that, Atlantic also pulled back the ‘loan’ of Sam & Dave, who — along with Otis Redding — were Stax’s top act. The move devastated Stax, and it also ended the serendipitous run of Moore and Prater. Despite releasing several albums on Atlantic under Jerry Wexler, they were never able to achieve their previous heights. “I never really got into their sensibilities as a producer,” Wexler would later admit.
Sam & Dave would continue to tour together as a live act for the next 20 years, enjoying a brief resurgence in popularity in 1979 thanks to Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi. The pair would be troubled by financial woes, drug problems, poor management, and a litany of other tragedies, and would perform together for the last time at a 1981 New Year’s Eve show at the Waldorf in San Francisco. Sadly, Dave Prater passed away in 1988 from a fatal car accident; Moore went through rehab, was able to appear at the 1988 Atlantic 40th Anniversary concert, and has continued to perform and record, collaborating with artists from Conway Twitty to Bruce Springsteen, and releasing a solo album, Overnight Sensational, in 2006. Sam & Dave were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 by Billy Joel, who stated, “No one did it like they did, and with the death of David Prater, no one will ever do it again.”