David Porter and the late Isaac Hayes penned dozens of the bedrock songs of Southern soul music — “Soul Man,” “B-A-B-Y,” “Hold On, I’m Coming,” the list goes on. Today, Porter is giving young Memphis musicians — and Bitter Southerner readers — a master class on how code-switching through music helped catalyze the Civil Rights Movement.
Story by Tonyaa Weathersbee | Photos by Houston Cofield
So, here’s a question for students of the 1960s, or the 1970s, or for anyone who has heard the Sam & Dave song, “Soul Man,” and can’t get it out of their heads.
When they sing…
I was brought up on a side street, yes ma'am
I learned how to love before I could eat
I was educated at Woodstock
When I start loving, oh I can't stop…
I'm a soul man
… is the Woodstock they’re referring to:
The three-day counterculture celebration on a dairy farm in upstate New York that featured acts like Sly & the Family Stone, Joan Baez, and Jimi Hendrix?
A school in Millington, Tennessee?
Before I had a sit-down with David Porter, the legendary Stax Records producer and Memphis songwriter who penned the song along with another R&B icon, Isaac Hayes, I thought the answer was A. But for that to be close to being true, Woodstock would have needed to happen at least three years earlier.
Woodstock happened in 1969. “Soul Man” was released in the fall of 1967 and sat atop the R&B charts through much of 1968.
And Sam Moore and Dave Prater’s Woodstock — or rather, the one Porter and Hayes (who died in 2008) wrote about — was actually Woodstock Training School in Millington, a Shelby County town just north of Memphis.
That school, like many built during Jim Crow times, prepared African-American students to work more with their hands than with their minds.
Of course, I wasn’t alone. Most people get the Woodstock line — or its meaning — wrong. Comedians John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, who reintroduced the song to a new generation in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers, bungled that line, too; they sang it as “I was educated from good stock.”
Yet regardless of how people sing it, the underlying message, according to Porter, is the same. That’s because “Soul Man” and many other songs he and Hayes wrote and produced for Stax in the 1960s was written to communicate the value of African-Americans as they rebelled against a social order built on their devaluation.
That message resonated in 1967, a year when race riots ravaged Newark and Detroit, and a year when the Black Power Movement was pushing black pride as the antidote to segregation and white supremacy.
It also reverberated into 1968 in Memphis, when 1,300 African-American sanitation workers donned “I Am A Man” signs and went on strike, defying segregationist Mayor Henry Loeb, and others.
In many ways, those strikers were Porter and Hayes’ soul men.
Coming to you on a dusty road
Good loving, I got a truckload
And when you get it, you got something
Don’t worry, ’cause I’m coming …
I’m a soul man
Songwriters Isaac Hayes & David Porter in the studio with Sam & Dave. Photo ©API, Bill Carrier, API Photographers, Inc. Via Memphis Music Hall of Fame
“There was an underground-railroad kind of messaging in music that was quite prevalent in song, and if you would listen to the lyrics in an emotional way, you would get the feeling,” Porter says. “In ‘Soul Man,’ you have the symbolism of the dusty road, and being brought up on the side street. The symbolism of it was: The humble beginnings of a people should not be used to define them. So, the song starts out talking about the dusty road, then he talks about the power of the love of a black man…”
Porter says when “Soul Man” was released, the empowerment message was subliminal enough to catch the ears of African-Americans while it went straight over the heads of whites who loved the song, but not the black people behind the music.
“We thought we were doing it for black people, so that message was intended to resonate with our people,” Porter says. “But that’s the powerful thing about the soulfulness of our musical contribution. It becomes undeniable if you allow yourself to listen to it. … The minute you listen to it, it breaks you down, and you’re never going to be comfortable until you can get some of it.
“You have closet bigots who love the music but hate the people. Our music resonated with them [too]. … So, the ‘Soul Man’ idea, which was geared to be a motivational thing for black men, ended up being an anthem for all men.”
That part about Woodstock, which Belushi and others misheard as good stock, was a Morse-code sort of thing for black men, Porter says.
“We stressed getting an education. ‘I was educated at Woodstock.’ Woodstock was a school in rural Shelby County,” says Porter, who did not attend the school.
“Man, I really just took you to school there,” he says.
It was in the 1960s when Porter, now 76, was thrust into a place where he realized that songwriting and producing were vehicles for personal and racial uplift.
After recording his first composition at Stax in 1961, “The Life I Live,” which he co-wrote with Marvell Thomas, and after recording his first single in 1965, “Can’t See You When I Want To,” Porter began to write and produce songs that would, at least subliminally, reinforce the humanity and dignity of African-Americans.
Consider the Sam & Dave song “Hold On, I’m Coming,” released in 1966.
Don't you ever feel sad
Lean on me when times are bad
When the day comes and you're down
In a river of trouble and about to drown
Just hold on, I'm comin'
Hold on, I'm comin'…
“The attitude of ‘Hold On, I’m Coming,’ was rooted in the fiber and substance of a man who worked all day at a hard-labor job, as many black men did during that time, but who wanted to let his woman know that no matter what, at the end of the day, he was going to be there for her, in every circumstance” Porter says.
“If you were working one of those jobs, you would be able to see where we were coming from, and the value of who you were … so we structured a message on the border of what it needed to be.”
Using music and songwriting for social uplift did, on one level, come naturally to Porter. The dirt roads and the side streets of “Soul Man” revealed flashes of his own humble origins.
