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Like most children of the South, Moore's earliest exposure to music came from the elaborate Sunday rituals of the church. "It was definitely a show," he recalls. "First they'd have a spirited song, then they'd take up a collection. Then the choir would sing and have prayer. After that the lead singer in the choir would come on and do a solo to set it up for the minister. Man, by the time the preacher got up to give his sermon it was like, 'Waaaaaaaah!' The excitement was terrific."
The days spent in church had a profound effect on the boy -- he wanted to be a minister. His grandmother would often find 5-year-old Sam atop a crate at the end of their block, preaching to passers-by.
Yet he grew into a difficult adolescence. His family considered him "incorrigible." Especially his mother, who hated that she saw so much of his father in him. They threatened to send him to a juvenile home, but instead he went to his aunt's house in Ft. Lauderdale. By the time he started high school, he'd returned to his mother, who had moved to the more middle-class Miami suburb of Liberty City. "Baby" would eventually marry Charles Moore, one of the first black architects in Florida and a man whose last name Sam would take.
Although he'd dabbled in it, music had not yet become a defining passion. In fact, little caught Moore's attention during his teen years except the opposite sex. He was every bit his father's son when it came to the ladies. During his teen years, Moore was shot twice, once by a scorned girlfriend and once by a jealous husband who caught Sam in the act with his wife. "He got me in the leg," he recalls, pulling down his sock to point out a 45-year-old scar. "He was aiming for my groin."
After high school, Sam took to the streets. What began with small cons -- rigged dice games, three-card Monty -- evolved into full-time pimping and scamming by the mid-'50s. Moore and his crew would travel throughout the rural Deep South -- Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia -- in pursuit of easy marks.
"We'd get into a town and I'd be out running a game of three-card Monty, but I'd be able to stand in a position to watch the girls," he recalls. "The girls would start talking to a guy [who would be] thinking she was going to go to sleep with him, and we'd get him in the alley and roll him. 'Clip him,' that's what they called it back then.
"We'd have dice games on the street -- play with crooked dice, the Monty -- anything, anything to make a dollar. We were going from town to town doing this all over. We might come back home with a couple thousand dollars -- that was big money in those days. We we're always ducking the cops. Always a few steps ahead of the law."
Well, not always. Moore eventually was busted for transporting a minor across state lines. He pleaded guilty and served 18 months at a prison work farm in Daytona. For the brash and cocky young Moore, it was a sobering experience.
"It was hard 'cause you got four, five, even six guys staying in one tiny room. You learned your lesson behind smelling feet and body odor, and guys trying to rape you. When I got out of there I didn't ever want to go back."
Moore was released in 1959 and returned to Miami. By this time, he had a daughter, Deborah, who would be the first and closest of the 20-plus children he would father. Though he kept a much lower profile, Moore continued to hustle. "I just didn't want a job, I didn't want to do manual labor," he says, laughing.
His aversion to labor led Moore to rediscover his talent for singing. Before jail, Moore had performed in church and had even been recruited by the gospel vocalists the Soul Stirrers. "I went to the rehearsals and I basically made it, but the night I was getting ready to leave with them I went and saw Jackie Wilson," remembers Moore. "Watching Jackie -- the way he moved, the way the women were going crazy for him -- I knew that'swhat I wanted to do."
Moore dabbled in songwriting, working with a Miami rhythm and blues singer named Sam Early, who had some dubious industry connections. It was here that Moore would learn the first of his many lessons about the larcenous nature of the music business. One of the songs the pair came up with, and for which Moore penned the lyrics, was called "Money" ("Money buys everything it's true/What it don't buy I can't use/I need money.")
When the cut turned up as a hit for Barret Strong in 1958, it was credited to an aspiring Michigan music mogul named Berry Gordy Jr. and songwriter Janie Bradford. Though it's not exactly clear how the song made its way into Gordy's possession, it seems likely that Early sold the song to Miami record distributor Henry Stone, who in turn sold it himself, resulting in the Gordy/Bradford (or sometimes Gordy/Robinson) credit.