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The Story Behind the Song "Soul Man" by Sam & Dave

Rockin’ before she could walk, a vinyl hound who can’t remember a thing because the words to all songs from 1960-2019 are stuck in her head.

Sam & Dave in an ad from Billboard Magazine, October 26, 1968

Sam & Dave in an ad from Billboard Magazine, October 26, 1968

With Woodstock firmly on my mind as I was wrapping up my Woodstock series of articles, I happened to hear this wonderful tune on the radio the other morning. What was that? Did I hear the name "Woodstock" in the song? Funny that I hadn't really noticed it before, but sure enough, Woodstock does appear in the lyrics to "Soul Man."

How could this be? The song "Soul Man" was released two years before the Woodstock festival took place in August 1969.

...I was brought up on a side street, yes m'am

I learned how to love before I could eat

I was educated at Woodstock

When I start loving, oh I can't stop...

Who Were Sam & Dave?

Sam & Dave were an American duo who recorded and performed together for roughly 20 years, starting in 1961. They were famous for their R&B and soul-infused songs, and for their performing style. The higher voice (tenor) of this duo belonged to Samuel David Moore, and the deeper voice (baritone) belonged to Dave Prater.

Sam was born on October 12, 1935 in Miami, Florida, while Dave was born on May 9, 1937 in Ocilla, Georgia. They both grew up singing gospel music in their local churches, and began their careers in the music business singing with gospel outfits.

Sam was in the group The Majestics for a time, and recorded his very first song with them, 1954's “Nighty-Night." He later joined gospel quartets The Gales in 1957 and then The Mellionaires in 1959. Dave had originally moved to Miami to join his older brother J.T.’s gospel group, the Sensational Hummingbirds. And it was in Miami that fate brought these two together. The King of Hearts nightclub hosted an amateur night, and Sam and Dave ended up onstage together. They knew right away from the audience's reaction that they had to work together.

They recorded seven singles on the Alston and Roulette labels before they were discovered by Jerry Wexler, a partner in Atlantic Records, in 1964. Jerry just happened to be in Miami on a combination business/vacation trip and dropped by The King of Hearts, which was known as the place to go to catch great black R&B and soul performers. He signed the duo and sent them over to Stax, which was known for its gospel, blues and southern soul recordings. Their very first single for Stax was "A Place Nobody Can Find" in 1965. Two more singles followed in 1965, including "You Don't Know Like I Know," which was released in November 1965. This was their first hit and the one that started a run of eight top-twenty Billboard R&B hits in a row.

Their fourth single, released in March 1966, was "Hold On, I'm Comin'." This one peaked in the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot R&B singles chart in June 1966. They had four hits in 1967 alone; "You Got Me Hummin'," "When Something Is Wrong with My Baby," "Sooth Me" and "Soul Man." Most of their hits were written by R&B and soul legends Isaac Hayes (of "Shaft" fame) and David Porter. Most of their studio recordings featured Hayes on the piano as well as Booker T. & the M.G.'s.

Sam & Dave in a Billboard ad for their single "Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody," September 17, 1966.

Sam & Dave in a Billboard ad for their single "Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody," September 17, 1966.

Sam & Dave Performing "Soul Man"

In 1968, Atlantic ended its distribution deal with Stax Records. Sam & Dave then moved to Atlantic, where they recorded their first single for the label in April of that year. "You Don't Know What You Mean to Me" peaked at #20 on the R&B chart. But the move to a new label, coupled with Sam & Dave's long-troubled personal relationship, caused them to split up in 1970.

They were very different people from very different backgrounds. So, while they created all this fabulous music together, they were never friends and rarely spoke to each other off-stage. Things came to a real head in December 1969, when a jealous Dave shot and wounded his then-girlfriend (later his wife). Sam declared after that incident that while he would sing with Dave, he would never speak with him again.

They would get back together and then split up again several more times over the years. In 1978, the Blues Brothers recorded "Soul Man" for the album Briefcase Full of Blues, which led to one of the duo's more successful reunions. Their last performance as Sam & Dave took place in San Francisco on December 31, 1981.

On April 9, 1988, Dave died in a car accident in Sycamore, Georgia. Sam has continued to record and perform, and he appeared at the 25th anniversary concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, where he performed “Soul Man” and “Hold On, I’m Comin’” with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

The Woodstock Connection

Plenty of websites devoted to song lyrics state that the lyrics to the third verse of the song are as follows:

"Listen
I was brought up on a side street
I learned how to love before I could eat
I was educated from good stock
When I start lovin' I just can't stop..."

This usage of "good stock" has been perpetuated over time by other artists who covered the song, including the Blues Brothers. However, woodstock it is.

When Isaac Hayes came up with the song's title, he had no real definition for what a "soul man" was. It was his writing partner David Porter who defined a soul man and came up with the lyrics. To Porter, a soul man was rural, a great lover and monogamous. The soul man was educated in the sticks, with trees cut down to build the school. The school didn't have a name, it was just a school in the woods, made out of trees—"woodstock."

Sam was the heavens, his voice was almost not human. But Dave rooted their music in the dirt and in the earth.

— Bruce Springsteen

Five Musical Facts

  1. Sam turned down an offer to replace Sam Cooke, the "King of Soul," in the group the Soul Stirrers.
  2. The King of Hearts Club was in the Liberty City area of Miami. and back in the day it was owned by John Lomelo, who would later become mayor of Sunrise, Florida before going to jail for bribery and extortion.
  3. Sam & Dave's live shows were fantastic and well-choreographed spectacles, featuring horns, two drummers and go-go dancers, leading Otis Redding, who was sick of being upstaged by them, to declare at one point that he never wanted to follow Sam & Dave again.
  4. Sam was a heroin user for a time, having been introduced to heroin and cocaine by soul artist Little Willie John in 1965. Sam's wife and manager, who he met in 1977, got him into detox and rehab, and he has been clean since.
  5. In 1979, Sam & Dave opened for...wait for it...The Clash, of all bands, during their "Clash Take the 5th Tour." Right up there with Hendrix opening for The Monkees, right

© 2019 Kaili Bisson

Comments

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on July 06, 2019:

Hi Flourish,

Thank you! I found one article that hinted at something pretty awful, so will follow that lead and add some details about why they didn't speak if I can find a second reliable source.

FlourishAnyway from USA on July 05, 2019:

That must have been some personal conflict to perform together like that but barely speak. Makes me wonder whether the drugs or some other problem was the source of their tension. Excellent article.

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on July 05, 2019:

Hi Pamela and thank you for checking out this article...kind of a break from Woodstock ;-)

They were so talented, their voices so rich, and the format they used in their songs was fantastic. They sure created some classic songs for us to enjoy!

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on July 05, 2019:

I didn't know Dave died in a car accident. I remember these two and it is a shame they did not continue singing together. I sure didn't know about Sam's offer to replace Sam Cooke either. This is a very interesting article about these singers who were so talented.