Digging In The Crates: The Best of Sam & Dave
Posted in Digging In the Crates
Spirituality & Self-Indulgence
Okay; I realize this may be cheating. Digging in the Crates is primarily a place to profile albums, and a ‘Greatest Hits’ compilation isn’t exactly an album, per say, but I would argue that there is an important exception. With artists we generally classify as belonging to the “Oldies” genre, the emphasis was always on the hit single, never on the full length album. For example: The Supremes are on of my absolute all time favorite artists, and fuck if I know the name of one of their albums (The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland? Kind of thinking that’s just another compilation to be honest, and if it isn’t then that’s also kind of my point). As such, I feel comfortable calling an old-school release of a compilation of an Oldies artist’s hits an album. Furthermore, I own The Best of Sam & Dave on vinyl, so these songs will always exist as an album to me. Besides, I don’t have to prove anything to you anyway, not to mention I kind of created this issue myself so ultimately I’m probably coming off as a dick right now. Regardless of how you feel about the mixed up writer of this piece, please don’t let my ill-advised foray into this non-issue turn you off from this incredible collection of music; if I have, I apologize, because The Best Of Sam & Dave is one of the best things you will ever hear.
The Best of Sam & Dave was made up of singles and B-sides, and despite their incredible quality there is a reason why the tracks assembled are a “Best of” and not a “Greatest Hits.” Of the albums 14 tracks, only two cracked the Billboard top 10; “Soul Man,” which somehow only made it to #2, and “I Thank You,” which peaked at #9. Equally befuddling is that fact that “Hold On, I’m Comin’” is the only other Sam & Dave song to crack the top 40. Regardless of their success on the charts, Sam & Dave were in fact wildly popular in their day and four of their songs in particular, “Wrap it Up” along with the three just mentioned, can easily be said to maintain an enviable place in pop culture to this day. Their popularity was due largely to their reputation as some of the era’s greatest performers, which, of course, doesn’t necessarily translate to radio success. Success and appreciation aren’t what make an artist great, though (just ask Vincent van Gogh), and with a single listen to any of the tracks on 1969’s The Best of Sam & Dave their greatness becomes undeniable.
The record opens with the iconic horns of “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” and I’ll just go ahead and retire the phrase “iconic horns” right now because this LP is riddled with some of the most revered and fantastic stuff ever produced by any horn section.
Next, the boys slow it down with “When Something is Wrong with My Baby,” a truly lovely, truly sweet track. Like on all of their tunes, Sam & Dave’s vocals couldn’t fit any better around the instrumentation of the legendary Stax studio musicians. Just as Motown crafted its own sound, Stax relied on an insanely talented and always sharp stable of musicians to forge a unique sonic identity, and on any Stax track the star power of the artist is always equaled by the quality of the band backing them.
“You Don’t Know Like I Know” picks things back up, with the song building perfectly for the boys to arrive right on time. There is no doubt that part of what makes Sam & Dave so extraordinary is the vocal interplay between the two men; their voices are different, sure, but not so much that they can’t blend together as one. More Mick Jones and Joe Strummer than Sonny and Cher, but, know, they could actually sing well.
Another perfect intro sets up more sweet, sincere crooning from the boys on “May I Baby.” Once again the music and the men couldn’t fit together any better and, as with many of the LP’s tracks, the only problem I have with “May I Baby” is that I wish it were longer. The bittersweet brief lengths were derivative of the nature of the recording industry at the time; hits were paramount and anything too far beyond three minutes was ill-advised. In fact, all but one of the LP’s songs clocks in between 2:17 and 2:54, a testament to the studio’s Motownesque knack for churning out excellent, endearing, radio-ready music.
So, I lied; horns don’t get much more iconic than this. “Soul Man,” penned by the legendary Hayes-Porter songwriting team (Isaac and David, respectively) is one of the most recognizable songs from the entire Stax catalogue, and pretty much all of soul music and 60’s R&B in general. As a duo exclusively, Hayes and Porter were responsible for producing five and writing ten of the fourteen tracks on the LP, including each of the four I labeled as the group’s biggest hits. Despite their incredible body of work, the Hayes-Porter team never seems to get as much recognition for their talent as the aforementioned Motown crew of Holland-Dozier-Holland. I think the reasons for that are two-fold; first of all, Isaac Hayes, who started out as a Stax songwriter, producer, and studio musician, obviously went on to much greater fame as an artist than he ever garnered behind the scenes at Stax, and secondly, Holland-Dozier-Holland just has a really nice ring to it.
