Music

Soul Legend Eddie Floyd Shares His Musical Journey (interview + book excerpt)

Photo: Courtesy of BMG Books via Conqueroo

Co-authored by Tony Fletcher, Knock! Knock! Knock! On Wood features interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Bill Wyman, Paul Young, William Bell, Steve Cropper, and more. Eddie Floyd gives insights into some of his most beloved songs and relationships with Bell, Cropper and Wilson Pickett.

Knock! Knock! Knock! On Wood: My Life in Soul
Eddie Floyd and Tony Fletcher

BMG Books

August 2020

Knock! Knock! Knock! On Wood is the new autobiography from Memphis soul legend Eddie Floyd and co-authored by Tony Fletcher. The pages chronicle Floyd's early life in Alabama, his travels to Detroit, where he met Wilson Pickett, and, his time at the center of the Stax powerhouse where he co-wrote hits with Steve Cropper and Booker T. Jones. The book takes its title from Floyd 1966 song "Knock on Wood", which reached the top position on the R&B charts and went on to be covered by David Bowie, among others. That single appeared the same year that Floyd and Cropper penned "634-5789 (Soulsville U.S.A.)" for Pickett.

Pickett and Floyd forged their longtime friendship in Detroit, where the two Alabama natives came together in the Falcons. Floyd chronicles this in the fifth chapter of Knock! Knock! Knock! On Wood, , which is excerpted below.

Co-author, Fletcher, had previously written titles on Keith Moon, R.E.M, and, in 2017, published In the Midnight Hour: The Life and Soul of Wilson Pickett. It was in the process of writing that title that he first interviewed Floyd.

Floyd was the final person Fletcher interviewed during a long road trip he'd taken in the process of gathering materials for the Pickett book. "He was the consummate soul man. He lives and breathes Stax music and American soul history," he says. "It struck me how few of these southern soul singers have gotten to tell their own stories. Writing a biography is one thing, but I think it's important that someone like Eddie got to tell his own story."

The veteran soul man proved an agreeable partner, offering Fletcher a place to stay during the bulk of the interviews process, and generous in sharing details of his life. That included a little-known chapter in Floyd's early life when the would-be singer was shipped off to a juvenile detention center for three years in his teens. The story had not been widely circulated, but it proved an essential moment in the Alabama native's life.

"He says that it did him a lot of good and that that was where he actually learned to sing," notes Fletcher. "A lot of black American soul singers got their training in the church. Eddie did, to some extent, but he got a lot of it in juvenile detention. He credits his music teacher there for really setting him up for life, and for as long as the guy lived, Eddie would bring him new records and check in with him."

One of the more notable points of the book is Floyd's allegiance to the Stax label, which fell from glory as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s. A distribution deal with CBS, brokered in part by Clive Davis, failed to garner Stax the more extensive attention it had hoped for, and, by 1975, the label was in bankruptcy. Floyd held steady with his friends at the label, as though the ship might correct itself.

"He stuck with Al Bell, until the end," offers Fletcher. "He stayed relevant and continued to make good music. But, in my opinion, the label did overreach and got too busy. So many artists got lost in the shuffle. It was a different label in 1974 than it was in 1967. When the label went under, Eddie might have been loner than anybody else. The MG's were gone, Otis had died, and I think Carla Thomas was gone by then."

Floyd has even released music on Stax since the label re-emerged under the Concord umbrella in 2006, including Eddie Loves You So (2008) and Down by the Sea (2013). He has continued to be a force in soul music, never losing his enthusiasm for creating new songs and maintaining a robust calendar of live dates, including turns with Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings and the Blues Brothers Band.

His sphere of influence remains wide. One can hear hints of his phrasing in the work of Paul Rodgers or specific moments of early Led Zeppelin recordings. Bruce Springsteen, who offers some of his reflections on the soul legend for the book, once had no fewer than three Floyd compositions in his setlist.

Floyd's relationship with Pickett remains perhaps one of the most enduring and fascinating in all of R&B and soul history. "They traveled history together," says Fletcher. Floyd was roughly four years the senior of Pickett, but the two quickly bonded over being Detroit transplants from Alabama. Pickett joined the Falcons, the group Floyd had put together. "He had one of the greatest voices you'll ever hear and an ego to go with it," Fletcher says.

The two parted company, reuniting in Memphis during the heyday of Stax, then continuing to cross paths across subsequent decades, including appearing in Blues Brothers 2000. "I would encourage you to watch them performing '634-5789' on Late Show with David Letterman", Fletcher continues."It's two veteran soul men hitting hard with no real rehearsal. It's amazing."

