Sam & Dave are known as one of the most successful soul groups and phenomenal live acts of the late ’60s. The story goes that while on the Stax-Volt Revue tour in Europe in 1967, their live show was so high-energy that Otis Redding himself complained at one point that he didn’t want to perform after them, the implication being that Redding didn’t think he could live up to the bar that they set. Not bad for a duo that essentially formed by accident.
Sam Moore loved gospel music and had been involved in local singing groups since the ’50s. While working at a nightclub in his hometown Miami, FL in 1961, he was involved with putting on an amateur talent show. In came Dave Prater, a bakery worker at the time, cut on gospel music and who also had experience with singing groups. According to Moore, Prater chose a Jackie Wilson song that he didn’t know all the words to and Moore agreed to go on with him to help him out. Ad-libbing some call-and-response while feeding lyrics to Prater, at one point the microphone fell off the stand and both Moore and Prater dropped to their knees to catch it, coming up with it as if it was part of the show. They didn’t win the contest but Sam & Dave were born.
Not long after that contest, Sam & Dave were signed to Roulette Records and they got to working on songs and shows but they never quite took off at Roulette. Getting out of the contract, they were on their own grinding away at shows when in early 1965 they got noticed by Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records, who brought Jerry Wexler to see them perform. They soon signed a contract with Atlantic Records but instead of going to record at Atlantic, they were surprised when Wexler sent them to Memphis and Stax Records. The agreement with Atlantic meant that Stax could release Sam & Dave singles and albums on its label but the duo were still contracted to Atlantic. Sam & Dave were used to city life, being from Miami, and Memphis and southern soul were considered country, so both men initially felt out of their element. The move proved fortuitous, however, due to the fact that Stax is where Sam & Dave really found their sound, thanks to the songwriting talents of Isaac Hayes and David Porter.
Moore and Prater were lead singers, Sam taking the higher vocal range and Dave on the lower, and they didn’t have careful harmonies but together Sam & Dave became known as “Double Dynamite.” They relied on their energy and their gospel roots, an explosive combination of call-and-response, belt-it-out-like-you-mean-it attitude, and a commitment to performance so strong they became known for sweating through their suits during each show. They could switch easily between soul rockers like “Hold On, I’m Comin’” to soulful devotion like “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby.”
Sam & Dave were the real deal and their albums are fun, exhilarating, and well worth sinking your teeth into. The following albums will give you an idea of what we mean.
Sam & Dave set to work with newly formed Stax songwriting team Isaac Hayes and David Porter in early 1965, molding what would become their signature sound on hit singles “You Don’t Know Like I Know” and the hard-driving “Hold On, I’m Comin’.” Porter liked to encourage ad-libbing, often rewriting lyrics on the spot to whatever Sam or Dave were able to come up with. Backed by Stax house bands the M.G.’s and the Mar-Key horns, Sam and Dave were able to channel their gospel influences into the more beat-driven southern soul style. When the album Hold On, I’m Comin’ was released in 1966, it went to No. 1 on the R&B charts, helping to show Stax the money to be made in album releases. It includes soul rockers and soulful yearning, and set the stage for Sam & Dave’s dominance over the next two years.
Songwriting team Hayes and Porter found their muse with Sam & Dave. Since signing with Atlantic, every few months Sam and Dave would come to Memphis and it would be a flurry of activity in the recording studio. Double Dynamite was released in 1966 and includes the top-10 R&B hits “You Got Me Hummin’,” which includes some very, very suggestive humming, and soulful ballad “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby.” According to Sam, “When Something” started out as Mabel John’s song, who was rehearsing it in the studio when they heard it. Hayes and Porter thought it would be a good fit for Sam & Dave and they ended up recording the song. It stands out, not just because it’s a ballad, but because Dave opens the song with the first verse. Normally it would be Sam who would take the first verse of a song. It’s one of those gut-wrenching numbers that make you want to belt out how you’re going to stand with your love no matter what. Other album highlights include Sam Cooke cover “Soothe Me,” an emotive version of “I’m Your Puppet,” and the slow-burn surrender of “Sleep Good Tonight.” Double Dynamite hit the top 10 on the R&B album charts and Sam & Dave were still on the rise.
After practically stealing the show away from Otis Redding on the Stax-Volt Revue tour of Europe in mid-1967, Sam & Dave got back in the studio. Hayes and Porter were inspired by the protests over civil rights and wrote “Soul Man,” about being someone to rely on but it’s also proud and empowering. From those opening guitar licks by guitarist Steve Cropper, you just know you’re in for something special. “Soul Man” was a monster hit in 1967, going No. 1 on the R&B chart and No. 2 on the pop chart, and winning Sam & Dave a Grammy for Best R&B Group, Vocal or Instrumental. Some people think Blues Brothers when they hear “Soul Man” but Sam & Dave are where it’s at, people. The whole album Soul Men (1967) is great. “May I Baby” is a grinding midtempo earworm and the duo kills it on their version of “Let It Be Me.” Sam & Dave also show off their influences by including a cover of the “5” Royales song “I’m With You.” Coincidentally, Cropper lists the Royales guitarist Lowman Pauling as an influence. Soul Men exemplifies Sam & Dave’s special blend of gospel-influenced, chest-thumping soul. Go listen.
In 1968, Stax and Atlantic split ways, with Stax losing its catalog to Atlantic. It was a devastating blow to Stax but for Sam & Dave it meant that their releases would no longer be coming out on the Stax label as they were technically an Atlantic Records group. But whatever recordings they’d worked on at Stax before the split did, such as their final single on Stax, the Hayes/Porter-penned “I Thank You.” It was another top 10 hit on both the R&B and pop singles charts and starts off their Atlantic album release I Thank You (1968). Although the album was not as successful as Soul Men, many of the tracks were written by Hayes and Porter so it does include some gems such as their smooth, I’m-your-steadfast-man version of the Otis Redding classic “These Arms of Mine,” the toe-tapping stomper “Wrap It Up” (Hayes/Porter), and the funky “Don’t Turn Your Heater On” (written by Stax’s Steve Cropper and Al Bell). Despite troubles on the horizon with addiction, infighting between Sam Moore and Dave Prater, and losing their footing at Atlantic, Sam & Dave still bring the heat on I Thank You.
The years were tumultuous for Sam & Dave after their album I Thank You was released. Unable to replicate their Stax singles success at Atlantic, and with the tension between them at a breaking point, Sam & Dave broke up in mid-1970. Each tried their hand at going solo but they soon reunited in mid-1971 and stuck it out with touring clubs and anywhere else that would have them even after their contract with Atlantic ended in ’72. It wasn’t until ’74 that they returned to the studio. Both Sam and Dave were in the throes of drug addiction but with producer Steve Cropper and musicians like the M.G.’s and the Memphis Horns, Sam & Dave had reason to be optimistic. Back At ‘Cha was released in 1975 on United Artists and it has that southern soul flare blended with ’70s funk, making it a definite grower of an album. Single “A Little Bit of Good” is catchy and if you listen closely, you might hear a little bit of “Soul Man” in it. While not commercially successful, the album is full of that Sam & Dave energy that’ll get you grooving. Highlights include “When My Love Hand Comes Down” and their version of “Under the Boardwalk” which has an extended instrumental outro that you’ll wish lasted even longer. Back At ‘Cha would be their last album of new material and Sam & Dave would eventually break up for good in 1981.
Marcella Hemmeter is a freelance writer and adjunct professor living in Maryland by way of California. When she's not busy meeting deadlines she frequently laments the lack of tamalerias near her house.