Sam & Dave - Biography
By Lee Hildebrand
The beads of sweat that dripped from the chins of Sam Moore and Dave Prater during their live performances practically oozed through the grooves of the records they made for Stax in Memphis. Both singers came from gospel quartet backgrounds, a tradition in which the lead singer’s role is to work the congregation into spiritual delirium. Sam and Dave operated on the secular side like two preachers in tandem, trading intense leads, urging each other on verbally between phrases, and joining together in chilling harmonies to bring their audiences to a state of catharsis.
The Miami-based duo scored seven Top Ten R&B hits for Stax Records over a period of little more than two years between 1966 and 1968. Two of the hits, “Hold On, I’m Comin’” and “Soul Man,” reached number one. The only two to crack the Pop Top Ten were “Soul Man” at number two and “I Thank You” at number nine. All were penned by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, who also wrote hits for other artists such as Mabel John, Johnnie Taylor, and Carla Thomas during the same period.
Born in Miami on October 12, 1935, Sam grew up singing in church. He made his first record, “Nitey Nite” (backed with “Caveman Rock”) in 1954 with a vocal group called The Majestics for Henry Stone’s Marlin label in Miami. The doo-wop group eventually switched to gospel music and became known as the Gales, a name inspired by the famous Sensational Nightingales featuring firebrand lead singer Julius “June” Cheeks. In 1959, Sam joined another gospel quartet called The Mellonaires.
Dave was born in Ocilla, Georgia on May 9, 1937, and sang early on with his older brother J.T. Prater in the Sensational Hummingbirds, a gospel quartet whose name was inspired by the nationally renowned Dixie Hummingbirds. Dave apparently first crossed paths with Sam in the late 1950s when both were appearing with their respective quartets at a church in the Miami area, but it wasn’t until 1961 that they joined forces.
Sam, after seeing a performance by show-stopping soul singer Jackie Wilson, had decided to return to secular music. He landed a job as emcee and warm-up vocalist at the King of Hearts, a Miami club owned by Fort Lauderdale mayor John Lomello. Dave, who was also pursuing a secular career, came to the club one night in 1961 to participate in an amateur contest and ended up improvising a rendition of the bluesy Wilson hit “Doggin’ Around” with Sam. The audience reception was so effusive that Lomello booked them as a duo and recommended them to the powerful local record distributor and label owner Henry Stone.
Sam and Dave’s first single appeared in 1962 on Stone’s Alston label and was followed by two more on Marlin. All three were produced by Steve Alaimo and Brad Shapiro. The Marlin 45s generated enough interest locally to be leased to Morris Levy’s Roulette label in New York. Four Sam & Dave singles appeared on Roulette proper between 1963 and 1964, some of which were cut in New York with veteran producer-songwriter Henry Glover. None of the duo’s early efforts made the national charts.
Jerry Wexler signed Sam & Dave to Atlantic Records in 1965 but, in an unusual business arrangement, he sent them to Memphis to record for the Atlantic-distributed Stax label with the company’s crack studio crew comprised of guitarist Steve Cropper, keyboardist Isaac Hayes, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, drummer Al Jackson Jr., and the Mar-Keys’ horn section. The duo’s first Stax single, the David Porter-penned, Prater-led “A Place Nobody Can Find,” failed to garner much notice. Their second, “I Take What I Want,” fared not much better, but it established a pattern for Sam & Dave’s future Stax hits. Inspired by the title of an article in the “confessional” short-story magazine Bronze Thrills, the hard-socking song was written by Hayes and Porter (along with guitarist Mabon “Teenie” Hodges) and was the first Sam & Dave side to feature the two singers tossing lines back and forth with frenzied abandon.
Their third release, 1966’s “You Don’t Know Like I Know,” became their first chart hit, peaking at number seven on the R&B chart. Their next single, “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” shot to the top of the R&B chart later that year. The song also reached number 21 on Billboard’s Pop Singles chart – the first real sign of the crossover success that was soon to come for Sam & Dave. Legend has it that the idea for the song came after Hayes had badgered Porter to hurry up in the bathroom, to which Porter responded, “Hold on! I’m a-comin’.” It was the first song on which, at Hayes and Porter’s suggestion, the higher-pitched Sam took the first lead, with the rougher, deeper-toned Dave handling the response. This format set another pattern that would mark much of their subsequent work together.