Fletcher, not only a collaborator but a champion of Floyd's, remains hopeful that Knock! Knock! Knock! On Wood will not only lead the way to other voices from the southern soul tradition to tell their stories but will also lead fans of the genre to pay closer attention to the singer's rich discography.

Aware that PopMatters would also be speaking with Floyd ahead of the book's release, Fletcher said, "Please, if you have to choose, take Eddie's word on this stuff. He lived it." Eddie Floyd spoke with PopMatters about Knock! Knock! Knock! On Wood and more from his home in Alabama. The book is in stores 10 August via BMG books.

Photo: Courtesy of BMG Books via Conqueroo

An Interview with Soul Legend Eddie Floyd

Your singing career started in Detroit. How did you make your way there from Alabama?

My uncle, Robert West, had a real estate office there. I went there when I was seven years old to visit. He'd take me to theaters in Detroit, and I saw every artist from that era that you can imagine. I knew right away that I'd like to be like them, but I didn't think that I would. [Laughs.] It was mostly jazz at that time. I went back and forth between there and Alabama for a while.

At 13, I went back and started seeing doo-wop and rock groups. At 16, I told my uncle that I wanted to start a group. He sold his real estate office and got into the music business. Most of the major artists of Detroit started with him. The Supremes were the Primettes; they started with him as did many of the artists that eventually went to Motown and worked with Berry Gordy.

Detroit is also where you met Wilson Pickett.

I had a group that was interracial: Two white guys, three black. I don't think we knew what color we were, but we knew we wanted to sing. Unfortunately, the two white guys got drafted after we made one record. I kept trying and a third group with Mac Rice, Willie Schofield, Lance Finney, and Joe Stubbs, the brother of Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops.

Then Wilson came into the group after Joe left. That's when I found out he was from Alabama. We did "You're So Fine" and "I Found a Love". Those were both giant records. We made American Bandstand and traveled just about everywhere. We broke up the Falcons. Wilson went first. He'd recorded a demo, and I decided to follow him. I went to Washington, D.C. and met Al Bell. Stax records started in Memphis and wanted Al to come down and do promotion. I went with him, and that was my introduction to Memphis.

You clearly loved Stax Records.

I stayed there until they closed the doors! [Laughs.] Al Bell was still there. Wherever Al was, that's where you'd find me. You could say I'm still Memphis because I go there about every two or three weeks. I'm still writing and recording a lot of songs. Styles have changed, but you get into a groove, and you don't want to lose it.

We know you as a soul artist, I guess, but your records have always had different elements to them.

My mind is open to all music. I believe I could probably write opera. There were some artists I'd hear, and they'd record records that were just in one key. I learned to sing in just about every key. I may not sound like the same Eddie Floyd, but that didn't matter. It was all about the song. I'm probably a fan more than anything.

Tell me about your writing partnership with Steve Cropper.

When Al Bell and I went down to Stax, we met Jim Stewart, who wanted Al to do promotion. I met Steve, then Al and Jim said, "Why don't you go write something?" [Laughs.] I'd go down there maybe every other month, and Steve and I would write. We wrote a lot at Stax at night, but I also stayed at the Lorraine Motel a lot. Steve and I would write something each night I was there. No tape recorders. We had to remember everything.

We'd go into the studio, maybe 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning. This is what all the musicians did. If we had a song, we'd record a demo. Or that's what they'd call them, but these guys were so efficient, that basically everything we touched was ready to be released.

In Detroit, we'd see artists working at Motown in the same way. A big family. I got to write for every artist at Stax at that time.

I have to ask what it was like to sing for President Obama.

[Laughs.] It was great, but I had sung for Papa Bush before that. We did a great show with 17 artists, with some of the Rolling Stones, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, Joe Cocker, Sam Moore, Carla Thomas.

One day I was in the studio in Memphis, and the bass player said he was going to Washington, D.C. the next morning. I said, "What are you going for?" He said, "I'm going to sing for Obama." I said, "Really?" He asked if I was going, but I said, "Well, nobody called me." He left and, about ten minutes later, I got a text that said, "The Obamas would be honored to have you come and sing."

I was looking Obama dead in the face. He had his two little girls there. They tried to get into the music and eventually did because they saw their dad doing his little thing. There were people doing the straight-up clapping along with the music. I changed things up on him and did what we call the soul clap. He made it! I said, "Alright!"

