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DAVID PORTER GROOVES ON

 

The last thing you might expect from David Porter—the legendary Stax Records songwriter and producer who’s collaborated with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and Sam & Dave over the course of his seven-decade career—are hip-hop shout-outs.

“I have six platinum awards in my office right now and a Moneybagg Yo plaque just came in,” Porter says, beaming as he relaxes in his $5 million, 16,525-square-foot 4 U Recording studio in his hometown of Memphis. “He records here, and Megan Thee Stallion is featured on one of the joints.”

At 79, Porter could easily be mistaken for a much younger man, but he isn’t trying to make a desperate play for relevance among today’s cool kids; he’s just outspoken in his desire to do what he can to support their success. “I am so proud to be accepted by this new generation, because the future is the future,” he says. “For those of us who’ve been fortunate enough to have a career, it’s a shame if we don’t give something back.”

Indeed, Porter has an abundance of reasons for giving back to the community that helped nurture him. Along with his writing partner, the Oscar-winning composer Isaac Hayes (who died in 2008), he is one of the architects of the legendary Memphis Sound, which helped define the music of the 1960s and early ’70s and whose influence reverberates even today.

The ninth child in a family that would soon swell to 12, Porter grew up on dead-end Virginia Avenue in the last house on the street. His best friend was future Earth, Wind & Fire visionary Maurice White.

“’Rice and I started singing at Rose Hill Baptist Church together,” Porter recalls fondly. “I knew music would become a passion for me because I’d made myself believe that the excitement parishioners were having towards me was totally built on the great talent I had [laughs], though they were really celebrating the grace of God.”

Memphis was a segregated town, however, and like many Black performers of the era, Porter struggled to break through. After scoring the first salaried staff-songwriting position at Satellite Records, Porter applied his ingenuity and steadfast drive to helping reinvent the country label, founded in 1957, as historic R&B powerhouse Stax Records.

Needless to say, Porter—who also wrote for blues legend Johnny Taylor and Queen of Memphis Soul Carla Thomas and worked at Stax’s A&R desk, where he signed the Emotions and the Soul Children—has stories.  

“I sang with Otis on ‘Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)’—that’s me singing harmony with him,” he says, referring to Stax’s gruff, charismatic headlining superstar, who’d become an unlikely crossover act and a favorite at live events like the Monterey Pop Festival before his untimely death in a plane crash in 1967. “Otis Redding gave us a consciousness about head arrangements. That is, coming in with the parts on the floor, humming them and telling the musicians how you want them to interpret it. He would walk around the studio and sing bass lines and guitar licks. Otis Redding was a genius.”

He says of his fruitful pairing with Hayes, which produced a string of R&B and pop hits from 1966 to 1971: “We sang at talent shows every Wednesday night on Beale Street. I think it was in ’64 that Isaac and I wrote our first song together, ‘Can’t See You When I Want To.’ I was looking for someone to form a creative bond with because I was so fascinated by the collaboration of Holland-Dozier-Holland at Motown and Burt Bacharach and Hal David; I looked up to those partnerships. And Isaac was just as ambitious as I was.”

Porter and Hayes’ biggest success came with the emergence of the sweat-inducing duo Sam & Dave, who were struggling to find their voice on R&B powerhouse Atlantic Records. “When [famed Atlantic producer] Jerry Wexler brought Sam & Dave down to Memphis, there was no excitement to work with them except for from me,” Porter recollects. “I asked for permission to work with them.”

Porter and Hayes came up with a straight/no-chaser sound that would attract R&B, pop and rock fans. “We started to formulate a concept we felt would create an identity for them—and for us,” Porter continues. “We focused on the low end, the bass and drums part of Sam & Dave’s records, because Motown had the high, the midrange and the melodic strings. We felt Sam & Dave, as a unit, was very, very soulful.”

The result was a string of classics led by the monster singles “Hold On, I’m Comin’” (1966) and “Soul Man” (1967), tracks heavily influenced by the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. 

“We were trying to motivate and excite African-Americans to get comfortable within ourselves,” Porter says. “Sam & Dave’s ‘Soul Man’ talked about getting over hard times, getting an education, getting to a better place in life and then having the confidence to say, I’m a soul man—a proud Black man. ‘Hold On, I’m Coming’ also had a motivational message, talking about the pride of a Black man having to work hard jobs but wanting to make it known that he will still be there for his woman despite limited resources.”

Porter also has an avant-garde side. Yes, that’s him on the cover of his 1971 concept album Victim of a Joke… An Opera dressed as a clown (his frantic cover of The Beatles’ “Help” is wonderfully bonkers).

But while the Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee is happy to talk about a legacy that’s produced a vault of hits and cult favorites—material sampled and interpolated by everyone from the Notorious B.I.G. and the Wu-Tang Clan to Will Smith and Mariah Carey—he’s even more excited to discuss the present.

The Consortium MMT, a nonprofit founded by Porter in 2012 to offer an outlet to aspiring local songwriters, producers and artists, is more than keeping him busy these days. And he’s downright giddy talking about the recent expansion of his recording portfolio: 4 U Atlanta studios—“T.I. was in there last week.” Then there’s Made in Memphis Entertainment. Headed by president Tony Alexander, Made in Memphis is Porter’s vision of a Black music distribution hub come to life.

“We’re trying to motivate record labels to set up satellite offices in Memphis and felt that a meaningful way to make that happen would be to have a platform such as Made In Memphis Entertainment to validate the credibility of what these talents can do,” Porter notes. “I want to see young people have the same opportunities I had.”

Spoken like a true soul man.

 

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