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Sam & Dave
Hold On! I’m A Comin’
Sam gets the first verse, calm at first, but almost immediately shifts into high gear, his voice soaring up by the end of it. And then Dave joins him for the chorus. It’s a quick repetition of the key line–Hold On, I’m Coming–offered with confidence and reassurance. Wayne Jackson’s trumpet is playing the melody line of the intro riff underneath, before Prater heads into the next verse. Prater’s voice was the ying to Moore’s yang, the cooler temperature, the lower range. He’s smooth, collected, promising his baby that she can count on him. The beauty in that verse is Moore’s ad libs, his vocal riffs in the background (playing like) another instrument. (1)
Born in 1935 in Miami, Florida, Sam Moore was the son of a church deacon; his mother sang in the church choir, and his grandfather was a minister. (2) Moore’s destiny as a singer was set. From gospel songs in church, Sam graduated to sing as a member of the gospel groups The Majestics, The Gales, and The Mellonaires.
One night, the Melionaires found themselves opening up for Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers. This chance pairing eventually led to Moore being offered the job of replacing Cooke when the latter decided to leave the gospel world. At the last moment Sam backed out, deciding the gospel life was not for him. “The night before I was to go with the Soul Stirrers I went to a show to see Jackie Wilson. I saw the electrification, the excitement. Oh God, he was a hell of a showman. I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’” (2)
Cutting his teeth on the local amateur circuit, Moore recalled his early days as a secular singer. “When I started out I knew nothing about the business,” confesses Sam. “The only thing I knew was to stand behind a microphone and sing. I enjoyed singing songs by Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John, and Sam Cooke. I’m a gospel man.” (2) In the spring of 1961, Moore won a local amateur show prize of $25 but more importantly, his performance led to a job as an MC of amateur night at Miami’s King of Hearts Club.
In the winter of 1961, David Prater, a fellow gospel singer who hailed from Ocilla, Georgia, walked into the King of Hearts. Moore knew Prater from the gospel tour. Prater, born in May of 1937, spent his time on the gospel circuit as the lead singer of The Sensational Hummingbirds, a gospel group founded by his older brother J.T. To make ends meet, he worked a number of day jobs including a cashier, a short-order cook and on that winter evening, Dave Prater was a bread baker. Sam remembers that when Dave signed up for that week’s show, he was wearing his baker’s whites; wherever he walked, he left behind white flour shoe prints. (3)
Prater had planned to sing Sam Cooke’s Wonderful World but the house band didn’t know it. Moore suggested Jackie Wilson’s Doggin’ Around but Prater didn’t know the words. “So I said to him, ‘Look, if you start singing I’ll pipe the words to you from the back ’cause I’m going to be up onstage.’ So he started, and when he got to the verse part I would just say (the words) and he would sing them.
“When it got to the part where Jackie Wilson would drop to his knees, Dave tripped. I was responsible for all the instruments and microphones that got broken and I didn’t want to pay for something that I didn’t do, so we went down together while I caught the mike. The audience thought that was the act. It wasn’t, but they went crazy.” (2)
As they both recovered from the fall, Moore, with mike in hand, picked up where Prater left off. At that moment, the duo of Sam & Dave was born. The club owner was so impressed that he hired them as an act.
Using gospel call-and-response, Sam & Dave developed a regional following and were eventually signed to a recording contract on Marlin Records by singer and record producer Steve Alaimo (Everyday I Have To Cry Some) after the two acts performed on the same bill at the King of Hearts.
Sam & Dave recorded two singles in early 1962 on Marlin before label owner, Henry Stone, worked out a deal for the duo with Roulette Records in New York. From 1962-1964, the duo recorded six singles for Roulette and another for Alston Records, owned by Stone and Alaimo. Some of the songs received regional airplay but did nothing nationally. Though the duo’s songs lacked national coverage, someone was listening and the discouragement didn’t reduce the electrifying charge of their live shows back at the King of Hearts in Miami.
