Hello there! This is another entry in our blog series Tim’s Cover Story Goes to the Movies. In these posts, we review a rock and roll tune that features prominently in a film.
This week’s entry is Soul Man. This is a terrific R&B song from the group Sam and Dave. We will next discuss the movie Soul Man, that featured a cover of the song. We will then review covers of that tune by Tom Jones and by the Blues Brothers.
Sam and Dave and Soul Man:
Sam and Dave were a great R&B duo in the 60s and early 70s. Like so many soul artists, both Sam and Dave began their careers singing gospel music. Tenor Sam Moore (born in 1935) and baritone Dave Prater (born in 1938) had previously performed with different gospel ensembles when they met while working the gospel circuit.
The duo first joined forces in 1961. They obtained a record contract and recorded some songs that gained regional coverage, but they failed to make headway nationally. Below is a photo of Sam Moore (L) and Dave Prater, who were known by the nickname “Double Dynamite.”Embed from Getty Images
Sam and Dave’s big break occurred in 1964 when they were signed by Jerry Wexler to a contract with Atlantic Records. At that time Atlantic distributed records produced by the Memphis studio Stax Records, so Wexler “loaned” the duo to that organization, believing (correctly) that Stax could successfully harness their gospel stylings to R&B songs.
Wexler, a tremendous talent scout, summed up their potential:
“I put Sam in the sweet tradition of Sam Cooke or Solomon Burke, while Dave had an ominous Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs-sounding voice, the preacher promising hellfire.”
Stax proved to be a golden opportunity for Sam and Dave. First off, the “house band” at Stax was Booker T and the MGs. That group laid down terrific backing tracks for the Stax musicians. In addition, Stax could supplement the Booker T ensemble with a dynamite horn section, the Mar-Keys.
At that time Stax also employed a stable of great songwriters, including guitarist Steve Cropper from Booker T and the MGs, and Isaac Hayes and his songwriting partner David Porter. Cropper co-wrote several of Sam and Dave’s songs.
Finally, Stax co-owner Jim Stewart engineered Sam and Dave’s early recordings. Stewart’s inspired technical skills helped create what is now known as the Memphis Sound. In particular, Stewart pioneered studio techniques that enabled him to record songs in a single take.
The song Soul Man was written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter. Hayes was inspired by watching TV newscasts about the 1967 Detroit riots. He heard that black residents had marked buildings that had not been destroyed during the riots – mostly institutions owned and operated by African-Americans – with the word “soul”.
The notion was that looters would bypass a company owned by blacks.
This reminded Isaac Hayes of biblical references to the Passover. He wrote a song that told
“a story about one’s struggle to rise above his present conditions. It’s almost a tune [where it’s] kind of like boasting, ‘I’m a soul man.’ “
On Soul Man, Sam and Dave alternate taking the lead in each of the verses, before they both repeat the title of the song at the end. They are backed up by Booker T and the MGs and by the Mar-Keys horn section.
Upon its release in summer 1967, Soul Man was the most successful recording to date for Stax. The song shot up to #1 on the Billboard Hot Black Singles charts and to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Sam and Dave were awarded the 1968 Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Group Performance, Instrumental or Vocal.
Here are Sam and Dave in a live performance of Soul Man.
I want to thank my colleague Fred Luehring for showing me this video. I believe that it was filmed during a Stax/Volt Revue tour of Europe in fall 1967. What a tour! In addition to Sam and Dave, it featured Booker T and the MGs, Otis Redding, the Mar-Keys, and other Stax headliners.
As is obvious from the video, Sam and Dave were famous for the energy of their performances. Dressed in identical suits, Sam and Dave give a rousing performance of their big hit.
The boys are backed by a full horn section from the Mar-Keys. At about the 2 ½ minute section of the song, Sam and Dave begin a long, protracted ending characterized by some impressive dancing, along with repeated call-and-response phrasing taken directly from gospel music.
After their success with songs such as Soul Man and Hold On, I’m Coming, Sam and Dave became R&B superstars. They headlined major R&B tours, and appeared on shows such as American Bandstand, The Ed Sullivan Show, and The Mike Douglas Show.
On the surface, it appeared that Sam and Dave were soul mates with a mutually satisfactory career. However, beneath their friendly veneer simmered a legendary feud.
