Oct 5, 2016
Musical Map of the USA: Tennessee—Sam & Dave
Memphis is Elvis, and Memphis is Beale Street, and Memphis is the Mississippi and the heartland. The city’s namesake is an ancient capital, adjacent to one of the most ancient of rivers, that was the final resting place of the gods; this was not an accident. There is heavy mojo here. The music is in the air, in the ground, it is everywhere. It comes from the church, from gospel, from ancient rhythms.
The city still holds her magic and her pain and her vibrance and her very heavy history, on all sides. Downtown Memphis was, once upon a time, grand and vibrant, and some blocks retain hints of that. There is restoration, and rebuilding, and revival…and then there are the blocks of empty fields just short of downtown that you recognize as having contained something that was no longer valuable, and so it was knocked down, and never replaced with anything else. The lots stand silently in witness.
The home of the legendary Stax Records met that exact same fate. After the label went out of business in 1976, the building would stand empty and abandoned until 1989, when it was finally torn down. The lot remained empty for decades, despite the history, despite the tremendous achievements, despite the amount of groundbreaking, astonishing music that originated from that exact location. The story of the decline of Stax is beyond heartbreaking (you want Robert Gordon’s Respect Yourself for that), but the 2003 creation of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in that very same location, with the same legendary movie marquee sign out front, is some small amount of justice.
Stax in its heyday was a hit machine. It came together in the right place at the right time and drew like-minded people under its aegis. Stax was “Soulsville, USA,” directly challenging Motown’s “Hitsville. USA” claim. Jim Stewart was behind the desk (both business and production) and his sister Estelle Axton—that’s the S-T-A-X–was out in the lobby of the old movie theater, running a record store in the former concession area. They’d had successful artists: Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett. The main in-house songwriting team of Isaac Hayes and David Porter had developed a discipline, a muscle memory, for writing hits.
This was why Atlantic Records had sent their new act, Sam & Dave, over to Stax. And it was this discipline that had Porter and Hayes in the studio late one night, working on new material for the duo. Hayes was sitting at the piano, looking for a groove, while his partner adjourned to the men’s room just outside the studio doors. Hayes thought he had something, and yelled for Porter to return already. “Hold on, I’m coming,” was his response.
Robert Gordon paints the rest of the picture in Respect Yourself: “…his concentration was broken by a commotion from the back of the room. ‘That’s it! That’s it!’ David ran in yelling, one hand holding his pants halfway up, the other one waving wildly. ‘Hold on, I’m coming! That’s it!’”
Despite that inglorious origin, “Hold On, I’m Comin’” is a breathtaking piece of music. The song is pledge, a promise, an oath, a vow: “Lean on me when times are bad.” It’s a pronouncement and a proclamation: “Just hold on, I’m coming.” That most regal of Stax horn lines opens the track at full throttle, the Memphis Horns front and center, Al Jackson on the drumkit in the rear, holding down the backbeat. The horns are literally trumpeting the arrival of Sam Moore and Dave Prater.
Sam gets the first verse, calm at first, but almost immediately shifts into high gear, his voice soaring up by the end of it. And then Dave joins him for the chorus. It’s a quick repetition of the key line–Hold on, I’m coming–offered with confidence and reassurance. Wayne Jackson’s trumpet is playing the melody line of the intro riff underneath, before Prater heads into the next verse. Prater’s voice was the ying to Moore’s yang, the cooler temperature, the lower range. He’s smooth, collected, promising his baby that she can count on him. The beauty in that verse is Moore’s ad libs, his vocal riffs in the background another instrument.
And then the second chorus, more urgent now, the trumpet line still there but the other horns in the back, heavier now. Sam and Dave tradeoff on the bridge; there’s Andrew Love’s sax line on top of the melody as they do, before Steve Cropper offers a handful of quick, subdued guitar notes, the horns keeping relentless pace behind it all. And then, when the vocals are finished, that glorious intro riff comes roaring back, modulating up slightly, brighter, stronger.
Sam comes back to repeat that first verse, with greater fire, stronger passion, singing into the heavens, closing the loop, assuring us of his devotion, the horns picking up intensity as well. There’s one repetition of the chorus, Prater and Moore’s voices blending, dodging and weaving, before they cycle it all back and rev it up a notch: Prater takes the chorus while Moore improvises around him, and beneath both of them the horns hold the foundation to close the song out.
And all of this happened in two minutes and thirty five seconds.
“Hold On, I’m Coming” would end up be phenomenally successful for both the duo and the label. The single stayed on the charts for almost half a year, and turn them into mainstream artists, gain them larger audiences, bigger paydays, better TV appearances. The album on which the song appeared went to number one on the R&B album sales chart, Stax’s first big-selling long-player, generating profits for the label, which went towards paying the musicians and the songwriters and producers and managing the business of the label, keeping the hit factory running.
But it represents Stax and Memphis not because of the final result, but because it’s the epitome of everything Stax was the best at: the songwriting, the performance, the arrangements, the horns, the band, the unity of the musicians and the production team. It’s a legendary vocal performance, a melody line that sneaks into the crevices of your brain, a timeless arrangement, a fabulous production. The sounds that came out of the building at the corner of E. McLemore Avenue and College Street (now David Porter Way) are the foundation for every single piece of music I have ever loved; it is part of my DNA by now. I would have felt honored to come and stand in the rubble. Stax Records is part of my heart; it is now the music that has been with me the longest, back before I even understood what it was and what it meant, listening to AM stations waves late at night, transistor radio under the covers. Hold on, I’m coming.
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