1966 Photo courtesy of Gems/Redferns/Getty Images
The Roulette singles did catch the ear of Atlantic Records co-owner, Jerry Wexler. Wexler was in town for a disc jockey convention in Miami Beach in late summer 1964, and after a hectic day of glad-handing, Wexler stopped by the King of Hearts. “It was 165 degrees in the middle of summer,” recalls Wexler. “It was unbelievable. It was hot and they were hot. Henry Stone was the one who steered me there. It was wall-to-wall people. We were the only Caucasians in there. Ahmet Ertegun, (Wexler’s partner at Atlantic) and I are out there boogalooing like fools, sweating and just having a ball. It was so exciting. I don’t know if we were trying to impress Sam & Dave, Henry Stone, or just knock our ownselves out, but we really got into the spirit of things. When I heard them there that night, that’s all she wrote. I signed them immediately.” (2)
For Sam Moore, that was sweet music to his ears. Sam had always dreamed of recording for a label with the renown of Atlantic whose roster included the likes of Ray Charles, Ruth Brown and Big Joe Turner. Moore was ecstatic when Wexler summoned him to Atlantic offices in New York. When the meeting was over, Sam walked out believing his world was turned upside down. Sam & Dave were being exiled to Stax Records in Memphis. Wexler was tuned in. “I didn’t have enough production chops available to do Sam & Dave right,” Wexler acknowledges. (4)
Stax Records began as Satellite Records in 1957 and when a California-based record company of the same name complained, a change was made in 1961. Owned by Jim Stewart and his sister, Estelle Axton, they already had both a new name and logo in the works. They had originally conceived the moniker of “Stax” (the name was Jim’s wife’s idea: “ST” from Stewart; “AX” from Axton). (6) Jim worked in a local Memphis bank, took business classes at night and played fiddle in a country swing band on weekends. His older sister, Estelle was a schoolteacher with an entrepreneurial sidelight of buying low and selling high. “There were a lot of people that didn’t want to take time to go to the record shop,” she explains, “so they’d give me a list and I’d go to Poplar Tunes and buy whatever they wanted. I’d pay sixty-five cents for the singles and sell them for a dollar.” (5)
Estelle Axton and Jim Stewart. Photo courtesy of the Stax Museum.
While Jim produced the artists in the studio and Estelle managed the finances, a group of local musicians found their way to the Stax studio located at 926 E. McLemore. In summer 1962, 17-year-old keyboardist Booker T. Jones, 20-year-old guitarist Steve Cropper, and two seasoned players, bassist Lewie Steinberg and drummer Al Jackson Jr. were in the studio to back the former Sun Records star, Billy Lee Riley. During downtime, the four started playing around with a bluesy organ riff. Stewart was in the control booth. He liked what he heard, and he recorded it. The song evolved into Green Onions credited to Booker T. and The M.G.’s. The group, with horn players Floyd Newman, Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love and later bassist, Donald (Duck) Dunn, would play on hundreds of records produced by Stax over the next few years becoming the de facto house band for the label.
With a deal in mind, Wexler made the call to Stewart in Memphis. ‘How about you go ahead? The contract is with us, but we will treat this exactly as a Stax record in terms of royalty and so on.’” Wexler was proposing a “loan” to Stax, an unusual arrangement with a few important caveats—most notably that Stax agree to split publishing royalties on any songs written by Stax staff for Sam & Dave, and that Atlantic retain ownership of the duo’s contract. “The deal was that they made the Sam & Dave masters at Stax, they did the mixes, send them up to us, and from there on we took it,” explained Wexler. (4) This deal was originally put into place when Wexler heard about a Rufus and Carla Thomas record titled ‘Cause I Love You and wanted to lease it from Stax for $5000 up front money and the right of first refusal on any future Stax release. This deal stood in place until 1968. (7)
Once in Memphis, Sam & Dave stood outside the theater that housed the recording studio with Jim Stewart, (just) getting acquainted. Sam remembers he was acclimating to the idea of being in an old theater within a languishing retail district, taking it all in, when a colorful neighborhood character in a pink shirt, chartreuse pants, white belt, white shoes, pink socks, and bald head stopped his afternoon stroll in front of Jim Stewart. Jim introduced Sam & Dave to the songwriter and piano player Isaac Hayes. Along came another guy in a small hat and a large alpaca sweater, looking like the insurance salesman he was—David Porter, another writer for the studio. “Then I find out that during the daytime Jim works at the bank and at night he plays country music,” Moore continues. “Oh my God, the tears started streaming down my face. I looked at Dave and I said, ‘How could Atlantic do this to us? How could they?’” (8)
Photo courtesy of Bud Simpson.