It seems to have begun in 1969, when Dave Prater shot his girlfriend in the face and nearly killed her. Prater escaped jail time for this incident, but it seems to have caused a permanent rift with Sam.
During the same time, Sam Moore had developed a heroin addiction that also caused strife within the group. Dave may also have had addiction issues. The two continued to perform together until the summer of 1970 when they temporarily broke up. However, during that time Sam would not even look at Dave when they performed.
The boys reunited after their split in 1970, but the animosity remained. Apparently they would
show up separately for shows, require separate dressing rooms, not look at each other onstage, and communicate through intermediaries. They also had performances in the 1970s where only one of them would show up.
When the pair finally split up for good in December 1981, they never again spoke to one another.
Things got even worse, if that was possible, when Dave Prater teamed up in 1982 with Sam Daniels, and the two toured as “Sam and Dave.” Sam Moore tried unsuccessfully to block Prater and Daniels from using the original name of his group. He did persuade Dave’s new record company to change the name of their album to “The New Sam and Dave Revue.” Prater continued to perform with Sam Daniels until April 1988, when Prater died in a car crash while driving to his mother’s house.
In the meantime, Sam Moore continued his career as a solo artist and also collaborated in duets with various guest artists. But Sam continued his feud even after Dave Prater’s death.
In 1992, Sam and Dave were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. However, Sam refused to sit at the same table with Prater’s widow Rosemary Prater. Instead, he insisted that Prater’s son by his first wife sit at his table. The protocol of the Rock Hall of Fame is that the widow of a deceased artist be invited to accept the induction on behalf of their spouse.
Sam then argued that Dave might not have been legally married to Rosemary Prater. Oh, my. Later, in 2008 the Weinstein Company (yes, that Weinstein) released a movie called Soul Men. It starred Bernie Mac and Samuel L. Jackson as two soul singers who carry on a long-standing feud.
claiming the movie was based on the careers of Sam & Dave, and damaged both Moore’s reputation and career. The suit was dismissed on summary judgment in May 2012.
One has to have sympathy for Sam here – it seems transparently obvious that the Soul Men movie was in fact based on Sam and Dave’s career.
Well, Sam Moore has now completed his long and complicated journey from R&B superstar to heroin addict to Republican. In 1996 he wrote a song for the Bob Dole presidential campaign called “I’m a Dole Man.” And in 2012, Moore asked the Obama presidential campaign to cease using his song Hold On, I’m Coming.
Nevertheless, in the spirit of the holidays we wish Sam Moore all the best. He was a dynamic performer who managed to take his gospel-inspired musical gifts and make himself a great R&B artist.
The film Soul Man:
The movie Soul Man was a 1986 comedy about a man who pretends to be black in order to obtain a scholarship to Harvard Law School that is reserved for African-American students. The film was directed by Steve Miner and starred C. Thomas Howell and Rae Dawn Chong.
Below left is the poster for the movie. The line “Guess who’s coming to college?” is a take-off on the title of the 1967 movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? in which Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn play a couple who are taken aback when their daughter’s fiance turns out to be African-American.
The premise of the film is that Mark Watson (Howell) is set to attend Harvard Law School. However, he discovers that his father has squandered all of the family’s money. Watson applies for scholarship aid, but the only available scholarship he can find is reserved for black students.
In desperation, Watson takes a massive dose of tanning pills to enable him to pass for black, and is awarded the scholarship. When he gets to Harvard, he meets fellow African-American student Sarah Walker (Chong). They begin to date and Watson falls in love with her.
Watson is disconcerted when he discovers the problems caused by his ruse. First, his fellow students treat him more as a black person than a law school colleague. Worse still, he discovers that Sarah Walker was the losing finalist for Watson’s scholarship, and that she has taken a menial job to provide for herself and her child (she is a single mom).
Eventually, Watson confesses that he has cheated. He is allowed to remain at Harvard and work his way through law school. Eventually, Sarah forgives him and they resume their relationship.
The song Soul Man appears in the film of the same name. This particular version is a cover by Sam Moore and Lou Reed. Here is the music video for this song.
