Summer of Stax: Two Eras, Two Types of ‘Soul Men’

We’re celebrating the 60th anniversary of Stax Records with a look back at some of the most iconic artists who called the label home. To commemorate the occasion, Concord Music Group and Rhino are partnering to release Stax Classics, a slew of collections and reissues from Stax’s legendary vaults. Over the past five weeks, Summer of Stax delved into the stories of these legendary artists and their most essential recordings. See past editions here.

Stax Records started life as a small regional label in Memphis, Tennessee, so naturally many of its earliest stars were hometown heroes like Carla Thomas, William Bell, and Booker T. & the MGs. As Stax’s renown grew, however, artists from all over the country started flocking to the capital of Southern Soul. Some acts proved a natural fit, helping to define the Stax sound; others, however, managed to retain their native style.

Technically, the duo of Sam & Dave was never signed to Stax, but to Atlantic Records. At the time, however, Atlantic and Stax were closely tied together with the larger, New York-based label handling distribution for the latter. Jerry Wexler, Atlantic’s star producer and A&R man, decided that the dynamic duo would best be served by the Memphis label’s distinctive, authentic soul sound, and so “loaned out” the pair to Stax.

Both Sam Moore and Dave Prater were native Southerners — the former from Miami, the latter from rural Georgia. Their roots on the gospel circuit helped craft their distinctive call-and-response vocal style and raw, energetic sound. They may not have been from Memphis, but Sam & Dave exemplified southern soul, and, along with fellow outsider Otis Redding, helped push Stax into the deeper, grittier sound that made it famous.

At Stax, Save & Dave were paired with songwriters/producers (and Memphis natives) Isaac Hayes and David Porter. The team’s first two singles, 1965’s “A Place Nobody Can Find” and “I Take What I Want” (the latter co-written with Teenie Hodges, later known for his collaborations with Al Green), find Sam & Dave singing largely in unison in a slightly more restrained style than they would come to be known for. These two singles didn’t make much of an impact, but third time proved to be the charm.

“You Don’t Know Like I Know,” released in 1965, featured a more energetic style than its predecessors, with Moore and Prater trading off lines in the verses and ad-libbing around each other. The single soared to #7 on the R&B chart and even managed to hit #90 on the Hot 100. They went even bigger and better the following year with “Hold On, I’m Comin’.” That record marked the full flourishing of the Sam & Dave sound with its loose but gutsy vocal back-and-forth backed with a muscular, horn-flecked instrumental backing.

“Hold On, I’m Comin’” gave the duo its first R&B #1 and a #21 pop hit. All of Sam & Dave’s subsequent singles, including “Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody,” “You Got Me Hummin’,” and “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” (the latter their only A-side to be a ballad) made the R&B Top 10 as well as the Hot 100. The one exception was also their only hit not penned by Hayes and Porter: a live version of Sam Cooke’s “Soothe Me,” released in 1967.

Even then, it still made a respectable #16 on the R&B charts and #56 on the pop charts, as well as becoming their first UK hit (#35). Its B-side, the weepy “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down” (penned by Stax regulars Homer Banks and Allen Jones) became one of the duo’s best-known songs, despite not charting in its own right until Elvis Costello’s soul-punk cover in 1980.

Immediately after “Soothe Me,” however, Sam & Dave released the record that not only became their signature song but Stax’s best-selling single to date. “Soul Man” topped the R&B charts, rose to #2 on the pop charts, and earned the duo a Grammy. Their follow-up single, 1968’s “I Thank You,” performed nearly as well, making the Top 10 on both the pop and R&B charts.

Unfortunately, the peak of Sam & Dave’s success coincided with the bitter split between Stax and Atlantic. After one last Stax single, the Europe-only release “Don’t Knock It,” Atlantic recalled Sam & Dave from Memphis for the last time. The duo continued to have hits on Atlantic through the end of the decade (usually with leftover recordings from Memphis), but never recaptured the magic of their Stax years. The duo broke up in 1970, but they continued to reunite and split up again throughout the following decade before quitting for good in 1981.