“I’m from a family of 12,” Porter says. “I never saw my father because he died when I was 2. I lived in a shotgun house. We had an outdoor toilet, and when it got cold in the wintertime, we had to use the restroom in the house. So today, whenever I go into a city, if the restroom is not all the way on point, I’m not staying at the hotel. For me, it’s not ego. I’m just conditioned to not revert back to that. But I felt that if I was to have any success, it would be through music. Maurice White (lead singer of Earth, Wind and Fire) and I were singing at the same elementary school when we were 8 or 9 years old. From that age, we always wanted to do music.”
Then, in 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in Memphis. Porter recalled the mood.
“His life was taken in a town still struggling with racism. We had bigoted mayors, and Henry Loeb was the personification of that,” Porter says. “There was anger, but not an in-your-face thing, because you had a police state and people could get in your face rather quickly. We wanted to say something about it, but we were in a business where we had to do commercially acceptable material and get our message across in a slick kind of way.”
That year, Porter wrote the Sam & Dave hits, “I Thank You,” and “Wrap It Up.” Those songs, like the earlier “Hold On, I’m Coming,” stuck to the theme of black self-worth through the lens of black men who were grateful for, and appreciated, black women.
I been watchin' you for days now, baby
I just love your sexy ways now, baby
You know my love will never stop now, baby
Just put your lovin' in my box, baby
Wrap it up, I'll take it
Wrap it up, I'll take it
“‘Wrap It Up'? You know where that came from? I took the thought of Christmas and I turned the thought into making the package be the love between me and her,” Porter says.
Stax Records’ original studio is now a museum in South Memphis. People from all over the world come to gape at Isaac Hayes’ gold-plated Cadillac, painted an icy aquamarine, and to peruse walls festooned with 45s of hit singles like Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y,” Otis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” his last hit before he was killed in a plane crash in 1967, and others.
As the music-loving tourists bathe in the history at Stax, Porter is in downtown Memphis, and school is in session.
On this day, his students are Porcelan, a 27-year-old sensation whose single, “Lois Lane,” this summer rose to No. 20 on Billboard’s Contemporary R&B chart, and me. In a cavernous production room in his $5 million recording studio, Made In Memphis Entertainment, on the day of the funeral of Aretha Franklin, Porter schools us about his connection to the Queen of Soul. Franklin, who died of pancreatic cancer at age 76, was born in Memphis and lived there until she was 2, when the family moved to Detroit.
“Her father [the Rev. C.L. Franklin] was here in 1942 and 1943,” Porter says. “My father died in 1943, when I was two years old, and her father preached his funeral.” Porter says he had no clue he and Franklin would connect on another level as adults – when she recorded three songs he and Hayes wrote.
Porcelan, a 27-year-old sensation whose single, “Lois Lane,” this summer rose to No. 20 on Billboard’s Contemporary R&B chart.
Franklin’s version of “Hold On, I’m Coming,” recorded in 1981, won the 1982 Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.
“Aretha recorded three songs of mine [and] Isaac Hayes’s. She recorded, ‘I Take What I Want,’ which was a Sam & Dave song,” Porter says. “She recorded that twice. ... Just that connection to the future, when I didn’t know what she would be or what I would be, and the fact that she recorded songs of mine, made it very, very special for me.”
Also special to Porter are the young artists he’s now producing, like Porcelan, who says the message of her “Lois Lane” is “that women, we want to be safe, we want someone who loves us unconditionally, but we have standards.”
Porter's is now producing Porcelan and singers Jessica Raye and Natt Michael for Made In Memphis Entertainment – his effort to pick up where Stax left off in providing a place for talented Memphis artists to record, produce, and perfect their work.
Another brainchild of Porter’s – the Consortium MMT – is a nonprofit that helps young people develop skills in songwriting, producing, and recording.
“This was developed to make sure that the Memphis musical legacy we had back in the day would be passed on,” Porter says.
That’s important to Porter, who got his break because Stax was in his neighborhood, and Estelle Axton, its co-founder, nurtured his interest in singing and songwriting.
Recently, he was doing the same with Raye. He sat behind a console and worked along with his co-producer and engineer, Hamilton Harden, as she perfected her version of “Let’s Ride Out.”
So, is there any message in a song about a couple cruising?
“That’s just a song about two young people in love, who finally found some time to spend together, to ride out together,” he says. “With this generation, they don’t say, in a conscious way, that I’m going to rebel. But they’re saying my individuality is mine, and I’m going to do it in the way that I see fit…that’s their attitude. But what they do is take that wisdom when they listen, and take that and incorporate it into their world, and what they have. Intellectually, they have the tools to take it further.”
Then again, in these times when a black couple riding in a car with tinted windows might be stopped and profiled by the police, maybe a song like “Let’s Ride Out” can convey a smidgen of what Porter and Hayes’ songs conveyed back in the day: the humanity and value of African Americans, which shines through in the humblest and even the most oppressive circumstances.
Those values will invariably find their way into whatever lessons Porter might be teaching.
Tonyaa J. Weathersbee has won multiple awards for her journalism. She was born and reared in the South and spent most of her career in Jacksonville, Florida, as a columnist for The Florida Times-Union. She also holds graduate degrees in mass communications and Latin American studies from the University of Florida. Now the metro columnist for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tonyaa has been on a mission to connect the music and Civil Rights Movement that shaped her childhood to the places and people behind it.
Houston Cofield is a photographer and artist living and working in Memphis, Tennessee. He received his MFA in photography from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and his bacherlor’s degree in journalism from the University of Mississippi. He is a fourth-generation photographer, all of whom have photographed the American South.
Earlier this year, Weathersbee and Cofield collaborated on “One Night on the Mountaintop” for The Bitter Southerner.