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stax records’ main soul men of the ’60s: david porter and isaac hayes

“IT WAS SUMMER 1967, and Isaac Hayes was at Stax Records in Mem­phis watching De­troit burn. The local news car­ried alarming re­ports of a mas­sive riot in Motor City, which started when a po­lice raid on an after-hours bar turned into a tense standoff with pa­trons and by­standers. Gov­ernor George W. Romney de­ployed the Michigan Na­tional Guard to quell the vi­o­lence, which lasted five days.

Even at the time, it was seen as a major event in the Amer­ican Civil Rights move­ment, as well as proof that racial fric­tion was not lim­ited to the South.

Hayes, an un­trained but deeply tal­ented mu­si­cian who had found steady work as a song­writer at Stax Records in Mem­phis, watched as the news re­port ex­plained that black busi­ness owners had been spray-painting the word ‘soul’ on their build­ings to let the demon­stra­tors know not to break those win­dows.

 

Photo of Robert Gordon's book about Stax Records, RESPECT YOURSELF.

Robert Gor­don’s Re­spect Your­self was pub­lished in 2013 and is still in print, so you have no ex­cuse for not finding this book and reading it!

A timely sense of black pride

Hayes re­counts the story in Robert Gordon’s es­sen­tial his­tory Re­spect Your­self: Stax Records And The Soul Ex­plo­sion: ‘I re­al­ized the word soul keeps them from burning up their es­tab­lish­ments. Wow, soul. Soul. Soul man.’

The phrase stuck in Hayes’ head, and he men­tioned it to his song­writing partner, David Porter. To­gether, they crafted one of the biggest R&B hits of the decade based on that one word and all that it rep­re­sented.

Written, re­hearsed, recorded, pressed, and re­leased barely two months after the De­troit riots, Soul Man is an im­pos­sibly taut and ex­citing R&B stomper cred­ited to the duo Sam & Dave but fea­turing nearly everyone at the label. It opens with Steve Cropper’s swampy guitar over­ture, a tangle of bent notes pre­fig­uring the dis­tinc­tive southern rock sound of the early ’70s.

 

“I re­al­ized the word ‘soul’ keeps them from burning up their es­tab­lish­ments.”

 

But that’s just the pre­lude: When the band en­ters, the song snaps into its re­lent­less groove, as Sam Moore and Dave Prater trade verses: ‘Comin’ to you, on a dusty road. Good lovin’, I got a truck­load.’

The song packs a lot into its not-quite-three-minutes. One second Sam & Dave are de­claring them­selves un­par­al­leled lovers (‘When I start lovin’, I can’t stop’), and the next they’re making a subtle de­c­la­ra­tion of com­mu­nity (‘Grab a rope, I’ll pull you in. Give you hope’).

Was it a love song?

An is­sues song?

Or was it somehow both, their ro­mantic con­fi­dence con­veying a very timely sense of black pride? And then there’s the fact that it was recorded by an in­te­grated crew of mu­si­cians. Today that might not sound like a big deal, but in ’67 it was a rarity. And in the South, it was down­right dan­gerous.

 

Photo of the team at Stax Records' Stdio A in the '60s.

Sam Moore, Isaac Hayes, An­drew Love, Wayne Jackson, Dave Prater, Jim Stewart, and Steve Cropper in Stax Records’ famed Studio A in Mem­phis, Ten­nessee.

They’re all soul men

Yet, here was a group of white and black players finding common ground and mu­tual re­spect, en­acting some­thing like racial har­mony (or racial groove?) on a small scale.

They’re all soul men.

Soul Man scalded the radio, spending seven weeks at the top of the R&B charts and peaking at #2 on the pop charts. It was the most suc­cessful single Stax had re­leased, and nearly forty years later it re­mains a stone-cold rock classic, the rare song that sounds like the times yet is ul­ti­mately time­less. Looking back nearly fifty years later, David Porter says,

‘We were al­ways looking for ways to con­nect. We wanted to make a person feel a cer­tain kind of thing, but we also wanted to have some kind of uni­ver­sality at­tached to it. With Soul Man, our pur­pose was to create a mo­ti­va­tional thing for people during a trying time in this country. If you listen to what the song is re­ally saying, anyone could be a soul man.’

 

Stax Records: Photo of the 45 rpm single SOUL MAN by Sam & Dave.

Sam & Dave’s Soul Man (Stax 231) is a quin­tes­sen­tial ’60s soul single, and a must-own for any real col­lec­tion of that era and that genre. On the bring­down side, it also in­spired the gawd­offal Blues Brothers!

Sing every word with soul

And per­haps that is why “Soul Man” is more than just a big pop hit. It’s a pow­erful state­ment that de­fines the Stax ethos—a song about how songs ought to be sung.

You per­form them with grit and in­tegrity.

You play them like you know that a sharp guitar riff or a bold horn line or a chug­ging rhythm sec­tion or a gut­tural holler might solve any problem big or small, per­sonal or public.

You sing every word with soul.”

 


The text above was lifted al­most ver­batim from an ar­ticle ti­tled “Sub­lim­inal Se­duc­tion: How Two Mem­phis Soul Men De­fined R&B in the 1960s and Be­yond” by Stephen Deusner (

 

Stax Records: Photo of David Porter and Isaac Hayes in the studio in the '60s.

FEATURED IMAGE: David Porter and Isaac Hayes at their work­bench, a piano. The two com­posed more than 200 songs during their years as Stax Records’ house writers, no­tably Sam & Dave’s big hits, in­cluding Soul Man, I Thank You, When Some­thing Is Wrong With My Baby, and Hold On, I’m Comin’.

 

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