Around the time that Sam & Dave left Stax in 1968, the label signed a Detroit-based group called the Dramatics to its roster. After one unsuccessful single, 1969’s Motown clone “Your Love is Strange,” the group and the label went their separate ways. The split didn’t last long, however — two years later, the Dramatics were back at Stax (under the Volt imprint), this time with greater success.

Unlike most other Stax acts, the Dramatics didn’t rely on the backing of Booker T. & the MGs, nor did they use in-house songwriters or producers. Instead, the quintet largely recorded in their native Detroit with producer Don Davis and songwriter/producer Tony Hester. As a result, the Dramatics’ sound has more in common with the polished pop-soul of the Temptations or the lush production of Philly soul than it does with the group’s gritty Southern labelmates.

Nevertheless, the Dramatics’ second Stax run proved to be a boon to the Memphis imprint. The punchy but easygoing “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get,” released in 1971, made the Dramatics an instant success, climbing to #3 on the R&B charts and breaking into the pop Top 10. Follow up “Get Up and Get Down,” which adopted a psychedelic soul sound, didn’t do quite as well, but was still a moderate hit.

The Dramatics’ next single, however, went in a trippier direction still. Opening with a crash of thunder and featuring an echoing, reverb-laden guitar riff, “In the Rain” was a production experiment far more elaborate than any attempted at Stax, apart from Isaac Hayes’s solo records. It also was a massive commercial success, topping the R&B charts and peaking at #5 on the Hot 100.

After “In the Rain,” the Dramatics released three other moderate hit singles, including 1972’s “Toast to the Fool” and 1973’s “Fell for You,” which made the R&B Top 20 and the midrange of the Hot 100. The best of these, 1973’s “Hey You! Get Off My Mountain,” which crossed post-HDH Four Tops with the Delfonics, was also the most successful, peaking at #5 on the R&B charts and just missing the pop Top 40. After one more non-charting single, however, 1974’s string-soaked ballad “And I Panicked,” the Dramatics and Stax parted ways for the second and final time.

The Dramatics’ abbreviated run on the Memphis label — seven singles over three years — requires their 12-track edition of Stax Classics to be supplemented with B-sides. These range from fairly average love ballads like “Thank You for Your Love” and “Fall in Love, Lady Love” to the bizarre psych experiment “The Devil is Dope.” In fact, one of the recurring themes of the Dramatics’ Stax Classics is how much the group’s sound varied from record to record. The Dramatics didn’t just differ from their Stax colleagues — they often differed from their own previous single.

Like Sam & Dave, the Dramatics had recorded before Stax, and would continue to record after leaving Stax in 1974 for ABC Records. And like their predecessors, the Dramatics would have the occasional post-Stax success, most notably a 1975 cover of Billy Paul’s hit “Me and Mrs. Jones.” Still, the group’s recordings for Stax would prove to be the clear high point of its career.

But while Sam & Dave were never officially signed to Stax, the duo ultimately represented and defined the Stax sound more than the Dramatics ever did. Nevertheless, the Dramatics gave Stax valuable record sales in an era when it struggled to stay afloat. The Dramatics may have continued to record for years after leaving Stax, but the reverse wasn’t true. One year after losing the Dramatics — as well as other stars like the Staple Singers and Johnnie Taylor — Stax Records closed shop in 1975, marking the end of an era for Southern soul.

About Sally O'Rourke 205 Articles
Sally O’Rourke works in an office and sometimes writes about music. She blogs about every song to ever top the Billboard Hot 100 (in order) at No Hard Chords. She has also contributed to The Singles Jukebox, One Week // One Band, and PopMatters. Special interests include girl groups, soul pop, and over-analyzing chord changes and lyrics as if deciphering a secret code. She was born in Baton Rouge and lives in Manhattan. Her favorite Nugget is “Liar, Liar” by The Castaways.