Sam & Dave: May I Baby
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
The hallmark of soul is its depth of personal feeling, but the genre itself has never been known for personal vision. I suppose Marvin Gaye was an exception, but he wasn’t a straight soul artist. Tired of purveying Motown’s soul-pop, he produced What’s Going On, an album of almost unheard-of lyrical topics for pop (although the musings themselves weren’t terribly profound). The same applies to Sam Cooke, a big-city pop singer whose roots were in gospel foremost. I’m not talking about an artist’s own ambition, since that would be placing rockist expectations on a genre primarily concerned with emotional resonance and entertainment. Besides, the artistic development of an Otis Redding—figuratively bringing his sound from inner Memphis to the coasts—is undeniable. The fact remains that artists like Redding, James Carr, Percy Sledge, and Sam & Dave created some of their century’s most enduring music in the pop form.
This past year, more than any other, I’ve reached for the pop of past decades. Everything from Sinatra’s Only the Lonely to Scritti Politti’s Cupid & Psyche 85 to Billie Jo Spears’ number-one country hit from ’75 “Blanket on the Ground.” But I’ve really, really been knocked back by Sam & Dave. The short bio has them forming in Miami, tearing up the southern circuit, and then signing to Atlantic. Atlantic couldn’t give them suitable material, but Stax could. After a string of high-energy hits, Jerry Wexler brought them back into the fold, only to fritter away their career on subpar material. Drug use and mortal conflict between Sam Moore and Dave Prater didn’t help, either. Which is a great entry point: hear two men coaxing each other into delirious vocal heights while realizing they weren’t speaking to each other during the last few years of their partnership.
Things were probably better around the time of “May I Baby,” as this was the B-side to “Soul Man”—the duo’s biggest hit. They were firmly ensconced in the Stax environment, cutting some of Isaac Hayes and David Porter’s greatest compositions. Certainly the track itself is soothing: after a cod-Chinese intro on piano, the band lays down a laid-back, punchy bed of vibes, piano, and Steve Cropper’s unmistakable guitar. Over all this, our soul men charm their way in, drawing out their phrases, lingering on words until their full feeling is wrung from them. Excellent soul, par for the course.
Ah, but then Prater steps up to sing the anxious flipside to the second verse. “I’m just a little boy,” he avers, “live behind the grocery store... I’ve been watching you come and go now...” He tears into “watching” like the act itself has been so painful, but by the time he gets to “come and go,” he’s back to being playful. Those lines bleed brightly from their context, so idiosyncratic, so personal. I found myself, upon first hearing the song, cueing up that part again and again. Who knows whether Hayes or Porter ever did some supermarket girl-watching as kids? Dave finds the full emotional narrative in those peculiar words, to the point where it might as well have been him all those years ago.
But that’s what Sam & Dave could do; that’s what soul, at its peak, was capable of: songs that sound like they’re coded in their singer’s DNA, but thematically accessible by everyone. Within a few years, the two had split, and Moore recorded a solo album with King Curtis, Aretha Franklin, and Donny Hathaway. So lost in booze and narcotics was Moore that he barely remembered recording the scrapped record, which didn’t see release until 2002. I picked it up this summer, and as a last-gasp for soul (big-city saxes and a slicker production had begun to set in to Sam’s sound), it’s bittersweet, but absolutely does not betray the artistic instincts of his former partner, the instincts that guided “May I Baby” safely into the harbor.