After three more Top Ten R&B singles – “Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody,” “You Got Me Hummin’,” and the slow-dragging ballad “When Something Is Wrong with My Baby” – the duo broke through to the Pop Top Ten in 1967 with the number two charting song (and number one on the R&B chart) “Soul Man,” followed the next year by “I Thank You” at number nine (and number four on the R&B chart). “Soul Man” gave Sam & Dave their first gold record. It also won a Grammy at the time for Best Performance Rhythm & Blues Group and in 1999 it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Cropper, whose incisive guitar parts were a key ingredient of the record, re-cut the tune in 1978 with the Blues Brothers (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd). Sam himself teamed up with rocker Lou Reed eight years later to record the song for the soundtrack of the comedy Soul Man, starring C. Thomas Howell and Rae Dawn Chong. 2008 saw the release the comedy Soul Men, in which stars Bernie Mac and Samuel L. Jackson performed “Hold On, I’m Comin’.”
All three of the duo’s Stax albums were strong sellers; Hold On! I’m Comin’ (1966 Atlantic) scored number one on the R&B Albums chart and number 45 on the Pop Album chart, Double Dynamite (1966 Atlantic) hit number seven on the R&B Album charts and number 118 on the Pop Album charts, and Soul Men (1967 Atlantic) reached number five on the R&B Album chart and an outstanding number two placing on the Pop Album chart.
Sam & Dave’s newfound fortunes began to wane when Stax ended its distribution deal with Atlantic in May of 1968. Their records then began appearing on Atlantic, as did the following release I Thank You (1968 Atlantic). Four leftover songs from the duo’s Stax sessions with Hayes and Porter, including 1969’s “Soul Sister, Brown Sugar,” were moderate R&B chart hits, but the crossover momentum had died. By the time of the release of their tenth and final Atlantic single, 1971’s “Don’t Pull Your Love” (produced by Brad Shapiro and Dave Crawford), Sam and Dave has parted company.
They had stopped speaking in 1969 and even though financial necessity prompted subsequent reunions onstage and in the studio, they did not talk to each other again offstage until 1981, the year they permanently severed their partnership. Drug problems also plagued both singers. Each man pursued a solo recording career after their initial June 1970 split – Sam with several brilliant but little-noticed singles for Atlantic with producer King Curtis (finally made available in 2002 on the 2-K Sounds CD Plenty Good Lovin’: The Lost Solo Album), Dave with one obscure 45’ for Alston. As a duo, they cut the Cropper-produced Back at Cha (1974 United Artist) for United Artists in 1974, two similarly unsuccessful singles for Contempo in England in 1977 (one of which, ironically, is a treatment of The Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out”), and several albums of re-recorded hits for Gusto, K-Tel, and Odyssey between 1978 and 1981. They also sang on a track of the jazz electric bass dynamo Jaco Pastorious’ 1976 debut album, Jaco Pastorious (1976 Epic).
The pair toured the world sporadically during the ‘70s, sometimes headlining at clubs and oldies shows, and other times opening concerts for such bands as The Clash and Sha Na Na. There were periods when they each worked outside of the music industry. Sam worked as a process server for a Texas law firm and Dave at a Pontiac dealership in New Jersey. They gave their final duet performance on New Year’s Eve of 1981 at a San Francisco club. Following the show, they never spoke to or saw one another again.
In 1982, Dave hooked up with singer Sam Daniels and began touring as the New Sam & Dave Revue. Sam Moore tried to legally prevent the new duo from using the old name but was largely unsuccessful. Dave and the new Sam made only one record together, a medley of Sam & Dave hits that was recorded in Holland. Dave, who in 1987 had been arrested and fined for selling a $10 rock of crack cocaine to an undercover policewomen, made his final appearance with his new partner on April 3, 1988 at a Stax reunion show in Atlanta that also featured Isaac Hayes, Eddie Floyd, and Rufus and Carla Thomas. He died six days later when his car went off the highway and hit a tree near Sycamore, Georgia while he was en route to his mother’s house.
Sam’s post-Dave career has included recordings with Don Henley, Bruce Springsteen, Conway Twitty, and David Sanborn. He also appeared with Jr. Walker as a fictional duo called Swanky Moves in the 1988 motion picture Tapeheads and on its soundtrack album (1988 Island). His first solo album, Overnight Sensational (2006 Rhino) was released by Rhnio in 2006 and produced by bassist and American Idol judge Randy Jackson. The critically acclaimed album features appearances by Springsteen, Sting, Sheila E., Jon Bon Jovi, Wynonna Judd, Fantasia Barrino, Stevie Winwood, Mariah Carey, Vince Gill, Travis Tritt, Paul Rodgers, Billy Preston, and Eric Clapton, among others.
Sam & Dave were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.