Is it strange to think that most of your life fits between the covers of a book now?

Yeah. [Laughs.] Very strange. I've told many people, "I've never read more than three pages of anything in my life."

[Laughs.]

So, when the book came, I read every page. My son is beginning to understand soul and R&B music from that era. He's 65. He should know it. He's reading the book as we speak. I'll get a text from him about every 15 minutes, "I'm into the 13th chapter, Pop." I told him, "Just read the whole book, and then you'll understand that journey that I took in music and that I'm still on."

Book Excerpt: Chapter 5 - I FOUND A LOVE

I don't need y'all. Those, ladies and gentlemen, were the first words I recall out of Wilson Pickett's mouth the day that Schofield brought him to meet the rest of the Falcons. That was Pickett for you, man. Brazen. Confident. Cocksure. Fiercely good-looking, fiercely competitive, crazy as a fox, knew what he wanted and knew how to get it. He'd come to Schofield as a solo artist, and he planned on continuing as a solo artist. The Falcons was just something he was going to pass through for as long as it was good for him. And believe me, it was good for him. Pickett might have said he didn't need us, but look at the reality of this particular situation: he was unknown when he came to the Falcons, and when he left us, he was a star, and it was the Falcons who helped make him one. Wilson Pickett had talent like you couldn't believe; he also had destructive tendencies that got in the way of that talent.

But Pickett was my man. I had more adventures with him, more run-ins with him, more good times and bad, than almost anyone else in this story. We went our own ways, but we kept finding our ways back to each other. He tested my patience more than once, but I was always happy to see him. Our lives were endlessly entangled. We were close.

Wilson Pickett was four years younger than me—which means he was still a teenager when he came to the Falcons that summer of 1960—and, like me, he'd spent his childhood back and forth between Alabama and Detroit, moving up for good at the age of fifteen. Pickett came from the town right next door to Montgomery, little place called Prattville. He always put it out that he'd come up hard, picking cotton on the farm, getting whooped by his mom, sleeping out in the woods, arguing with the white man, but the way I saw it, those plantation days were over. I mean, I had a few years on him, and I couldn't see Prattville being quite as backwoods as he made out. But hey, I didn't go out to Prattville, and maybe he didn't come into Montgomery.

Where Pickett really differed from the rest of us, once Joe Stubbs left, was in his singing. Pickett was pure gospel—a straight up Baptist church shouter. He had a voice that could carry across a field, and we knew he'd already put it to good use singing with the Violinaires, one of the big gospel groups up in Detroit at the time. Makes it seem strange that the song Schofield heard him singing on a porch, on his way back from a doctor's appointment nearby, was "The Sky Is Crying," an Elmore James number, but that tells you there were few people in Detroit sticking to just one style of music. Pickett may have come up through the church, may have been given all those warnings about people like us doing the "devil's music," but he knew which way the wind was blowing, all right. Only had to look at how Sam Cooke was doing to figure that one out. The gospel scene was full of shouters like Pickett, but in R&B, rock 'n' roll, doo wop—whatever you want to call it—his kind of voice was still rare. What Pickett brought to us was soul, that's for sure.

Years down the line, Pickett was dismissive of the sound of the Falcons at the time that he joined. "I call it corny music," he told a writer from the New York Times. "Pop pop doo-doo-da- doo. I couldn't relate to that."

Well, fair enough, if he was talking about those Don Costa productions. But hey, he'd hardly been with us a month or two when he found himself right in that same situation. Sam Cooke had come good on giving us a song, called "Pow! You're in Love," and when we went around the group, it was Pickett's voice that suited it best, same way it would have been Stubbs's if he was still with us. Back we go to New York, to the big United Artists studios, and Pickett steps up to the plate; he's got to be thrilled at thinking that this is his introduction to the big time, singing a song exclusively given to his new group by Sam Cooke. Except that it isn't his introduction to the big time: "Pow! You're in Love" doesn't do nothing for us; Pickett's first lead vocal never gets heard much outside the record company and the few radio stations that give it the time of day. And when you listen to it, that's understandable: the song is not on the level you'd expect from the great Sam Cooke and, as a result, the delivery is not what you'd expect from the future Wilson Pickett. When it doesn't sell, United Artists figure they've done all they can for the Falcons, that we've had our one big hit, a couple of close calls for follow-ups, but now we're messing with the lineup and all and that we're done.

