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.