A number of the stars from Soul Man appear in this music video (C. Thomas Howell, Rae Dawn Chong, and James Earl Jones). In addition, the clip features a number of 80s TV stars, including Jamie Farr, the cast of Laverne and Shirley, Elvira (Mistress of the Dark), and Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd from Moonlighting.
Although the instrumental arrangement of this song closely follows that of the original Soul Man, this strikes me as an unfortunate cover. While Lou Reed’s flat affect was perfect for the music of the Velvet Underground, he does not fare well when paired with a great R&B vocalist like Sam Moore. So I rate this as simply a fair cover.
The movie Soul Man has many troubling aspects. To be fair, the motives behind it appear to be genuine. The writer and director wanted to highlight the difficulties faced by minorities at an elite institution dominated by white privilege. Their intent was to produce a film with an anti-racist message.
Nevertheless, a number of African-Americans complained about what they perceived as racist impulses behind Soul Man. Spike Lee was the most outspoken black filmmaker who criticized that film.
In some cases the charges seem ill-founded. For example, C. Thomas Howell was criticized as a white actor who “performed in blackface;” however, I’m not sure how else one is supposed to portray a white person masquerading as black. And the actress Rae Dawn Chong was slammed for not being ‘sufficiently black’ (her father, comedian Tommy Chong, is of Chinese and Scots-Irish heritage, while her mother is Afro-Canadian and Cherokee).
However, this film had several other problems. One of the premises of the film is that Howell wins the scholarship because there are no more qualified blacks in Southern California. And the movie could certainly be viewed as an attack on affirmative action programs.
In any case, Soul Man was a commercial success (it debuted in 3rd place at the box office behind Crocodile Dundee and The Color of Money, and eventually had a domestic gross of about $30 million). Nevertheless, the film has a negative 14% score on Rotten Tomatoes. It is hard to imagine the film Soul Man being made and distributed today.
Tom Jones and Soul Man:
Tom Jones was born Thomas John Woodward in Wales in June 1940. He showed musical talent at a young age, but his interest in music heightened when at age 12 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and required two years of convalescence. During that time he did little except listen to music and draw.
Tom was attracted to performers like Elvis, but also to R&B singers such as Little Richard, Jackie Wilson and Solomon Burke. In 1963, he began performing with local groups; they gained a following in South Wales but were unable to score a big breakthrough.
All of this changed in 1964, when Gordon Mills became Tom’s manager. Mills changed his stage name to Tom Jones, after the hero of the 1963 film of that name. Mills also took Jones to London and signed him to Decca Records.
In 1964, Jones released the song It’s Not Unusual. At that time, “pirate” radio stations had become famous in Britain, challenging the BBC’s monopoly on pop music. A rock-music station Radio Caroline, broadcasting from ships moored in international waters off the British coast, played It’s Not Unusual constantly.
The support from Radio Caroline turned It’s Not Unusual into a big hit for Tom Jones. The song climbed to #1 in the UK and made it into the top ten on the Billboard pop charts. Suddenly, the Welsh singer with the powerful baritone voice became an international star.
Jones cashed in on his fame in several ways. First, he performed the theme songs for a number of movies, including What’s New, Pussycat and the James Bond film Thunderball. The movie themes and other pop hits propelled Jones to the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1966.
Next, Jones became an international sex symbol. He cut down somewhat on his recording schedule in order to concentrate on live performances, particularly in Las Vegas nightclubs. Jones would wear his shirts unbuttoned almost to his waist, and capped this off with skin-tight trousers. Below is a photo of Jones in typical “Vegas” attire.Embed from Getty Images
The combination of Jones’ strong vocals, rugged good looks and sexy attire apparently had an overwhelming effect on women in the audience. During his shows, women would throw their panties and/or their hotel room keys onto the stage. Jones appeared to take all this adulation in good humor; however, he now admits that at the time he was having sex with up to 250 groupies a year.
Tom Jones married his wife Linda in 1957, after she became pregnant when they were both 16. Although their marriage continued until Linda’s death in 2016, Tom also indulged in numerous extra-marital affairs. In addition to one-night stands with groupies, Jones had a relationship with Mary Wilson of the Supremes, and another affair with the actress known as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
Here is Tom Jones in a live rendition of Soul Man. This takes place in 1971.
