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ESSAY: The Soul Man

sam and dave southern music

Sam Moore was singing, but he was nowhere to be seen. After the house band had thoroughly warmed up with introductory instrumentals, that riff too hold, the one that sounds like victory and defeat, celebration and mourning, that one that goes “dada-da-da-da-dada.” The band started “Hold On, I’m Coming,” and for several minutes, Sam Moore was nowhere to be found, onstage or off.

A voice was slowly emanating from the PA system: “Don’t you ever, be sad,” it softly advised. But still nothing had changed on stage, the band chugging on, the horn section sweating through the riff. “Lean on me, when times are bad.” Moore first sang “Hold On, I’m Coming” in 1966, and in the original recording, still definitive, it’s in that second line where Moore announces his presence. “Lean on me, when times are bad,” he cries and moans. For Moore, it’s not if times are bad, but when.

As a member of Sam & Dave, Moore was one half of the group as equally influential as stars Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, or Wilson Pickett for the persevering popularity and cultural cache of soul in the twenty-first century. Ever since a couple of young comedians named Belushi and Aykroyd fashioned themselves after Sam & Dave and started calling themselves The Blues Brothers, Moore and Prater’s music has existed largely as universal hits without a clear source, signifiers that conjure an anonymous, timeless sense of soul music. 

So it was a summer night in Manhattan, and the City Winery, an upscale sit-down club that seats no more than 300, was hardly full. Moore sang the first verse from backstage, as if his tenor, now fragile and weathered but still unmistakably, shockingly powerful, was the legend, not Moore himself. When he finally did take the stage, the seventy-six-year-old took his time snatching the show back from his voice, from the idea of another era, a time long past. The first portion of the concert felt like an oldies-revival show, as Moore ran through standards “Let The Good Times Roll” and “Knock On Wood”; Moore was taking his time. Voice and body felt, at first, removed—one vital and confident, the other hesitant, reluctant to test itself.

Several songs later, and Moore had found his footing. He swooned and groaned through “You Got Me Humming,” bouncing around stage, staring the audience in the eye, barking in between verses. Moore’s voice is, to this day, unmistakable, and he commanded the Sam & Dave material onstage as if it were solely his own, as if he were the solo star he never had the chance to be. “Sam was…the heavens,” Bruce Springsteen has said of Moore. “His voice was almost not human…and he was gospel, but Dave rooted the music in the dirt and in the earth. Sam was up in the clouds and Dave was down scraping on the earth.”

Halfway through the show, Moore led the crowd in a happy-birthday sing-along for D.A. Pennebaker, who was humbly celebrating his eighty-seventh birthday. Pennebaker directed, with Chris Hegedus, Only The Strong Survive, a lesser-known music documentary that traces the struggles of several aging singers while trying to revive their ‘60s soul careersMoore is one of the lead subjects of Pennebaker’s film, a movie that provides witness to one of the fundamental, tragic storylines of Moore’s fifty-year career.

Moore is a loving soul with a bitter heart. He remains an advocate for performance rights, which is another way of saying he’s spent a lifetime feeling cheated out of his proper earnings. One of his biggest headlines in the last couple years has been suing (unsuccessfully) the producers of the 2008 film Soul Men for trademark dilution and invasion of privacy. In Only The Strong Survive, Moore is humbled as he’s driven through Midtown Manhattan, where he spent his post-Sam & Dave years in the early ‘80s selling drugs without an obvious future career in music.  


Sam was now in a sweat. He took several steps from the mic and from the audience as he sang, but his voice remained a force. He turned his back to the crowd and began singing to his band, then to himself, during “I Can’t Stand The Rain,” which leads off his most recent turn-of-the-century comeback album, Overnight Sensational. “I can’t stand the rain,” Moore lifted the final word of the line back up to the heavens, and then, in a moment that brought about the night’s first (of several) standing ovations, he worked the band down to a near silent whisper before building back to a final climax, proving that forty-five years after Otis Redding vowed, in fear of being upstaged yet again, never to let Sam & Dave open for him, Moore is still an unrivaled entertainer and bandleader.  

Valerie Simpson later joined Moore on stage for an impromptu, moving performance of “When Something’s Wrong With My Baby,” and by this point the old crooner was in full command. Ever the showman, it felt like Moore was performing the role of the reclusive veteran singer, barking in between verses, letting his eyes wander through the crowd in a careful bewilderment. Other times he threw that role to the side, locking eyes with the women in the front row, prancing around stage like a teenager.   

  

It was no surprise that “Soul Man” closed the set. But on a summer night in the city, Moore shed the burden of his signature refrain and left it to his band and audience. Perhaps a career of feeling like an abused soul commodity made him want to hear the crowd reaffirm his legacy, to be reassured that he was in fact the original soul man. Or, maybe Moore had other things on his mind; he just wanted to give the crowd what it wanted.

“I got one more soul-man moment in me, I got one more” he predicts in Only The Strong Survive, released ten years ago. “After that, I can walk away and say, you know what, I did it.” At seventy-six, he’s still doing it.  

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