In November, members of Vinyl Me, Please Classics will receive Knock On Wood, Eddie Floyd’s iconic 1967 debut LP, released on the legendary soul label Stax. Floyd was one of Stax’s most consistent, and consistently great, performers, writing many hit songs and performing others, including the title track from this album — one of the biggest non-Otis Redding hits from Stax. Read more about why we picked this title over here. You can sign up here.
Below, you can read an excerpt from our exclusive Listening Notes Booklet that is included with our edition of Knock On Wood.
In 2013, as part of PBS’ In Performance At The White House series, President Barack Obama and his family and staff hosted a bevy of soul musicians for a night celebrating Memphis’ musical legacy. Booker T. Jones of Booker T. and The M.G.’s served as band director, leading performers like Sam Moore of Sam & Dave, Mavis Staples, Steve Cropper, Charlie Musselwhite, William Bell and, well, Justin Timberlake, through some of the biggest hits of the Stax era. In the videos from the event on YouTube, you see a crowd letting loose in a way you assume they don’t get to much in the pressure-packed White House. But there’s one performance in particular the crowd goes especially nuts for; they leave their seats and shout along, and Obama delivers the first “soul clap” by a sitting U.S. president. It’s for Eddie Floyd and his performance of “Knock on Wood.”
“Knock on Wood” is the platonic ideal of a Stax soul single. It’s got a beat you can dance to. Its horns are towering, shiny and perfect. It’s an ode to a lover that was conceived during a thunderstorm while Floyd and Cropper were holed up at the Lorraine Motel, an interracial songwriting duo writing at maybe the most notorious hotel in American history (it’s where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated). It’s got music history in its backbeat, a No. 1 hit that, seeing Floyd perform 50 years after it was written, melts away the years and bridges the gap in decades.
“Knock on Wood” is the obvious centerpiece of Floyd’s debut LP of the same name, an album that established Floyd as one of Stax’s most consistent songwriters and performers; he released seven full-length LPs on the label before it closed up shop in 1975, tied for the most albums by a solo performer on the label with Johnnie Taylor, and second only to Booker T. and the M.G.’s for volume (they released 11). “Knock on Wood” was one of Stax’s biggest hits in the mid-’60s, peaking at No. 1 on the R&B charts, and No. 28 on the Pop charts, which was a rarity for Stax singles in 1966 when the single came out. It was covered by many, many artists, and was a hit in multiple decades. “Knock on Wood” immortalized Floyd, and ensured he’d be written about in every history of Stax Records, and in every history of soul music in the ’60s.
But “Knock on Wood” was never intended as a Floyd single at all; he was brought into the label for his songwriting prowess and not as a performer. He was friends with Carla Thomas when she lived in Washington, D.C., and was in grad school, and along with Al Bell — who’d go on to run Stax in the late ’60s and ’70s — wrote “Comfort Me,” the title track for Thomas’ sophomore LP (and Vinyl Me, Please Classics #5). He recorded “Knock on Wood” not for himself, but as a demo track for Otis Redding — who was touring widely in those days — to recut when he got home. That demo version, despite all odds, ended up being the biggest hit of Floyd’s career, and a launching pad for him out of the writing retreats at the Lorraine and into the eternal spotlight, where performing the song for a sitting U.S. president 45 years after its release is but a footnote in the song’s history.
Unlike most of the Stax stars in the first half of the ’60s, Eddie Floyd did not grow up in Memphis; he was born 300 miles southeast in Montgomery, Alabama. Floyd’s music career started even further away: In 1955, as a teenager, Floyd convinced his uncle to let him move with him to Detroit, at that point a city still booming with jobs and opportunity. Floyd took little time in starting a group; he founded the Falcons with coworkers at a jewelry store shortly after arriving in the city. Sometimes called “The World’s First Soul Group,” the Falcons were notable because they were interracial at a time when that was a rarity, though that lasted only until the two white members (Floyd’s coworkers) joined the military when the Falcons’ 1956, Floyd-penned debut single didn’t gain any traction. Needing members, Floyd enlisted Mack Rice — who’d go on to write “Respect Yourself” and “Mustang Sally” — and Joe Stubbs, younger brother of one of the Four Tops, as lead singer. The group had a monster hit in 1959; “You’re So Fine” sold a million copies, and found the Detroit group playing on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. When the group was working on follow-up material, Stubbs demanded that his name go in front of the group’s — they’d be Joe Stubbs and the Falcons — and Floyd and the other members responded by kicking him out. Stubbs’ replacement was someone whose life would be intertwined with Floyd’s forever: Wilson Pickett.