“Soothe Me” has a claim to the collection’s hotly contested ‘prettiest song’ throne, if only in the opening moments and the brief interlude near the end where the duo’s vocals play off each other with nothing but a gentle piano alongside them. When the full band kicks in “Soothe Me” loses its gentle façade and becomes another exceptional, fully realized piece of horn- and drum-driven soul. The powerful drums and bass of “I Thank You” set the stage for some memorable organ, a touch of funky guitar, and just the right amount of those Stax horns, creating a song as sharp and well constructed as the artists and band behind it.
Side Two of the record begins with “I Take What I Want,” a foot-tapping flurry of soul that gets better with each uptick of the volume knob. Sam & Dave harmonize together throughout the entirety of each chorus, but what makes their vocals so great are the little touches thrown in by each individual, the ones you won’t find written in the lyrics.
I want to say it, but I won’t, so I’ll just say that the horns in “Wrap it Up” are very memorable and there is no doubt they have come to be the song’s signature element. A forceful track which cannot be ignored, Sam & Dave ratchet up the intensity of their vocals, once again providing exactly what the song needs out of its front-men. Never too much, never too little, always just enough; Sam & Dave were truly brilliant at adapting their style and sound to each individual track, an element of their talent which, with the passage of time, ultimately makes them less recognized as individuals while simultaneously increasing the esteem of the Stax sound as a whole.
There are so many things to like about “You Don’t Know What You Mean to Me,” in fact there really are so many things to like about every song on this record. I have been trying to write about the individual qualities of each track, but, honestly, they’re all marvelous and that’s all you need to know. “Small Portion of Your Love,” another beautiful track, changes things up from time to time, but the underlying sweetness of its message is present throughout. “You Got Me Hummin’,” yet another perfectly realized song, makes you want to lean in close and feel the music as best you can, as the singers and the band once again go hand in hand throughout, molding into one hummin’ sound.
Up next is a track that, for as dear as this record is to me, might just transcend everything else I’ve said about any other track, fly beyond the realm of hyperbole, and end up amongst the heavens. Kurt Vonnegut once said “the only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.” Now I don’t know about “God,” but by my estimation it’s impossible to deeply love music and at the least not recognize its link to your own spirituality. There are some songs, specifically some brief, fleeting moments in songs, which, when I hear them, tug on my heartstrings, my soul. In rare moments, music can be so powerful it can genuinely ignite a physical sensation in my chest, and to some extent I think it’s that sensation, that connection to spirituality that Mr. Vonnegut was referencing. In my life, in my mind, there are a few specific moments that will always make me feel like something more is happening than what’s going on in my eardrums. One such moment, which actually occurs twice, is the slow, rising drawl of the horns in “Can’t You Find Another Way (Of Doing It).” It is entirely within your rights to think I’m nuts, or to call this paragraph overblown, which it undoubtedly is, but that’s why we love music. Sometimes you connect to a song, and sometimes it connects to you. Even if you don’t share my strong feelings for “Can’t You Find Another Way (Of Doing It),” I’m positive that, if you are open to soul music, you’ll probably love it; the horns are excellent throughout, the lyrics are powerful, and, after all, it’s on this record. Even if you just think its pretty good, or decent, or not very good at all: whatever. This song is important to me. This song is a great example of why music is important to me, a great example of why I love writing for LFTF. As a reader of this fine site I’m sure you have some songs like that too. Maybe it’s not enough to make you believe in God, or put any credence in spirituality, but hopefully it’s enough to make you stop and think, “Damn, music can make me feel something, not just hear something, and that probably matters.”
“Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody” closes out the record, and it’s another great song, but, honestly? Tough paragraph to follow. Sorry, “I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody,” didn’t mean to do you like that. Don’t let my verbal exhaustion disparage the song, though; The Best of Sam & Dave is one LP that never drops off.
I own a lot of records, and a lot of classics; Off the Wall, Thriller, What’s Going On?, The White Album, Sgt. Pepper’s, Paul’s Boutique, Beggar’s Banquet, and so many more. And yes, I realize that list was extremely very self-indulgent, so was this whole essay, but the point is that anytime I get asked which select few among my collection I cherish most, my mind always goes straight to a particular pair, one of which is The Best of Sam & Dave. So I guess what I am trying to say is: Who cares if it’s a “Best Of” compilation? It most certainly is a LP, and when I’m diggin’ through my crates I don’t see any difference. In my mind, when stood next to any other LP - album, compilation, or otherwise - the music collected on this record can only be rivaled, never beaten outright.
Purchase The Best of Sam & Dave now on iTunes