Sam Moore, half of the hit Stax duo Sam & Dave, didn’t write the lyrics to “Soul Man.” He also didn’t play the signature guitar lick on this Grammy-winning single.
And yet, “it identifies what I believe from here,” Moore told CBS News in 2019, pointing to his heart.
Co-writer and co-producer Isaac Hayes found inspiration watching late ’60s news reports of civil rights protests in Detroit. “It was said that if you put ‘the soul’ on the door of your commercial establishment, they wouldn’t burn it,” Hayes later told NPR. “Then the word ‘soul,’ it was kind of a galvanizer for African Americans, and it had a unifying effect. It was said with a lot of pride. So I thought, ‘Why not write a track called ‘Soul Man’?”
Moore, who exchanged verses with Dave Prater on the track, wasn’t the last person to see himself in the catchy lyrics that emerged. The empowering message of “Soul Man” was not exclusive to any one community – and that had been Hayes’ goal from the start.
“All you had to do was write about your personal experiences because every African American in this country at the time had similar experiences,” Hayes noted. “But we realized that in addition to being an African American experience, it was a human experience and so it crossed over and became very commercial.” Released in September 1967, “Soul Man” shot to No. 1 on the R&B chart thanks to a series of clever musical contributions from Booker T. & the MG’s and the Mar-Keys horns. It then reached No. 2 on the pop chart.
Listen to “Soul Man” by Sam and Dave
Hayes also played a maestro role in the Stax studio. Working in a converted theater, he presented MG guitarist Steve Cropper with an essentially finished demo. What was missing, however, was of crucial importance: the intro.
“He asked me if I wanted to go down to the piano with him for a minute and have some fun, which I did,” Cropper told Songfacts. “He was always coming up with these changes. He was such a good jazz musician, and he could come up with these different sets of changes, and sometimes leave it up to me to put in some kind of lick or something on top of those changes – and that’s how the intro to “Soul Man” was born.
Cropper rounded things out with another of the brilliantly concise solos he would one day become famous for, but not before Moore shouted, “Play it, Steve!” (The phrase would later become the title of Cropper’s 1998 solo album and the name of his website.)
Still, the inviting exuberance that surrounds Cropper makes following the “Soul Man” sound easier than it was in an analog, decidedly non-technical age. To make things perfect, Cropper had to sit rather than perform in his preferred standing position. “It was one of the toughest sessions I’ve ever played,” Cropper said in 2011. “It sounds like a lot of fun, but that little lick I did? I did it with a Zippo lighter.”
“Soul Man” disappeared from the charts and then became a treasured alum before being unexpectedly resurrected by the Blues Brothers a decade later.
Listen to the Blues Brothers’ version of “Soul Man”
Cropper remained a behind-the-scenes force in the song’s revival as he also sat with this Saturday Night Live spin-off group co-led by blues enthusiasts John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. They initially started out with a much more rooted goal that matched the name of the band.
“I looked at John and said, ‘Have you ever thought about doing something that you could, like, dance to?’ And he said, ‘Like what?'” Cropper later told Michael Berry. “And I said, ‘Like Sam and Dave. They had great records, but they were known as dancers. They could really rock the house.'”
Belushi asked for a suggestion and Cropper improvised “Soul Man”. “They started dancing and clowning around and stuff,” Cropper added. “Everyone was laughing and having a lot of fun.” The updated version reached No. 14 in February 1979, but not everyone was a fan of the Blues Brothers – at least not as recording stars.
“I thought it was a respectable thing at first, but they disrespected Sam and Dave as founders or creators of the song,” Moore said. The Washington Times in 2015. “They did the Blues Brothers thing, made people think ‘Soul Man’ was their song. I felt insulted every time Danny called me to play. I didn’t say anything because I needed the money.” Moore then recorded an update with Lou Reed for the 1986 film of the same name, before “Soul Man” was added to the Grammy Hall of Fame and then to the prestigious National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress.
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