Sam Moore, half of the hit-making Stax duo Sam & Dave, didn’t write the lyrics to “Soul Man.” He didn’t play the signature guitar lick on this Grammy-winning smash single either.
And yet, “it identifies what I believe from here,” Moore told CBS News in 2019, pointing to his heart.
Co-writer and co-producer Isaac Hayes found inspiration while watching late-’60s era news coverage of Civil Rights protests in Detroit. “It was said that if you put ‘soul’ on the door of your business establishment, they wouldn’t burn it,” Hayes later told NPR. “Then the word ‘soul,’ it was a galvanizing kind of thing for African Americans, and it had an effect of unity. It was said with a lot of pride. So I thought, ‘Why not write a tune called ‘Soul Man’?”
Moore, who traded verses with Dave Prater on the track, wasn’t the last person to see himself in the rousing lyric that emerged. The empowering message from “Soul Man” wasn’t exclusive to any one community – and that had been Hayes’ objective from the start.
“All you had to do was write about your personal experiences because all African Americans in this country at the time had similar experiences,” Hayes noted. “But we realized that in addition to being an African American experience, it was a human experience and therefore it crossed over and became very commercial.” Released in September 1967, “Soul Man” soared to No. 1 on the R&B chart with help from a series of smart musical contributions from Booker T. & the MG’s and the Mar-Keys horns. It then reached No. 2 on the pop list.
Listen to Sam & Dave’s ‘Soul Man’
Hayes played a maestro’s role in the Stax studio, too. Working in a converted theater, he presented MG’s guitarist Steve Cropper with an essentially completed demo. What was missing, however, was critically important: the intro.
“He asked me if I would go down to the piano with him for a minute and fool around, which I did,” Cropper told Songfacts. “He was always coming up with these changes. He was such a good jazz musician, and he could come up with these different sets of changes, and sometimes leave it to me to put some sort of lick or something on top of those changes – and that’s how the intro of ‘Soul Man’ was born.”
Cropper completed things with another of the brilliantly concise solos for which he’d one day become famous, but not before Moore cried out, “Play it, Steve!” (The phrase would later become the title of Cropper’s 1998 solo album and the name of his website.)
Still, the inviting exuberance surrounding Cropper makes tracking “Soul Man” sound easier than it was back in an analog, decidedly untechnical era. Getting things just right required Cropper to sit, rather than play in his preferred standing position. “It was one of the hardest sessions I ever played on,” Cropper confided in 2011. “It sounds like a lot of fun, but that little lick I did? I did that with a Zippo lighter.”
“Soul Man” faded from the charts and then became a treasured oldie before being unexpectedly resurrected by the Blues Brothers a decade later.
Listen to the Blues Brothers’ Version of ‘Soul Man’
Cropper remained as a behind-the-scenes force in the song’s revival since he was also sitting in with this Saturday Night Live offshoot band co-led by blues enthusiasts John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. They initially began with a far more rootsy focus that was in keeping with the band name.
“I looked at John and I said, ‘Have you guys ever thought of doing something that you guys could, like, dance to?’ And he said, ‘Like what?'” Cropper later told Michael Berry. “And I said, ‘Like Sam and Dave. They had great records, but they were known as dancers. They could really get the house going.'”
Belushi asked for a suggestion, and Cropper extemporaneously called out “Soul Man.” “They started dancing and clowning around, and all that,” Cropper added. “Everybody was laughing and having a big time.” The updated version reached No. 14 in February 1979, but not everybody was a fan of the Blues Brothers – at least not as recording stars.
“I thought it was a respectable thing at first, but they disrespected Sam & Dave as the founders or originators of the song,” Moore told The Washington Times in 2015. “They made the Blues Brothers the thing, made people think ‘Soul Man’ was their song. I felt insulted every time Danny called me to perform. I didn’t say anything because I needed the money.” Moore later recorded an update with Lou Reed for the 1986 film of the same name, before “Soul Man” was added to the Grammy Hall of Fame and then to the Library of Congress’ prestigious National Recording Registry.
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