When Something Is Wrong With My Baby – Sam & Dave
…we stand as one…and that’s what makes it better….
Sam and Dave in 1967
When I landed at LSE in 1976 to study Law I was a country boy from Sussex who’d grown up in a town where the 1960s were still being celebrated. Lewes wouldn’t go punk until around 1979-1980. My musical taste was – I thought – pretty wide. It wasn’t. I’d discovered soul and reggae in 1971 in the magical forms of Al Green, Smokey Robinson, Dave & Ansel Collins and Bob & Marcia – all chart acts though. All the non-chart music I liked was stuff like: prog (VDGG & Gentle Giant), US country rock (Commander Cody, Joe Walsh) and groovy english rock (Man & Roxy Music). Random additions in the shape of Osibisa, Joan Armatrading and Blue Öyster Cult completed the patchy picture. My new friend at LSE was in the shape of Glaswegian Rangers fan Lewis MacLeod, also studying Law, with absurdly long wavy hair and an almost unintelligible accent, especially when drunk. We bonded while writing a Beatles ‘A’ Level Paper together one stoned afternoon (I’ll blog it one day). We were hungry for more music. Together we would go on a voyage of discovery into the deepest realms of soul music. Classic soul music.
I suspect the first major purchase of this period was James Brown’s 30 Golden Hits, all the singles from Please Please Please through to the most recent Sex Machine. This was a record to savour. But it wasn’t enough, oh no. Next up was the Stax Gold LP which was the creme de la creme from Memphis, but only scratched the surface of that great record label (William Bell and Judy Clay – Private Number, Mel & Tim – Starting All Over Again, The Staple Singers – Respect Yourself, Jean Knight – Mr Big Stuff – all will have their day!).
I don’t think Sam & Dave were represented on this LP because for arcane reasons their records were all owned and distributed (?) by Atlantic, the parent company who completely stiffed Stax in the late 1960s. Although I have some of their 45s on the Stax blue label. Curious. We dug deeper – Sam & Dave recorded all their hits at Stax Records under the supervision of soul gurus David Porter and Isaac Hayes, with the house band Booker T & The MGs playing the instruments – two white fellas Steve Cropper and Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn on guitar and bass, and two black fellas Booker T Washington on keys and Al Parker on drums (pictured right). This is a major band of brothers. Together with the Memphis Horns – white trumpeter Wayne Jackson and black saxophonist Andrew Love they created an unparalleled run of songs that define southern soul music. All of the singers were black : Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd, Carla Thomas, The Staples Singers, Wilson Pickett (also released by Atlantic), William Bell, blues guitarist Albert King, Johnnie Taylor. The owners were white : Jim Stewart, who formed Stax Records in 1959 with his sister Estelle Axton (St-Ax) and who personally engineered many of these records up almost until the takeover of the company by Al Bell in 1970. I mention the race of the participants because it both was and was not important – it wasn’t important to the musicians at all, nor to Jim and Estelle, but Memphis, Tennessee was a racially segregated city when they were all growing up, and yet they worked together making classic soul music for all those years. However once Dr Martin Luther King was shot just up the road from Stax in the Lorraine Motel in 1968, the atmosphere and racial politics of America and the record label changed. The story of Stax Records is for me the most compelling portrait of America in the 1960s and I have long nurtured projects about Booker T & The MGs, Otis Redding and the label itself. There are many documentaries, and books (Rob Bowman wrote the best one) and a museum now stands where the studio was, overseen by previous Stax secretary Deannie Parker, whom I have spoken to on the telephone while trying to get a Stax stage play off the ground. She was very sweet and helpful.
Sam & Dave came up through the gospel circuit in the South and met at an amateur night in Miami. They became a duo that night and were later signed to a local record label by Henry Stone. Stone it was who suggested them to Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records (based in New York) and Wexler decided to ‘loan them out’ to Stax because he thought their style suited the label. He was right. While Steve Cropper and Jim Stewart worked on the first few songs, they were soon passed to relative label newcomers Isaac Hayes and David Porter who proceeded to shape their act into a more passionate call-and-response Southern roots gospel sound, and who then wrote and produced a run of hit singles that was only bettered in the R&B charts by Aretha Franklin in the 1960s, including huge pop hits Soul Man and Hold On I’m Coming.