The collaboration of Hayes and Porter came from different directions. Hayes worked as one of the studio musicians who gradually gained the trust of the house band and singers while Porter wrote songs when he wasn’t working at his day job at the grocery store and selling insurance. “David approached me with the intention of selling me an insurance policy,” remembers Isaac, who was finding himself co-writing with the MG’s, individually and as a group. “During our conversation, we discovered that we had similar interests. He said, ‘Ike, I’m a lyric man, and you’re a music man, let’s do like Holland-Dozier and Bacharach and David!’” (9)
“After fifteen or twenty duds we began to find our niche,” Isaac says. “We experimented a lot. That’s why we had so much success with Sam & Dave, because I would try new types of melodies, new horn riffs and different sounds.” (9)
“Sam & Dave didn’t have a style,” Sam reflects. “Isaac Hayes gave us a style. He could sit at the piano, put a song together, pointing to each person and playing their part, then standing in the middle of the room to coach everyone together. He was producing and didn’t know it, and he produced Sam & Dave right onto the hit charts. “When we first started, there was just a verse, chorus, and then try and harmonize it out. Isaac Hayes, bless his heart, he gave me and Dave the style, all the call-and-response, the horns became the background singers, the rhythm keeping the beat—it’s Isaac Hayes.” (9)
Inspiration can be fickle and it comes at its own time. Late one night at the studio, Isaac and David were trying some new ideas when Porter decided to take an extended bathroom break. He could hear Hayes develop a piano riff that had some bones to it. “I finally struck a groove,” says Isaac, “and it’s taking David forever! I said, ‘David! C’mon man, I got something.’” David had heard Isaac’s progress, but he had his own business to finish. He hollered back from the stall, “Hold on, I’m coming.” Isaac continued with the chords, but in a moment his concentration was broken by a commotion from the back of the room. “That’s it! That’s it!” David ran in yelling, one hand holding his pants halfway up, his other hand waving wildly. “Hold on, I’m coming! That’s it!” It would be the chorus and title to Sam & Dave’s breakout song. (10)
David Porter and Isaac Hayes. Photo courtesy of Tim Sampson/The Stax Museum.
Suddenly, they couldn’t put the ideas to paper fast enough. The song structure developed with the help of a horn riff that Hayes recorded just a few weeks earlier. At the next day’s session, they built the parts quickly. For the rhythm, David referenced Lee Dorsey’s hit, Get Out of My Life Woman. That was the starting part for drummer Al Jackson. Guitarist Steve Cropper added some funk of his own and a sure-fire hit was born.