According to Tony Fletcher’s In The Midnight Hour: The Life & Soul of Wilson Pickett, there was never a formal plan for Pickett — who in some tellings was “discovered” by the Falcons’ manager — to actually join the Falcons. Though he sang on some of their biggest hits, he was never actually in any group press photographs. In fact, while their manager kept pushing for them to ask Pickett to be their lead singer, Floyd and the rest of the group kept angling to get a young singer who just moved to Detroit named Marvin Gaye to join the Falcons. Pickett’s contribution to the Falcons was mostly as a touring member, as the group had trouble convincing any label to release their singles after 1960, though their minor 1962 hit “I Found a Love” was co-written by Pickett. The Falcons never issued a full LP — though compilations of the material they released packaged with rarities are available. In 1963, the group functionally disbanded when Pickett went solo — and was subsequently signed to Atlantic — and when Floyd moved to Washington, D.C.
In D.C., Floyd started a record label called Safice with Al Bell, which had a minor hit with a Floyd single called “Never Get Enough Of Your Love,” his third as a solo singer (he had two other singles out on a tiny label called LuPine that came and went). Floyd’s voice had been part of the doo-wop blend behind Stubbs and Pickett in the Falcons, often giving off bass hits and “oohs” more than anything that would obviously lead you to believe he’d be a dynamic lead singer, but the charms of his eventual solo career are evident from “Never Get Enough Of Your Love” forward: the buttery smooth delivery, the ability to hit the downbeat like a right cross, and the way he can bend phrases like a paperclip.
Floyd’s time on Safice was short; shortly after the label launched, he met Carla Thomas, wrote her some songs, and got an invite from her to join her in Memphis as a songwriter in the Stax fold. When Floyd arrived in 1965, Stax was just starting its ascent into a soul music juggernaut, thanks in large part to Atlantic Records farming out two talents and having them record at Stax: Sam and Dave and Floyd’s ex-bandmate Pickett. Pickett had already recorded the song that arguably made Stax’s charge into the soul market possible by bankrolling everything that came next. The smash hit, “In The Midnight Hour,” was recorded in a situation pretty similar to Floyd’s eventual hits; it was written by Pickett at the Lorraine Motel with Steve Cropper, and then recorded by the Stax house band in the label’s studio.
Floyd’s songwriting career at Stax started quickly in 1965; he wrote songs for Thomas, Otis Redding and more in the Stax stable. But his biggest initial hit after arriving at Stax was on a song for Pickett: “634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.),” a No. 1 hit on the R&B charts, and a pop smash (Floyd’s version would eventually appear on Knock on Wood). After the success of “Soulsville,” Floyd was encouraged to spend more time at the Lorraine with Cropper, with the duo eventually writing four songs that would end up on Knock on Wood, and Floyd’s debut Stax single, “Things Get Better,” which would later appear on 1969’s compilation, Rare Stamps.
As recounted in Robert Gordon’s Respect Yourself, Floyd and Cropper basically lived at the Lorraine for big portions of 1966 and 1967, asking for the honeymoon suite when it wasn’t in use since it was the biggest room at the hotel. Floyd took the inspiration for “Things Get Better” from the hotel’s Coke machine (Coke’s slogan at the time was “Things go better with Coke”), and a particularly crazy thunderstorm served as the inspiration for “Knock on Wood” (the thunder and lightning was metaphorical, and literal).