We've been through this before, of course. And by now, we've got a much better name than when Mercury let us go after just the one single. I mean, the bookings don't stop, and why would they? We can cut it live. We're one of the big groups out there. So that's what we continue to do. At first Pickett is struggling to t in—he's not used to screaming girls tugging at his feet while having to pull off some basic stage moves—but soon enough he's hollering away and, as much as I miss Joe, the Falcons remain something special. We're making our living doing this, and for the most part, we're loving it.

One night, we're doing a show in Dayton, Ohio, and we meet this group from there called Robert Ward and the Ohio Untouchables, who are playing behind us, and Pickett's got this song he's working on, based on an old Pentecostal hymn called "Yes Lord," so I was told. The Untouchables are playing the little riff to it—Robert Ward was one hell of a guitarist, which is why he got the group named for him—and Pickett finished writing the song "I Found a Love," there and then, that night. It was immense; you could tell from the start. We called my uncle in Detroit and told him we had a song, and he came on over, and then, well, what's the nearest studio? King Records, which had James Brown at that time, over in Cincinnati. So, let's go.

What we came out with that night was something truly special. Nothing like what the Falcons had done in the past: nothing much like anyone had done in the past. Screaming and shouting like he was at Sunday service, Pickett brought full- throttle gospel to his song; with those electric guitar licks and the confidence that came from being a tight, hard-working live band, Robert Ward and the Untouchables brought the rock 'n' roll. And the rest of us Falcons, being that we knew what we were doing too, we brought that whole rhythm & blues vocal sound, right down to the bass singing. Put it all together and . . . well, a lot of people consider "I Found a Love" to be one of the first true soul records. We didn't call it that at the time, but nobody ever does; the term only comes along later. It's like I don't remember many people calling doo-wop by that term back in the 1950s.

My uncle has no doubts about "I Found a Love," and he launches yet another new record label, Lu Pine, with it. (And if you're confused about all these Robert West labels, well so were we, but it tended to be the case back then that a small business man would have a lot of different imprints: it was one way to get around the "payola" scandal where a radio station couldn't be seen to play too many songs by one company. Besides, you might have a partner in one label and fall out with him and want to do the next release on your own. Could be easier to start a new label than dissolve the old partnership.) Immediately, his phone starts ringing. "I Found a Love" is raw, all right, but the radio stations don't mind it one little bit; it's like with "You're So Fine," when we recorded the vocals in a bathroom, and got us a number-two record. "I Found a Love" bene ted from the King Studios setup, but this was not your Don Costa production, not by a million miles: it's like Pickett's voice is trying to blow whatever speakers you're listening through.

Soon enough, "I Found a Love" is selling so well that Atlantic Records comes along. They take over the distribution, and hey, here we go again—the Falcons have got themselves another Top 10 hit. If that's what you care about. What mattered to me was not so much that the song went somewhere but that it never went away. To this day, people still talk about it, still play it, still revere it. That's the kind of success I care about.

With Pickett at the helm, back we go on tour, back to the big theaters. We're a star attraction once again. Still, nobody gets top billing over James Brown. I mean, some people might call the Falcons "the world's first Soul group," but everyone knows James Brown is the Godfather of Soul. And amazing as "I Found a Love" may be, his "Please, Please, Please" came first by a good four years. Plus of course, James has that live show like nobody can imitate, and the man can dance. Which is more than can be said for most of us Falcons.

So we're touring with James Brown now, and he gets to know about us; Pickett makes sure of that. I remember a show in Baltimore, would have been at the Royal Theater. The Valentinos would have been on the bill as I remember—that was the Womack brothers as they were known then, including young Bobby, just hitting big with "Lookin' for a Love."

But we got "I Found a Love"—we're done lookin' for it!—and when Pickett sings it, he's doing it in a gospel feel. It's a ballad, and it makes the girls move: makes them scream in fact, like they would for James Brown. James's people run to his dressing room and tell him, "You got to come out and hear this guy Pickett singing." He was impressed, all right. Fact, he was a little upset because it probably seemed that Pickett was trying to sing like him, but it was a totally different song. And Pickett's voice was way more powerful. I mean, on that particular song, it really was powerful. But still we were doing it gospel. We were still doing the dancing in the rest of the set, but that particular song, Pickett would sing it in a gospel feel, and it would automatically make the people react, in a gospel way. It was like they were at church.

