Hold On... What? A Walk on the Wild Side with Sam & Dave

Mandy Hicks

Sam & Dave_Soul Man Prints_Back Story_Soul music clothingWith it's iconic horn line and poppy, gospel-fueled call and response vocals, "Hold On I'm Comin'" has always been a Sam & Dave favorite. But as Isaac Hayes used to tell it, the stroke of genius that led to this breakthrough hit was a little less genius and a little more literal than previously thought. The day Isaac and his writing partner David Porter were working on the tune at Stax, Mr. Hayes was frustrated with the lack of progress the two had made. He fiddled around with the guitar while Porter was in the restroom. As his frustration boiled over he hollered to his partner to hurry up. Porter shouted back "Hold on man, I'm coming!" Hayes recounts that Porter then burst out of the bathroom, pants around his ankles, and declared that's it—"Hold on I'm Coming"—that was the name and hook they were looking for. That name would ultimately be tweaked to "Hold On! I'm A Coming" when released as a single, due to limitations it faced garnering airplay with what some took to be, let's say, a suggestive title.

The story behind its origin, like the song itself, is amazing. Right? And while this undeniable hit reached No.1 on the Billboard R&B chart (21 on Billboard's Hot 100), and was the group's first major success, Sam Moore was not a fan... In fact, he wasn't a fan of most of his duo's biggest hits—or the act in general. He felt that songs like "Hold On..." and "Soul Man" limited his ability to really say something and showcase his range. He resented the call and response style the two rode to stardom and wanted to work out more harmonies, which he felt they couldn't really execute.

As he explains it:

“...I wanted to do other material. Because I felt myself being pigeonholed into something that was gonna come back and bite me. Which it did... And it’s still happening today… Sam & Dave became an albatross around my neck.”

Before all that resentment, and albatross wearing, Sam Moore met Dave Prater working as an MC at Miami nightclub King of Hearts. Sam had already heard of Dave from locals who knew him for his inspired Sam Cooke covers. But the night Dave played the King of Hearts, he decided to keep folks on their toes by covering Jackie Wilson's "Doggin' Around." Only problem was Dave didn't know all the verses and as he began to melt down, live on stage, Sam Moore, the proverbial host, stepped in to help. The chemistry the two created in that impromptu performance would go on to fuel their act for the next 20 some odd years.

After a brief stint at Roulette Records, where little to nothing happened for the pair, Sam & Dave signed with Atlantic. Jerry Wexler quickly sent them off to Memphis to record at Atlantic subsidiary, Stax Records, where the two would make hit after hit between 1965 and 1968. 

Sam says when he first met the guys that would go on to write most of those hits, he was sure that someone was trying to set him up. He described Isaac Hayes (with a full head of hair back then), and Dave Porter, as the two strangest looking dudes he'd ever seen. But in no time, the hit factory was fully operational and with those two writing the material, the Memphis Horns bringing their own brand of fire, Booker T. throwing in that funky organ wherever needed, and Sam & Dave giving it all they had on stages around the world, this full-tilt production claimed its place at the throne of R&B.

But in 1968, that all came to an abrupt halt when the distribution deal with Stax expired, leaving Sam & Dave contractually obligated to return to their original employer. The smaller scale and focus of Stax had been a much better fit for a duo like Moore and Prater, and without their previous team members to help assemble and refine their songs, they failed to continue the success they'd come to know in Memphis. By that point, Sam's artistic dissent, coupled with heavy heroin use by both men, led the pair to leave Atlantic and officially disband the Sam & Dave act in 1969.

Sam Moore extensively describes that time in his own words:

“After a while...the act was not dynamic. Sometime Dave would show up, I didn’t. Sometime I would show up. Dave didn’t... After the 12 years we were was very very very bad... Only time we [talked] was when we were doing dope."

After 10 straight singles in the Top 20, and three consecutive albums in the Top 10, the two complicated men were on their own as solo artists.

Sam (who self professes to pushback with most of the people he's worked with), teamed up with King Curtis, a remarkable sax player and R&B producer who was working with the likes of Aretha Franklin at the time. In 1970, they cut an album that really allowed Sam's solo ambitions to shine. Sam recalled his work with Curtis as an experience he truly enjoyed, and would have liked to continue, if tragedy hadn't interceded.

When Sam was headed to Curtis' apartment to put the finishing touches on the album's final track, he spotted his burly friend talking with some people, including Aretha, across the street. A dispute broke out between Curtis and a man on his stoop (who, as it turns out, was a drug dealer), and King Curtis was stabbed to death right there in front of his apartment. Aretha screamed for the police as panic ensued. Instead of rushing to their aid, Sam turned around slowly, headed back to the train, and up to his place. He was carrying drugs on him and didn't want to risk a run-in with the cops. That album, Plenty Good Lovin', stalled and ultimately went unreleased for another three decades, until it was revived and distributed in 2002.

Dave Prater, who by all accounts was a volatile man, continued to struggle with his drug habit and other personal problems. In 1968 he shot his wife during a domestic dispute but was never charged over the incident. He struggled on his own musically and would eventually attempt various reunions with his old partner. The two enjoyed a brief stint of reinvigorated success with the release of the Blues Brothers album and film, producing new bookings. But not much had changed between the two personally, which led to continued professional instability. They broke up for good in 1981. 

Sam finally got clean in 1982, but sadly Dave never did. He was arrested for selling drugs in the 80s, and taken to court by Moore that same decade for reviving the Sam & Dave moniker with a new Sam (and without the old Sam's sign off). Dave would ultimately meet an untimely end in a fatal car crash in 1987. Sam didn't attend the funeral, citing a lack of invitation from Prater's family as the reason.

And so ends the saga of Sam & Dave, darker and more sensational than we'd ever imagined. After watching hours and hours of their live performances over the years, it's almost unfathomable to accept that behind that amazing live chemistry and symbiotic vocal dynamite, lurked such an unstable foundation. Sam has gone on to enjoy an enduring career, releasing several more solo albums over the past decade. But to this day, he describes himself as a "little gangster." Someone who enjoys ducking, hiding, and getting away with it. Maybe genius really can control chaos. Or maybe not...

*The bulk of the information in the story (specifically the most sordid details), came directly from Sam Moore in his 2006 Fresh Air interview, which you can access here

For a more extensive account of S&D's best years at Stax, check out the must see documentary Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story. We'd suggest purchasing the full film here.


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