Sam Moore has the higher sweeter voice, a Sam Cooke template if you will, while Dave Prater is the gruffer urgent baritone reminiscent of Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops. Together they were Double Dynamite or The Sultans Of Sweat, the most compelling live act of the 1960s (and that includes Otis and Aretha). They wore lime green suits with red handkerchiefs to mop up the sweat, the righteous sweat that they produced onstage as they whipped the crowd into a frenzy. The music was infectious, the double act irresistible.
They went on tour to Europe in 1967 – The Stax/Volt Revue – with Otis Redding, Arthur Conley (Sweet Soul Music), Eddie Floyd and The Mar-Keys. Booker T & The MGs backed every singer and Otis was naturally top of the bill. The story goes that he would watch Sam & Dave from the wings every night as they ripped through their hits, kicking up a storm with their gritty gospel soul and leaving the audience high – then he’d have to go on and top it – solo – every night. He’d never worked so hard in his life. At the end of that tour he told his manager Phil Walden never to book him with Sam & Dave again. But tragically Otis would be dead before the year was out, killed in a plane crash on December 10th 1967 near Madison, Wisconsin just three days after recording Dock Of The Bay. There are now recordings of this amazing Stax/Volt tour available out there. I’d just love to have been at one of those shows.
When Something Is Wrong With My Baby was Sam & Dave’s only ballad (there I go again!) released in January 1967. It didn’t dent the UK charts, and I certainly didn’t hear it as a 9-year old. I first heard it in my crate-digging soul years when I amassed over a period of some years a rather splendid collection of rhythm and blues 45s and LPs which I subsequently lost in the split with Mumtaz in 1985 (see My Pop Life #93), and then slowly rebuilt from (spiral) scratch. I’m certain that this essential song is on the Soul Tape that I made for Jenny when we were courting (see My Pop Life #29 & My Pop Life #28). It became one of “our songs”. Well, it would wouldn’t it? What an amazing record. Wayne Jackson himself said it was the best record he played on, or heard in the 1960s. Rob Bowman’s book calls it “one of the most sublime records in soul music’s history“.
So that when I was invited to be interviewed by Peter Curran for Greater London Radio to promote either a film or a TV show (cannot remember!) that was about to be released, I travelled down to the cosy GLR Studios in Marylebone clutching my Stax 45rpm 7″ copy of this single, hoping that the young Northern Irish DJ would indulge the youngish Sussex actor. I think it was 1990, but I wouldn’t put money on it. And bless Mr Curran’s cotton socks because when he saw a 7-inch single in my hand he immediately said “Great – you’ve brought in some music – what is it?” instead of wittering on about the playlist like some radio stations I could mention. And he played it.
Eddie Floyd, Sam Moore, Steve Cropper, Otis Redding, Wayne Jackson and Arthur Conley on tour with Stax/Volt in Europe 1967
A few days later I was at Jenny’s parents’ house in Wembley and Dee was there – Jenny’s eldest sister (Tom’s Mum) and her partner Mick Stock. They ran a pub together in Alperton, just down the road. Mick was in the kitchen when he saw me, and said, “I heard you on the radio the other day Ralph. GLR?” “Oh yes. Did you?” I answered, always embarrassed by these kinds of conversations, especially then, before I’d learned the human art of grace-under-pressure. Mick was happy though. “I love that Sam and Dave song – brilliant choice!” he said – and shook my hand. “Great stuff”. What a lovely endorsement.
Jamie with Mick in 1992
Sadly for us all, Mick Stock – Jamie and Jordan’s father – passed away in 2013 of a heart attack and is deeply missed. I dedicate this song to him, and to Dee.
vinyl single :
outstanding live version where Dave sings the 1st verse solo, Sam the 2nd :