Touring in those days was hard work. There wasn't anything glamorous about it. We had a new station wagon my uncle bought us, and it was up to us to get to each show on time. Still was an era when we had to know where we could and couldn't stop, where we could and couldn't eat, where we could and couldn't stay. And at times, we risked our lives just by driving. This one time, we blew a tire . . . One minute we're on the road, next we found ourselves over in a ditch, almost upside down. The back end of the station wagon went down in a hole, and we went down in the van; the vehicle was left facing up like a rocket. It wasn't like a really violent type of thing: the way it happened, we were able to get out of the van, call back to Detroit, and tell my uncle. And he gets out on the road and comes to sort it out for us. That's the one time it happened, but Pickett would tell that story like it happened to us every day.

That first time on tour together we played Atlanta, and the next show was Baton Rouge. There was a little narrow highway led down through Alabama. If we're going to be on that highway, I'm definitely going to stop in at Montgomery and say hello to my family. Pickett says, "You're from Montgomery? I'm from Prattville." I had no idea. We'd never talked about that.

So I stopped in and saw my mom for fifteen minutes, and we stopped and saw his mom and his grandmother. We surprised both of them! I was in a position where I could travel down to Montgomery on my own when I had time, so my mom and grandmother knew how well I was doing with the Falcons, and besides, my mom's brother was our manager. Sadly though, we never did get to play in Montgomery.

The show down in Baton Rouge featured another guy who had a hit record out. His name was William Bell, and the song in question was this beautiful ballad he'd written, "You Don't Miss Your Water." It was out on this little label from Memphis, William's hometown, called Stax, and it was creating a lot of action down south. If "I Found a Love" was the heavy side of a music they were going to start calling soul, with Pickett screaming through it the way he did, then "You Don't Miss Your Water" was the tender side of it, the heartbreak that comes at the end of it all. William Bell and Wilson Pickett were both gospel through and through, but there were different ways of bringing that church music to the concert hall. The playing on "You Don't Miss Your Water" was amazing as well; the piano was by Marvell Thomas, and the organ came from Booker T. Jones.

Along with William, these were people I was going to spend some of the best years of my life with. I just didn't know it yet. That night in Baton Rouge, William Bell went on first. As he remembers things, it was a big old theater building converted into a nightclub. William came off into the dressing room, started toweling off his sweat, and we went on right behind him. "They got halfway through their first song," William recalls, "and we heard this big explosion. Someone had come into the club and shot a shotgun up in the air, looking for his woman and another man. The Falcons came running off stage and crowded right into the dressing room while I'm still getting changed! That was our initial meeting."

Those were the times, brother! Could never quite know what was going to happen at one of your shows. And what happens next to the Falcons is no less confusing. Pickett, like I said, figured himself as a solo artist from the start, and that's the main reason we never even got a photograph taken with him; it's not like it ever felt like we had a permanent thing going.

So he's continuing to perform on his own, and right around the time "I Found a Love" takes off, he releases his own single on a little label called Correc-Tone, started by a local numbers runner who figured he could make even more pro t out of records. Meantime, of course, Atlantic wants us to follow up "I Found a Love," so they get the group back in the King studio with Pickett and the Ohio Untouchables—who later became the Ohio Players, just so you know. But Atlantic also has us recording down in New Orleans with the great Harold Battiste as producer, and Pickett wasn't on those sessions. Nor was Willie Schofield, who didn't like to tour. We got a guy called Ben Knight in from another group my uncle had signed to one of his labels, the Tornados. Meantime, Schofield is getting more into production alongside my uncle, and they're bringing in the Falcons to sing backing for some of these singers—among them, Betty Lavett (as her name was originally spelled), who makes her debut on Lu Pine. But none of these singles are hits, not even the Falcons ones. And we're no longer in the studio together at the same time for the same records. Band members are coming and going. Mack is cutting some tracks, I'm cutting some tracks, and Willie's cutting tracks on other people—and then Willie gets his draft papers round this time, and he's out of the picture completely.

The way I remember it is this: we went to the Apollo to do a show, and we were coming back to Detroit, through Ohio, and we heard Wilson Pickett on the radio. But this is not Wilson Pickett singing as the Falcons, this is Wilson Pickett singing as Wilson Pickett. It's his solo single. Oh. We got about 700 miles left together on the road to figure that one out! The next show was going to be about two weeks later—in D.C., at the Howard. Some of us meet up, and we drive over to Wilson Pickett's house. And Pickett comes out, but instead of getting in our car, he goes to the car in front of us! He says, "I'm going to do a record hop in Chicago."

I guess that it's. He's going on his own? Well I'm going on my own.

And that's how the Falcons, the world's first Soul group, broke up. Right there, in the streets of Detroit, each of us going our separate ways—and just about all of us making good on it too.

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