This Time, He's a Solo Man
Thursday, December 7, 2006
Sam Moore is laughing again -- howling, actually. The legendary soul man is chortling so uproariously that he's ruined his own story, cackling right through the punch line.
Moore is in a hotel suite in downtown Washington, carrying on about the old days, with which he has a complicated relationship. Sometimes, they make him laugh -- but his legacy as the lead half of the great Southern soul duo Sam and Dave can also be a touchy subject. Especially now that Moore, at the age of 71, is trying to shake the shadows of his own history with a new album, "Overnight Sensational," his first solo recording since 1972.
"Overnight Sensational" has been submitted for consideration in seven different Grammy Award categories, and Moore's camp is hopeful that his name will come up repeatedly this morning when the Recording Academy announces the nominees.
Right now, though, he's making a trip back to the late 1960s, talking about the time he and Dave Prater were playing at the Apollo Theater, near the end of a 10-day run. Sam and Dave's incendiary performances were the stuff of legend back then, all explosive energy and showstopping antics, which usually included the singers dropping to their knees, maybe during "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby," or "Hold On, I'm Comin'," or "Soul Man." They'd roll on the floor in their sharp suits, sweating and shouting, as if possessed, sending the crowd into a tizzy. Except for the time they opted not to at the Apollo and, instead, mailed it in, without the antics, and got chewed out afterward by the comedian Moms Mabley, an Apollo regular.
She called the singers "ugly and nappy-headed," Moore says with a snort, and even gave him grief for pretending to be Jackie Wilson, "getting all dirty on the floor when you ain't got but three suits" -- and then, it simply becomes too much. Moore breaks up, slapping the couch as the story disintegrates and his words become indecipherable.
Good times, the old times. Except for when they're not.
Exuberant and expressive, Sam Moore laughs frequently, finding humor in just about any subject. But if there's one topic that can erase the charming smile from his face, it's probably the Sam and Dave legacy. "I'm proud of it," he says flatly, his lips pursed. "I'm proud of what the writers and producers did, and I like what we did with the material. It got us a Grammy, it got us into the Hall of Fame. We performed for queens, kings, presidents. But let's move on, okay? That's how I feel about it."
Called "the greatest of all soul duos" by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Sam and Dave split up for the final time 25 years ago and Prater died in a car accident in Georgia in 1988. Now, after a lengthy period spent lurking around the edges of the music industry, Moore is literally attempting to make a name for himself with "Overnight Sensational."
It's difficult enough to market a new release by a veteran soul artist; nostalgia is bankable, but it's also an obstacle, as consumers tend to be indifferent about new albums by older artists with long-ago hits. Moore arrives on the comeback trail with an additional problem: Despite his status as a legend whose Stax recordings cut in Memphis between 1965 and 1968 helped define the Southern soul genre, his own profile is relatively low -- mostly because his last name is generally known as "and Dave."
"With anybody from a legendary group, it's really hard to make your own name," says Randy Jackson, the musician and "American Idol" judge who produced "Overnight Sensational." "Sam got his just due with Sam and Dave, but he's never had it as a solo artist. People need to know about him. Sam Moore is one of the last of the soul legends, dude. And he's still singing his face off."
Released in August on Rhino Records, "Overnight Sensational" is actually more of a duets album than a solo showcase. Following the collaborative event-album model for aging artists that Carlos Santana popularized with 1999's "Supernatural," "Overnight Sensational" features more than 20 guests doing a dozen covers with Moore: "Better to Have and Not Need" with Bruce Springsteen, "Lookin' for a Love" with Jon Bon Jovi, "Blame It on the Rain" (yes, the Milli Vanilli song) with the American Idol Fantasia, "It's Only Make Believe" with Vince Gill and Mariah Carey. The album's showpiece is a remake of "You Are So Beautiful" featuring Eric Clapton, Robert Randolph, Zucchero and the late Billy Preston.
What you won't find on the album: any Sam and Dave songs. "Some labels wanted me to do the Sam and Dave stuff," Moore says. "Man, I wasn't going that way. I been there, done that, thankyouverymuch."
Despite a warm critical reception, plus a handful of national TV appearances by Moore, the album has sold just 22,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Kevin Gore, a Rhino executive, declines to discuss the label's sales targets. But, he says, "I think we've already achieved a certain amount of artistic satisfaction, which is important." (Besides, even if "Overnight Sensational" doesn't become a commercial hit, all the attention is likely to increase Sam and Dave's catalogue sales -- a development that would benefit Rhino, which has reissued the duo's classic Stax sides.)
As for the Grammy nominations, "We're just holding our breath and sweating bullets," says Moore's wife and manager, Joyce.
* * *
Moore and Prater met in Miami in 1961 at a nightclub amateur night. Moore had grown up singing in church in Miami, and Prater had done the same in Georgia before moving to Miami to sing in a gospel group. The two formed an R&B duo and had some local success before landing a contract with Atlantic Records, which sent Sam and Dave off to Memphis to work with an affiliate label, Stax.
Moore and Prater weren't particularly close personally, but they made magic in the studio, working with writer-producers Isaac Hayes and David Porter and a Stax house band that usually included Booker T. and the MG's. The electrifying result was sanctified soul (or was it secular gospel?), propulsive, fierce and gritty, with incredible interplay between the two singers. But their volatile relationship deteriorated, and Sam and Dave broke up for the first time in 1970.
"Dave and I didn't speak for 12 1/2 years," Moore says. "It was really bad. And I was getting into drugs; jumped in there for 15 years. I was addicted. And he had his own problems."
They eventually reunited, only to break up again, a cycle they'd repeat until 1981, when they parted ways for good, not long after the Blues Brothers had covered "Soul Man."
Moore surfaced periodically -- recording "Rainy Night in Georgia" in 1991 with Conway Twitty, appearing on Springsteen's "Human Touch" album -- but he's only recently returned to the spotlight proper. In February, he performed "In the Midnight Hour" on the Grammy telecast, in honor of the late Wilson Pickett. And just last week, Moore sang "Tracks of My Tears" as part of the Kennedy Center Honors tribute to Smokey Robinson.
Moore remains in good voice, though the hyperbolic producer Jackson says that's selling him short: "He sounds incredible, dude. He's singing better now than he ever has."
For his part, Moore says, "Overnight Sensational" proves at least one thing: "At 71 years old, I can hold my own with a 21-year-old. Just ask Fantasia."
"Um," adds his wife, Joyce, "you can hold your own vocally, dear. Vocally."
To which, of course, Sam Moore erupts in laughter.