Like Thunder, Lightning (Eddie Floyd)

When Eddie Floyd formed a Doo Wop vocal group, the Falcons, in mid-1950s Detroit he could not have imagined that almost 60 years later he would be invited to participate in a celebration of Memphis Soul at the White House with a Black President & his wife front & centre of the audience. In 1966 Eddie had recorded a song that encapsulated the robust energy of the music being created in the Stax studios in Memphis. “Knock On Wood”, you know it, everybody does, has been recorded by over 150 other artists but there ain’t nothing like the real thing & if that’s what you need then, even when he’s over 70 years old, you send for Eddie.

eddie floyd knock on wood

Everything you read about Eddie Floyd confirms that he is a thoroughly good & unassuming man. The Falcons sold a million in 1959 with “You’re So Fine” then again three years later when “I Found A Love”, featuring an extraordinary vocal by Wilson Pickett, was an R&B smash. The lead singer went solo, the Falcons disbanded, passing their name to another group, & Eddie recorded for his uncle’s label in Detroit then, relocating to Washington, for a label he started with local DJ Al Bell. When Bell was head hunted by the Stax label Eddie went along as a songwriter & found he had an immediate rapport with guitarist Steve Cropper. The former Falcon Wicked Pickett was around too with his hit “In the Midnight Hour”. The Floyd/Cropper combo provided “634-5789” & “Ninety Nine & a Half (Won’t Do)”, tailor-made for the new star.

“Knock On Wood” was intended for Otis Redding but on hearing the demo Atlantic thought that Eddie had already done it right & so he had. The international success of the single may have been a surprise to the label because the track chosen for the b-side sounds like a perfectly good hit to me. “Got To Make A Comeback”, another track from a very fresh debut LP, is written by Eddie & Joe Shamwell, another friend from Washington who had made the move to Memphis. Starting slowly as a duet between the vocals & Cropper’s guitar, building with ascending horns & backing vocals the song displays Eddie’s range more successfully than subsequent attempts to re-create the success of the A-side.

Otis Redding/Stax Records

In 1967 Eddie was part of the Stax revue that introduced European audiences to real Soul Power. His performance, backed by Booker T & the M.G.’s & the Mar-Keys, of “Raise Your Hand” seems to have been mislaid by the Internet which is a shame because it would be a certainty for inclusion here. The death of Otis Redding in December of that year shook the label to its foundations. It was on Eddie’s delayed flight from London back to the funeral that the idea for “Big Bird” originated. Back home the song was completed with Booker T Jones who produced & played guitar on the record. The finished product is a clap of thunderous Power Soul which, on release in 1968, felt like I was hearing the future of music. This absolute gem is recognised now but at the time it was the least successful of any of Eddie’s singles. How could that have happened?

Eddie Floyd | Memphis Music Hall of Fame

Still, Eddie was becoming one of Stax’s most consistent performers & his next two singles, “I Never Found A Girl” & a cover of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me” both made Top 5 R&B, his biggest hits since the big one. In 1968, through a shady deal with Atlantic, the label lost the rights to their back catalogue. A rapid reloading programme saw the release of 28 albums with the new finger-popping logo in May 1969. “You’ve Got to Have Eddie” may have been hurriedly recorded, there are only two of his songs included, but on a curation of his singles “Rare Stamps” he had written 11 of the 12 tracks & it’s some collection. With his friend Al Bell now co-owner of Stax Eddie remained loyal to the label right to the end in 1975. Other major players were pursuing further opportunities but were still ready to work with Eddie. 1970’s “California Girl” was a more restrained collaboration with Booker T & the following year he moved across town to the new TMI studio set up by Steve Cropper.

Eddie Floyd and Steve Cropper at a Stax recording session [1968] :  OldSchoolCool

After over five years of Steve & Eddie working together on a classic Memphis sound “Down To Earth” is a very interesting departure. It’s an album that is influenced by not only the new Psychedelic Soul but there’s plenty of Rock in there too. It’s certainly different to hear Eddie singing songs like “Linda Sue Dixon” (L.S.D.) & “My Mind Was Messed Around At The Time” & Cropper’s guitar goes to places we hadn’t heard him visit before. It’s a heavy (in a good way) record, closing with the rather epic “Changing Love”. Maybe Stax couldn’t handle all this changing, perhaps they were not inclined to promote a record made in a rival studio but there was no single released from the record & “Down To Earth” remains an album unfairly overlooked at the time & still worth checking out.

