The Reconsideration or the Reification of the Past?
Sam Moore is a name that doubtless reverberates somewhere at the fringes of your musical consciousness. Unless you really love his music, you at least know that he is important, that he occupies an integral position somewhere in the annals of music history, but you probably have forgotten just why. Sure, he is an inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but that hardly strikes me as the honor one would expect it to be. Recent inductees include R.E.M. and if that fails to nullify the validity of the “Hall of Fame” then I lack the vision to foresee what will (I guess insipid mandolins and tepid agnosticism retain more influence than I would have expected). The name snaps into focus, however, when we are reminded that he is the Sam of Sam and Dave, the immensely talented soul duo that rocketed to fame while recording for Stax Records in the ‘60s.
Moore met Dave Prater in 1961 at the King of Hearts nightclub in Miami during an amateur night. Both had gospel singing backgrounds that facilitated the soulful style and energetically responsorial approach for which they were celebrated. They soon signed to Roulette Records; then Jerry Wexler signed them to Atlantic in 1965, immediately loaning them out to Stax Records. The majority of their Stax recordings featured what is widely regarded as the greatest backing band in popular music history: Booker T. and the M.G.‘s and the Memphis Horns. This group crackled with vivacity. The horns could deliver percussive slaps to emphasize the angular rhythms of the groove or they could create an iridescent wash of melancholic harmony during ballads. The M.G.‘s were ebullient motion incarnate; even slow songs virtually tumbled with forward-driving impetus.
And then there was Sam and Dave. Sam had the more flexible vocal instrument with its slightly rough timbre and its ringing, high overtones. His voice could cut through any musical texture, ranging from the acerbic stabs of truncated phrases to the mellifluous descant he employed in emotional numbers, such as their rendition of “What a Wonderful World” (Sam sings the majority of the tune, giving way to Dave only during the brief bridge section). Dave’s voice was all gravel and groan, a throwback to the Kansas City blues shouters of the ‘30s and ‘40s. His range was more limited than Sam’s, but his personality was just as strong. Indeed it was the prominence of their vocal personalities that produced such memorable musical moments. Most songs featured them alternating verses, singing in a loose unison during the choruses, and then closing out the recording with a free alternation of clipped phrases and guttural explosions of vocal sound. They had a string of top 10 hits, including “You Don’t Know Like I Know” (1966), “Soul Man” (1967), and “Thank You” (1968).
Sam and Dave had always had a volatile relationship, and they finally split up in ‘70, after only a single decade of singing together. Yet that single decade and the list of hit songs bound them nearly inextricably together for the remainder of their lives; his relationship with Dave still haunts Sam. Although he insists that he is grateful for the opportunities he received owing to his connection to Dave, Sam makes it clear in interviews that the resentment remains. The two reunited several times during the ‘70s and into the early ‘80s, in part as a response to their renewed popularity after John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd used them and their tune “Soul Man” as models for their Blues Brothers skits and movie. Sam and Dave permanently split in 1981; Dave died seven years later in a car accident.
The most arduous task for the singer since his initial break with his partner 37 years ago has been to remove the “and Dave” from his name and establish himself as a solo artist. He recorded an album of solo performances in 1971 produced by King Curtis, but the recordings disappeared for decades, only seeing release in 2002. Recently, Moore recorded another album, this one produced by Randy Jackson of American Idol fame. Ironically, the 2006 album Overnight Sensational consists of a series of duets with singers ranging from Jon Bon Jovi to Fantasia (I suppose this is part of the Randy Jackson connection) to Mariah Carey. He may no longer have the same partner but Overnight Sensational at least implies that he needs some sort of vocal support; this is a peculiar attempt to demonstrate one’s viability as a solo performer.
Most likely released in support of Moore’s bid for reappraisal, Quantum Leap presents a DVD comprising two solo performances. One cannot help but be struck by the casual manner of presentation. The packaging of the DVD is woefully inept. The tracklists are incorrect (listing songs that are not recorded here), and the producers neglect to provide the purchaser with any information regarding these two performances other than to say that the first was recorded in Cannes, France and the other in Florida, USA (who knows when).
The “extras”, such as they are, do not amount to much. There are three texts included that give you some sense of the history behind the man: a brief biography, an underwhelming discussion of Stax Records, and concise statement regarding the importance of Soulsville, USA that does not particularly attempt to tie that information in to Sam Moore. The filmed images are blurry and poorly framed. To add insult to injury, the title page unceremoniously interrupts the conclusion of the first performance at the very moment of the final chord. (I am assuming the poor man was permitted to bow after the performance.) There are no menus allowing you to select different songs within the performances so if there were a particular tune you would like to hear, you would either have to wait for it or hold down the fastforward button. The whole affair is entirely amateurish.
The performances, however, are what matter. Feasibly, great performances could redeem whatever improprieties the producers may have inflicted upon the packaging. Unfortunately, the performances themselves are something of a mixed bag. For the most part, Moore’s voice remains strong. He miraculously maintains that piercing timbre and staccato delivery so characteristic of his finest recordings. The histrionics and the physical displays that made the Sam and Dave nights at the Apollo Theatre legendary are, of course, gone. Nevertheless, he maintains vocal energy even if he trudges around the stage a bit more stiffly these days; he does manage to execute a few dance steps during “Take What I Want” at Cannes, but it comes off a bit like a man with severe rheumatoid arthritis pretending to be Frankenstein at a sockhop.
