I caught a TV documentary about classic Memphis record label Stax the other evening, which was, of course, a great excuse for the documentary makers to weave in a host of classic Stax tracks while they told their story.
In amongst the soundtrack of this documentary, jam-packed with some of the most memorable songs of the 1960s, was the unmistakable horn refrain from one of my all-time favourite soul tracks, “Hold On, I’m Coming” by Sam and Dave.
Throughout the 1960s and 70s, the name “Stax” was synonymous with “soul”. They even branded themselves “Soulsville USA”, riffing on Motown’s “Hitsville USA” strapline.
The Stax sound remains one of my favourites to this day. And Stax got that sound, in large part, due to the Stax house band, an incredibly tight and skilful unit which was easily at least the equal of other great studio bands of that era — the Funk Brothers at Motown, the Swampers in Muscle Shoals and a handful of others.
To perfect their funky, soulful sound, Stax stuck with two main components right through the studio’s golden era.
The label’s “house band” was the fusing together of two great bands in their own right. First, the Mar-Keys, Stax’s original house band with wonderful musicians like Steve Cropper on guitar, Duck Dunn on bass and trumpet player Wayne Jackson among others.
A kid called Booker T Jones started working at Stax in the early 1960s and the Mar-Keys largely morphed into Booker T and the MGs who had a US Top 3 hit of their own in 1962 with the instrumental “Green Onions”… (here if you need a reminder).
Unusually for the time, the studio band who made the recording also went on the road with the Stax artists. If you watch the video below, you’ll see Booker T and the MGs getting a shout-out.
Also unusually for the time, if you watch the “Green Onions” video above, you’ll note that Booker T and the MGs was a fully-integrated band who demonstrated that black people and white people could work perfectly well together, contrary to some views at the time, while creating beautiful music to make the world a better place along the way.
You might think that a combination of the Mar-Keys and Booker T and the MGs was enough to be getting on with, but that’s not all…Isaac Hays, who would go on to enjoy tremendous success of his own with “The Theme From ‘Shaft’” (here) in the early 1970s, was also a prominent feature of the Stax studio team a key part of the songwriting team at Stax.
Less publicly-recognised than, say Holland-Dozier-Holland at Motown, the no-less-talented songwriting team at Stax wrote many of the 1960s’ classic hits.
So it probably won’t surprise you to discover that Isaac Hayes, who co-wrote “Hold On, I’m Coming” for Sam and Dave along with label boss David Porter, and around 200 other songs for Stax, were later inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Perhaps because the fevered imaginations of radio station programmers read too much into the title of “Hold On, I’m Coming” without troubling to read the rest of the lyrics, radio airplay was hard to come by. Sam and Dave would only make it to number 21 in the Billboard Hot 100 and “Hold On, I’m Coming” didn’t trouble the UK charts at all.
Despite that, “Hold On, I’m Coming” has come to be recognised as a classic…and in fairness, Sam and Dave would go on to take “Soul Man”, a very similar song in many ways, as far as number 2 in the Hot 100 a year or so later.
The quality of production from that little record label in Memphis, Tennessee was recognised in the end and, in addition to their chart performance, Sam and Dave picked up a Grammy for “Soul Man”.
“Soul Man” is a great song too, of course, but “Hold On, I’m Coming” marginally gets my vote, albeit on a photo finish.
The subject matter of the song, despite what a generation of radio station programmers might have thought, is relatively innocent. It’s about a guy telling his girlfriend that if she’s got any problems, he’ll be there for her in an instant…
Don’t you ever be 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 coming
Hold on, I’m coming
That seems innocent enough…laudable, even…
Admittedly, in the eyes of 1960s radio station programmers at least, “Hold On, I’m Coming” takes a turn for the worse later in the song…
Reach out to me for satisfaction
(Look-y here, all you gotta do)
Call my name now for quick reaction
That section is probably open to a wider variety of interpretations than the innocent-enough sounding first verse, although, of course, perfectly innocent interpretations of those lyrics are quite possible too.
But…and I can hardly believe I’m saying this in my lyric-obsessed little corner of the world…the lyrical interpretation of “Hold On, I’m Coming” hardly matter in the face of one of the classic soul performances.
Sam and Dave are rocking this one out…with such a thick vein of soul running through them that it positively flows out your speakers at you whether you’re a soul fan or not.
And the band behind them…the band…wow…
No less a musician than Booker T Jones himself on the keyboards…Steve Cropper (co-writer of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay”, amongst many other classic songs) on guitar…Wayne Jackson on horns…along with the cream of the Memphis music scene to fill out the sound.
And what a sound it was. A soul classic that’s meant to be danced to…meant to be embraced…meant to move you in a way that all songs aspire to, but few can manage…
Here’s Sam and Dave with a roof-raising, foot-stomping, barn-storming live performance of their Stax classic…written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter… “Hold On, I’m Coming”…
If you’ve read this far, thank you for your time and attention. I know you could have spent your time doing something else, so I’m very grateful that you’ve spent it in the company of one of my favourite songs.
The video is below, but if you prefer to listen to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here…https://open.spotify.com/track/6PgVDY8GTkxF3GmhVGPzoB