Introduction to Eddie Floyd – Mental Itch

Eddie continued to record without repeating his success of the previous decade but his reputation was made, his name remembered. Any compilation, every celebration of Memphis Soul had to include him. Any Soul weekender in Europe would be happy to have Eddie Floyd, still in fine voice, as a respected headliner. Of course he would have to sing “Knock On Wood”, it enabled him to live a life in music & still does. There was so much more to his music & his contribution to the music of fellow Stax artists. I have to end with this track that begins “Eddie Floyd wrote this song”, “Oh yes he did brother”. In 1968, around the same time as “Big Bird”, the double dynamite duo Sam & Dave took a break from the string of hits written for them by David Porter & Isaac Hayes to record “You Don’t Know What You Mean To Me”. Yes “Soul Man” & “Hold On I’m Comin'”, yes “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” but when I hear this song I still get the same thrill, have the same silly smile on my face as that 15 year old Soul fan who thought it was just the greatest thing when he first heard it. Keep the faith!

Till Steve Cropper Plays A Bum Note (Stax)

From that very first time I heard the brassy blare, the rock solid rhythm and Wilson “Wicked” Pickett strutting through the Midnight Hour the sound of Memphis soul has shaken more than my tailfeathers. In 1966 I dutifully posted my vote for Wilson as the best singer in the world to a music paper (I’ve always been a sucker for a lost cause). A year later, just turned 15 years old, I waited on my bike to meet my best friend and share the shock of the morning news. Our new favourite, Otis Redding, had been killed in a plane crash. The world carried on with little regard but for Wink & I it was a big loss.

I did not know the hows and the whys, the whos and the wheres of the Stax/Atlantic legends then like I do now. I just knew that the raw, deep soul sound sure did it for me.

In 1967 Stax brought their artists to Europe for a tour which galvanised both performers and audiences. The Beatles, busy recording “Sgt Pepper”, sent a limo to meet them at Heathrow. The mainly black performers had not played to mainly white audiences before. The attention & interest alerted the label to not just a European market. Later in the year Otis Redding tore up the Monterey Pop Festival before the hippie “love crowd”. We are very lucky that one of these concerts, in Oslo, was filmed. Every second of the film is packed with quality, energy and soul.

Eddie Floyd is singing “Raise Your Hand” the follow up to his biggest record “Knock On Wood”. This simple call and response sits on a bed of pure Stax music. You could sing the telephone book and it would sound good. (Wilson Pickett started to do so on  “634-5789”). Eddie made some great records, he’s looking fine and singing strong here. He will always be remembered for the classic “Knock On Wood”.

Behind Floyd is the powerhouse band who backed all the acts on this legendary show and were the house band back in the Memphis studio. In the horn section there is Wayne Jackson and, I think, Packy Axton, son of Estelle, the AX in Stax. The other four are Booker T and the M.Gs, stars in their own right. Booker T Jones, played organ, arranged and composed songs while studying classical composition. His 2007 Grammy for lifetime achievement is deserved. Two childhood friends, Duck Dunn (bass) and Steve Cropper (guitar) were young men who grew up loving R&B, they knew how it went, knew where it was going and were helping to take it there. Cropper co-wrote this song, “Knock On Wood” and many others in his years at Stax. On drums is Al Jackson Jr and he is simply the best exponent of this instrument I have ever heard or seen. Eddie Floyd is great in this clip. Watch it again, see and listen to the best band in the world…The Mar-Keys.

Stax was not only the honking, stomping shots of energy, when they tried a little tenderness they got the job done too.William Bell, like Eddie Floyd, wrote and recorded many memorable songs without great commercial success. In 1967 he released ” A Tribute to a King”, the label’s eulogy for Otis. A year later the near-perfect soul duet with Judy Clay, “Private Number” was a big UK hit. In the same year “I Forgot To Be Your Lover” set new standards in sweet soul music. From the opening restraint of Steve Cropper’s guitar, the strings, yes strings, before the horns move in and Bell’s impassioned regret. Man, producer Booker T does a fine job on this. Like the run of 1960s singles by the Impressions this song just ends too quickly.

The song has often been covered (Billy Idol…anyone ?) and sampled. In Jamaica in 1977 Lee Perry produced a version by George Faith which is a highpoint of sweet reggae and is well worth a listen.

The story goes that Otis Redding returned from Europe and said he didn’t want to tour with Sam and Dave anymore. The all-singing, all-dancing, all-energy duo were one of the great live acts of the 1960s. Sam Moore and Dave Prater enjoyed massive success with their records too. A run of hits, many written by the team of Isaac Hayes and Dave Porter, established them as the biggest soul pairing in the US. Here they just wreck “Soul Man” with the Stax B-line. The A team were back making hits in Memphis but there is no visible or aural drop in quality. I could try and encapsulate Sam and Dave’s appeal but there are what, about 150 videos on Y-Tube and there are not 3 better than this. Just watch the clip, it’s great.

With international success, the tragic and premature loss of their greatest star and the machinations of the music industry the travails of the Stax label are labyrinthine and a little sad. Led by Isaac Hayes they recovered from the loss of their magnificent catalogue but the story still ended in bankruptcy. A cottage industry out of a converted cinema set the standard for great soul music which still endures. I still listen to and love the music that Stax made. I guess that once you’re a soul boy you end up a soul man.