Despite the amazement that inevitably arises in relation to the continuing quality of Moore’s voice, there is something a little sad about these performances. Unlike his recent album, in which he scrupulously avoided any songs that were connected to his days with Dave, here almost the entire collection comprises hits familiar from their heyday. But since they are performed here with Moore fulfilling nearly the entirety of the vocal duties (with the exception of “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” at Cannes, which he sings as a duet with Carla Thompson (at least, I think that is her name; the DVD packaging fails to credit her), these tunes are sapped of the vitality that left such an indelible mark on the recorded performances of Sam and Dave. What made songs like “Hold On, I’m Coming” and “Thank You” so engaging was the spontaneity and energy of the exchanges between the two singers. And since the DVD so clearly banks on the familiarity of the music, how could they not anticipate that listeners would register the lack of Moore’s old partner and feel that lack as an irremediable loss?
Of the two, the performance at Cannes looks to be more recent and is by far the more satisfying. The full array of horns and a tight rhythm section support Moore. There are even familiar faces in the group, such as, the venerable Donald “Duck” Dunn of the M.G.‘s on bass (sadly bereft of the ubiquitous pipe in his mouth). The band sounds tight and Moore is in fine form. He banters with the crowd, chiding them when he removes his tie and members of the audience await a trophy (“I’m not going to give you my tie”, he laughs). If you close your eyes, you might imagine that Moore has not aged a bit. His voice still rings.
There are some less inspired moments, however. When the band begins playing the vamp to “Thank You”, the music seems like it should proceed according to plan, but as soon as Moore’s voice enters, everything goes awry. First, he employs nearly the exact same stage banter (doubtless meant to seem spontaneous) that he uses on the recorded version of the song. But things only get worse when the verse begins. The tempo pushes the envelope so that Moore must reduce his coy melodic lines to mechanical barks, making a shambles of what is, at heart, a rather clever song. The entire ensemble plays in a woefully sloppy fashion while Moore wheezes for the breath necessary to maintain the pace. All of the subtleties are lost and, worst of all, the group eviscerates the song of its most important asset: riotous, salacious fun.
The producers must have sensed that allowing the performance to continue would have only contributed to the train wreck; therefore, they cut from a vamp of that tune to the opening of “Said I Wasn’t Going To Tell Nobody”. If one listens casually to the soundtrack, one might be fooled into believing that the group created a medley of the two songs. However, the clipped sound of applause gives the game away. One need not be so attentive though, insofar as Moore suffers an instantaneous wardrobe change. Such poor editing demonstrates the sheer disdain with which the producers approached this project. Nevertheless, Moore’s singing on the latter tune is simply resplendent.
The second performance took place at the Little Darlin’s nostalgia bar in Florida. Judging from the hairstyles and the sartorial disasters perpetrated by the backing band, I am assuming that this performance took place in the late ‘80s. Taking the audience and band together, I think they may have been seeking some award for the greatest percentage of mullets per square foot. The entire performance venue is fashioned to resemble a large, all-encompassing jukebox that entombs Sam Moore in the stale nostalgia for a past that cannot be recovered and that cannot be superceded; it is a sad, if telling image. The horns are gone, replaced by the worst imaginable sort of synthesizer; picture Van Halen trying to cover Aretha Franklin. After a mere three songs, Moore cedes the stage to The Angels (a more egregious misnomer cannot be imagined), who perform a mediocre rendition of “My Boyfriend’s Back” that only serves to confirm one’s suspicions: this is the kind of place that music goes to die—painfully, alone, and without mourners.
The Angels (sort of Sirens in reverse, making listeners flee rather than approach them) wail their way through a lackluster version of “Till” that makes one wonder if this truly is a Sam Moore DVD after all. He soon reappears, however, and one wishes one had kept one’s mouth shut. Moore stands before the crowd and intones, “Hey, what can I say? I’m a Soul Man” with his arms spread wide in a pose that sadly recalls Stepin Fetchit. It is a pathetic display of what so much of this brilliant singer’s career has amounted to: an attempt to remind people of who he was and why he was important, even if he no longer has that other guy hanging around. The performance of this song is the most bizarre moment captured on the DVD: a group of women who look like they just escaped from the Alzheimer’s ward of the local geriatric home dance a twisted combination of the Electric Slide, the Funky Chicken, and whatever it is one dances to “My Achy Breaky Heart”, while the band butchers the arrangement and, through it all, Sam Moore sounds like . . . well, like Sam Moore.
And this is the problem. Moore almost always sounds wonderful. But that hardly matters. His pristine, incomparable voice suffers from its surroundings, in part, because of its absolute insistence on remaining so vital and so true. Its veracity merely serves to point out the utter falsity that encases it. And this is not simply a matter of inadequate backing bands; indeed, the band at Cannes was more than equal to the task of rendering this music. But the troubling aspect of these performances is the blatant refusal to truly investigate what Sam Moore can do as Sam Moore as opposed to Sam Moore, the artist formerly known as “Sam and Dave”. Rather, the performances force Moore into the position of a revenant (Sam Moore as the Zombie Wedding Singer), conjured up to present a limping rendition of songs that can only sound hollow without his former partner.
The ghostly echoes of Dave’s growl reverberate in one’s aural imagination and the music as recorded here always comes up short. Where the DVD seems to promise a much-deserved reappraisal of a remarkable artist, it only manages to mummify the singer, wrapping him in the nostalgia-soaked fabric of a past he could never move beyond. If this DVD is part of his 37-year campaign to establish himself as a solo performer, then it fails miserably.