In addition to “Knock on Wood” and “Soulsville,” Cropper and Floyd also contributed “I’ve Just Been Feeling Bad” and “Raise Your Hand” to the Knock on Wood LP. “Raise Your Hand” opens with a flamenco flourish before breaking out into a rock-steady soul groove. The Stax horn sections are the secret MVPs of the Stax catalog in general, but especially so on Knock on Wood. Booker T. brings a plaintive organ to “Been Feeling Bad,” a tender ballad about treating a lover poorly because you’re depressed.
The rest of Knock on Wood is packed with Floyd giving new spins to R&B and doo-wop songs. He takes Fats Domino’s mammoth and raucous “Something You’ve Got Baby” and slows it down to a crawl for him to saunter in and out of. His cover of J.J. Jackson’s hit, “But It’s Alright” sands off the original’s rock bend and turns it more soul, while his take of Detroit/Philly soul legend Jerry Butler’s “I Stand Accused” removes the original’s orchestral flourishes and replaces them with the Memphis horns. But the strongest reimagining is Floyd’s complete reworking of Tommy Tucker’s 1964 blues song “Hi-Heel Sneakers,” which is here as a rollicking soul shouter.
And then, of course, there is “Knock on Wood,” the album’s first track that opens like a battering ram to your cerebellum. The opening horn blast and drumbeat is the Stax sound distilled to its perfect essence, a nasty, hard, perfect sound delivered by the tightest band to maybe ever exist. As noted above, the song was never intended as a Floyd solo project; though he had released “Things Get Better,” his primary focus was still writing for other artists. Floyd came up with all of the song’s quirks — he told the horn players how he wanted them to sound, and came up with the literal knocking in the chorus. When he and the M.G.’s had finished putting the final touches on the demo version of “Knock on Wood,” it was determined that the song “didn’t fit Otis’ style,” so instead of giving it to someone else, Stax decided to put it out as Floyd’s next single. It rocketed up the charts, and became a standard in the American songbook; it’s been covered by everyone from David Bowie (whose live version hit No. 10 in the U.K.) and Amii Stewart (whose disco-fied version was a No. 1 hit on the pop charts) to Eric Clapton and uh, Michael Bolton (Otis Redding ended up cutting it for he and Carla Thomas’ joint album King and Queen, the last album released while Redding was alive).
Knock on Wood was released the last week of January in 1967. “Raise Your Hand” would be the biggest single outside the title track; it peaked at No. 16 on the R&B charts (it’s ultimate legacy is probably that it was covered extensively by Janis Joplin, including at Woodstock). At the end of 1967, Stax and its artists had to deal with the fallout of Redding’s tragic plane crash on December 10. Many Stax artists wrote songs in tribute to Redding — William Bell’s The Soul Of A Bell (Vinyl Me, Please Classics #11) was packaged with his “A Tribute to a King” in the U.K. — but Floyd’s was the most abstract. While delayed waiting for a plane to Georgia for Redding’s funeral from London, where he was performing, Floyd sat down and wrote “Big Bird,” the best psych-soul song ever, a spiritual journey into the skies that should have grabbed a piece of the canon.
In 1968, Floyd released his second most successful LP, Never Found a Girl, the title track of which went to No. 2 on the R&B charts (and, along with Floyd’s “You’re Leaving Me,” would feature heavily on Ollie & The Nightingales, Vinyl Me, Please Classics #3. Floyd would release five more albums between 1969 and 1974, all of which are woefully out-of-print and only available on random comps on Spotify (though his Rare Stamps best-of album is a stone-cold classic for a hits comp). The rest of Floyd’s catalog runs from soul concept albums (1974’s Stax farewell Soul Street) to album-length odes to women on the West Coast (1970’s California Girl). All of them are delightful slabs of soul that are increasingly hard to find in record stores (an original copy of Knock on Wood is an expensive rarity especially).
Despite never topping “Knock on Wood,” Floyd never really went away. He was in Blues Brothers 2000, alongside Wilson Pickett, and has played intermittently, most recently hitting some spot dates, at the age of 80, in the U.K. “Knock on Wood” remains part of the very fabric of American music and Floyd knows it’s going to outlive him. As he told Gordon in his book, “Once you’re part of that music, it’s till you die. It’s just as simple as that.”
Andrew Winistorfer is Director of Music at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard and The Story of Willie Nelson. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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