This is a classic Tom Jones performance: the unbuttoned shirt revealing his hairy chest; the enjoyable, booming baritone vocals; and the engaging personality. You can see that Jones spent a lot of time listening to soul artists.
While performing in Vegas in the early 70s, Jones met Elvis Presley. The two rock superstars and sex symbols hit it off and became fast friends until Presley’s death in 1977.
Unlike Elvis, who had very little money when he died in 1977, Tom Jones has been canny about saving and investing his money. He has been named the wealthiest entertainer in Wales, with a fortune estimated at £175 million.
Jones has proved a versatile entertainer; he has had success with R&B songs, pop tunes and country music. Jones has sold over 100 million records in his career. From 2012-2015 Jones was a coach on the TV show The Voice – UK.
We salute Tom Jones, who has now maintained a successful career for more than 50 years. In 2006 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his services to music, so you can call him Sir Thomas Woodward.
The Blues Brothers and Soul Man:
We previously discussed the Blues Brothers in a blog post on the Spencer Davis Group song Gimme Some Lovin’, and also their cover of the Solomon Burke song Everybody Needs Somebody To Love. So here we will briefly summarize their career.
The Blues Brothers grew out of a Saturday Night Live skit that “went viral.” In January 1976, following a “King Bees” sketch, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, still wearing their bee costumes, performed the Slim Harpo song “I’m a King Bee.” The song featured Belushi on vocals and Aykroyd on harmonica.
Dan Aykroyd had been a serious blues fan for many years. Growing up in Ottawa, Canada, Aykroyd was inspired by American blues greats such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Buddy Guy.
Once they were hired as SNL cast members, Aykroyd and Belushi would frequent New York blues clubs following rehearsals. After their “King Bee” blues performance in 1976, Aykroyd and Belushi discussed the idea of forming a blues cover group.
In April 1978, the “Blues Brothers” performed in an SNL skit. They appeared in the “cold opening” to the show, and performed Sam and Dave’s Soul Man. Here is their performance.
The “Blues Brothers” are introduced by Garrett Morris. Belushi and Aykroyd walk in wearing black suits, fedoras and shades; Aykroyd is carrying a briefcase attached to his arm with handcuffs. After entering, John unlocks the briefcase from which Aykroyd removes a harmonica. Belushi then executes a cartwheel, one of the amazingly acrobatic moves for a man of his girth (he could also do backflips). .
Soul Man is a note-for-note copy of the Sam and Dave original. Not only that, but the Blues Brothers band features guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, members of Booker T and the MGs, who backed up Sam and Dave in the original recording session at Stax Studios.
John Belushi’s vocals are rather limited, but he had a genuine enthusiasm for the blues and was extremely faithful to Sam and Dave’s original rendition. Near the end of the song, Dan Aykroyd chips in with a first-rate blues harmonica solo.
Pay particular attention to Belushi and Aykroyd dancing – you will see some very impressive moves. Both of them were not only talented dancers, but inspired comedians. Below is a photo of the Blues Brothers in performance.Embed from Getty Images
The Blues Brothers act took off after Belushi’s 1978 film National Lampoon’s Animal House became a smash hit. Assisted by SNL keyboardist and arranger Paul Shaffer, they assembled an all-star band, for the Blues Brothers Show Band and Revue. That band was nearly identical to the group seen backing up Belushi and Aykroyd in the video clip shown earlier.
The Blues Brothers movie was so successful that it appeared likely to begins a series of films and albums. Alas, all this was blown to bits when John Belushi died in March, 1982 after being injected with a “speedball,” a mixture of heroin and cocaine. For a while, Belushi had been notorious for his excessive drug use. Friends and family had been unable to stop him.
Well, the “Blues Brothers” were cut short abruptly by John Belushi’s tragic death. However, while they lasted Belushi and Aykroyd formed a wacky and memorable comedic and musical duo.
Wikipedia, Soul Man (song)
Wikipedia, Sam and Dave
Richard Harrington, Another Hall of Fame Family Feud, The Washington Post, Jan. 15, 1992.
Wikipedia, Soul Man (film)
Wikipedia, Tom Jones (singer)
Wikipedia, The Blues Brothers
Wikipedia, John Belushi
Wikipedia, Dan Aykroyd