The original title was Hold On, I'm Comin', but some radio stations objected to its "suggestive nature", and labels on most copies of the single gave the title as Hold On! I'm A Comin'. (11) The song was released in mid-March of 1966 and hit the Billboard R&B chart on April 6th and the Hot 100 chart on April 23rd. (12) (13) Hold On claimed the R&B #1 slot while topping the Pop chart at #21 on June 18th. (14)
The single was phenomenally successful in a number of ways. The duo booked better TV appearances and broke into wider—and wealthier—audiences. Sam & Dave were becoming mainstream artists. This expanded fan base was further evidenced by sales of their first album recorded at Stax. Riding on the back of their hit single, their album Hold On I’m Coming proved to be the breakthrough for Stax’s album sales. In all the company’s years through 1965, they’d released only eight albums—on the Stax and Volt (a Stax subsidiary) labels combined. In 1966 alone, they released eleven albums, and Sam & Dave’s Hold On went to number one on the R&B album sales chart. (15)
Sam & Dave hit the Hot 100 chart a total of 13 times from January of 1966 through March of 1969. (13) Their careers lost their spark in 1968 when Stax’s distribution deal with Atlantic ended. Since Sam & Dave were signed with Atlantic, not Stax, they no longer had access to the production team of Hayes and Porter or the house band of Booker T. And the MG’s, and their records took a dip in quality. Though the switch of labels was unfortunate, what really caused the duo's demise was their volatile relationship.
While the pair had enormous creative energy, they frequently fought off-stage. Nicknamed "Double Dynamite", Sam & Dave became famous for their energetic live performances during the late '60s, which complimented the overall high quality of their studio work. They may have communicated on-stage, but behind the scenes, it was reported that the duo could hardly stand each other's presence. The tension caused Sam & Dave to part ways in June of 1970, just a few years after their heyday. (16)
According to Moore, the split was a result of Moore's dissatisfaction with the duo and his desire to pursue a solo career. According to Prater, they broke up because "[Moore] decided to do what he wanted to do on his own." Moore recorded three solo singles (none of which charted) for Atlantic over the next year and was preparing an album produced by King Curtis, which was shelved after Curtis was stabbed to death in 1971. Prater recorded a single for Alston. Neither was commercially successful as a solo act, and they reunited in August 1971. (17)
Moore had his own take on the dissolution of Sam & Dave. "Dave and I didn't speak for 12 1/2 years," Moore said. "It was really bad. And I was getting into drugs; jumped in there for 15 years. I was addicted. And he had his own problems." They eventually reunited, only to break up again, a cycle they'd repeat until 1981, when they parted ways for good after a New Year’s Eve show in San Francisco. (18)
Sam & Dave are members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Grammy Hall of Fame, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, and are Grammy Award and multiple gold record award-winning artists. Dave Prater died in a single-car accident in Sycamore, Georgia, on April 9, 1988. Sam Moore’s last reported performance was on September 1st, 2017 at the Royal Albert Hall at the age of 81.
Hold On! I'm A Comin' from the Stax Tour in 1966.
Soul Man live from 1967.
1) Brooklyn Magazine, Caryn Rose, Musical Map of the USA: Tennessee—Sam & Dave, October 5, 2016, Link.
2) Rob Bowman. Soulsville U.S.A: The Story Of Stax Records, Apple Books, Pages 190-196.
3) Robert Gordon, Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion, Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
4) Robert Gordon, Location 1823-1830.
5) Robert Gordon, Location 197.
6) Rob Bowman, Page 102.
7) Rob Bowman, The Complete Stax/Volt Singles 1959-1968 box set booklet, Page 1.
8) Robert Gordon, Location 1833-1846.
9) Robert Gordon, Location 1883-1902.
10) Robert Gordon, Location 2429.
11) Wikipedia, Hold On, I'm Comin' (song), Link.
12) Joel Whitburn, Top R&B Singles 1942-1999, Page 388.
13) Joel Whitburn, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Page 617.
14) Joel Whitburn, Billboard Hot 100 Charts The Sixties.
15) Robert Gordon, Location 2467.
16) Gary James, Sam & Dave, www.classicbands.com, Link.
17) Wikipedia, Sam & Dave, Link.
18) J. Freedom du Lac, Washington Post, This Time, He’s a Solo Man, December 7, 2006, Link.
Photo courtesy of Charlie Gillett Collection/Redferns/Getty Images.
© 2019 Jerry Reuss