The Innovators: Stax Artist Spotlights
Known as “Double Dynamite,” “The Sultans of Sweat,” and “The Dynamic Duo,” Sam & Dave have long been recognized as one of the greatest live acts of their time and one of the most successful soul duos ever. During the height of their two-decade-long career, Sam Moore (b. 1935) and Dave Prater (1937–1988) consistently delivered hit after hit on the R&B charts, while their crossover success was instrumental in introducing soul music to white audiences.
Both Sam (born in Miami, FL) and Dave (from Ocilla, GA) grew up singing in church and began their careers with gospel groups. The two singers crossed paths on the gospel circuit, performing together for the first time in 1961 at Miami’s King of Hearts club. Before long, Sam & Dave had developed a high-energy live act, perfected their harmonies, and scored their first record deal.
Their initial years together spawned a handful of singles and some regional airplay, but an introduction to Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler changed the course of their career. At the time, Atlantic was handling the distribution of Stax, and Wexler felt that the duo’s grittier, Southern sound would be a perfect fit for the burgeoning Memphis label.
There, Sam & Dave began working with one of the label’s newer songwriting duos, Isaac Hayes and David Porter, and recorded with Stax’s talented house band, Booker T. & The M.G.’s. It was a recipe for success. In 1966, the group scored their first Top Ten R&B single, “You Don’t Know Like I Know,” and kicked off an astonishing run of ten consecutive Top 20 hits on the chart.
Encouraged by Hayes and Porter to employ a call-and-response style (borrowed from their church days) the duo settled into their signature high-energy sound, as heard in their follow-up, “Hold On, I’m Comin’.” Released in March 1966, the fiery single spent 20 weeks on the R&B chart, eventually hitting the No.1 spot. It was also a Top 40 pop hit (peaking at No.21 on the Billboard Hot 100) and the title track of their debut LP, which was a No.1 R&B bestseller.
Sam & Dave continued to dominate the charts over the next year with “You Got Me Hummin’,” “Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody,” and the soulful ballad, “When Something is Wrong with My Baby.” The tireless duo was playing hundreds of shows a year and had built an international fanbase, thanks to tours in Europe and the UK (their first Japanese tour followed in 1969). While Sam & Dave were at the pinnacle of their career, a song called “Soul Man” was about to secure their place in music history.
Written in the summer of 1967, the idea of “Soul Man” came to Hayes and Porter while watching coverage of Detroit’s 12th Street Riot—one of the deadliest incidents of the Civil Rights Movement. Hayes recalled seeing how buildings that had been tagged with the word “soul” (marking Black-owned businesses) were left intact. “I thought about the night of the Passover in the Bible… And I realized the word soul keeps them from burning up their establishments,” Hayes told Robert Gordon in Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion. In Rob Bowman’s Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records, Hayes added that the song is “a story about one’s struggle to rise above his present conditions. It’s almost…like boasting, ‘I’m a soul man.’ It’s a pride thing.”
With its funky guitar licks and joyful horns, the single (which opened the group’s third album Soul Men) became an instantly recognizable anthem across the country. Released in September, the song flew to the top of the R&B chart and hit No.2 on the Billboard 100. Elsewhere, “Soul Man” landed at No.2 in Canada and No.24 in the UK.
Despite the fact that racial tensions were growing in cities and towns across the US, the popularity of the song made Rolling Stone note, “When ‘Soul Man’ becomes a national number one record, it indicates that a much more earthy, low-down kind of soul is beginning to get to white America.”
“Soul Man” earned Sam & Dave a GRAMMY® Award in 1968. 51 years later, the Library of Congress added it to their National Recording Registry for its cultural significance. Over the decades since its release, the song has been covered by dozens of artists, including Paul Revere & the Raiders, Prince, and—perhaps most famously—The Blues Brothers (aka Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi).
In 1968, as Stax and Atlantic ended their partnership, the duo released their final single with the Memphis label and their final Top Ten hit (on both the R&B and pop charts), “I Thank You.” After a brief split in 1970, the reunited pair continued to be an in-demand live act, but they failed to find the same chart success as they had in the ’60s. The end of the decade offered them a career resurgence with Aykroyd and Belushi’s “Blues Brothers” sketches and subsequent film, but Sam & Dave officially parted ways in 1981.
Their legacy, however, has only grown. In addition to helping pave the way for Black artists to crossover into the pop market, the duo influenced a broad selection of artists, including Phil Collins, Tom Petty, Elvis Costello, Al Green, Billy Joel, and Bruce Springsteen. Among their many honors, Sam & Dave were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 and received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2019 GRAMMYs. Sadly, Dave Prater lost his life in a car accident in 1988. He was just 50. Sam Moore, who is now in his 80s, continues to enjoy an active career.
- Sometimes songs come about in the strangest of ways. In the case of “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” Porter took a bathroom break while he and Hayes were in a writing session. When Hayes checked in on his collaborator, Porter’s response was “hold on, I’m comin’.” That was the creative spark they needed, and the song was completed within an hour. Coincidentally, the men’s restroom at Stax offered ideal acoustics for reverb and was used regularly during recordings for such purposes.
- As one of the most in-demand live acts of the late ’60s, Sam & Dave averaged 280 days on tour during the height of their success, with regular TV appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show, and The Mike Douglas Show. Among their higher-profile stops was a headlining slot at the 1969 Texas International Pop Festival (where they shared the bill with Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, and Sly and the Family Stone) and a performance at the 1968 tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. at Madison Square Garden. In December 1968, the duo made history as the first Black soul act to headline the Fillmore East in New York.