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After releasing a handful of singles that stalled on the charts, it seemed their prospects as a national act were dim. Listening to the Roulette sides (which were put out seven years later -- after the pair found success with another label -- as a full-length album called Sam & Dave), it's easy to see why the public was apathetic. The material was straight-ahead period-piece R&B, lacking the magic and spark of their later work. Roulette's producers could hardly be blamed. They were used to working with polished urban talents like Sarah Vaughn and Big Joe Turner; they had little idea what to do with two rough-edged rubes.
"It was a little too church and a little too Southern," says Moore. "It was like, 'What do we write for them? How do we sell this?'
"After a while we were stuck. The people [at Roulette] told us they weren't going to do any more promotion or anything, so we figured we better see if we can't get something else going -- another deal or whatever."
Few people were eager to cross Levy, whose underworld connections made him the most feared of the era's record bosses (he would eventually be convicted of extortion and racketeering in a Mafia-related case). But Moore, ignorant of their label head's notoriety, decided he and Prater should pay a visit to Levy's Miami home. The pair went to his mansion blissfully unaware of the risk they were taking.
"It shows you how sometimes it's good to be dumb," Moore says with a laugh.
After a few confusing moments that made it clear Levy had no idea who the two musicians were, Moore bit the bullet. "I said, 'It looks like our records aren't selling, and, um, well, we'd like our contract back.'"
Whether it was uncharacteristic benevolence or sheer surprise at their moxie, Levy was generous, tearing up their deal.
Sam and Dave returned to the King of Hearts and continued to work the Florida club circuit. By 1965, they caught the eye of Atlantic co-owners Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler and were signed to the label. Getting ready to make their first recordings for the imprint, Moore assumed they would return to New York, where Atlantic was headquartered, or perhaps travel to studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where the label had sent Percy Sledge and Aretha Franklin. Instead, Sam and Dave were given two bus tickets to Memphis, home of Stax Records.
Stax would become the epicenter of a revolution. The label's dusty headquarters -- a renovated movie theater -- was a place where black and white musicians would integrate, creating a special brotherhood that was beautifully incongruous amid the '60s turmoil of the South. It would also be the place Otis Redding would record "(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay," where Wilson Pickett waited for the "Midnight Hour" and where so many other epics were laid down.
Sam and Dave hardly envisioned such greatness when they got off a Greyhound coach in the River City.
The duo was entrusted to the writing/producing team of David Porter and Isaac Hayes. The two seemed unlikely to succeed where the well-established pros at Roulette had failed. Porter was splitting time as an insurance salesman and grocer, and Hayes, well, Hayes seemed to be from another planet.
"The first time I saw Isaac he was wearing pink socks, green pants and a yellow flowered shirt -- and he was completely bald," says Moore. "I wanted to cry. I thought, 'Who are these people? Where have they sent us? They don't care about us.'
"I walked in the [Stax] studio and looked around. The piano was a beat-up, raggedy-looking thing with scratches and it was out of tune. Oh, God! Well, Isaac Hayes sat down and started describing the songs they had for us -- most of which I really didn't like at first. After a while it became clear to me that he couldn't read music! I was not used to this. And when I saw that these were the people who were supposed get us hits, I thought, 'That's it.' I really felt we were done at that point. Shows you how much I knew."
Hayes and Porter proved their mettle as writers and arrangers. Despair turned into a jubilation after Sam and Dave hit the charts in 1966 with the Porter/Hayes-penned "You Don't Know Like I Know." A string of hit singles followed -- "Hold On, I'm Comin'," "Soul Man," "I Thank You" -- songs that would provide Stax with its greatest chart success, and along with the work of Otis Redding and Booker T. and the MG's (the Stax studio house band), they helped define the company's growing identity.
Unlike Motown, the other preeminent black hit factory of the '60s, Stax, and the music of Sam and Dave in particular, were a wholesale rejection of the pop aesthetic. While Motown trumpeted itself as the "Sound of Young America," Stax maintained an image and a catalogue that cast it closer to the sound of the South -- the Staple Singers, Eddie Floyd, Rufus Thomas. Its records were raw and unpolished, baptized in the soul and funk of the Mississippi and rooted in a bedrock of spiritual fervor.