Monday, January 10, 2005

Review of Sam & Dave's Greatest Hits

Review of The Best of Sam and Dave

written by Tom Graves

During the height of the Blues Brothers craze, I went to a small club to see the re-formed Sam and Dave. The dance floor was undulating with yuppies and your average club flotsam, who talked through nearly all the songs until the duo performed the then reigning fraternity smash, "Soul Man."

I did not know it at the time, but Sam Moore had been almost literally picked-up out of the gutter for this series of dates and was deep in the belly of the beast of heroin addiction. I had heard though that Sam and Dave weren't on speaking terms and hated the sight of one another. But you could couldn't tell it this night.

Even playing for this spoiled, inattentive audience, the pair practically burned with the Holy Ghost of soul fever, their gutty, soaring voices wrapping themselves around the pullulating rhythms and verses carved out for them a decade earlier by Stax Records' most skilled songwriters. Sam Moore put on one of the two or three finest performances I have ever seen that night, reaching through that wall of impassivity to forever mark those of us who paused to listen. I would never have believed Sam was an addict and still have trouble believing they weren't pals for at least that night.

Of course the reunion didn't last long and no new recordings of note resulted from the respite in their feuding, but Sam is now a recovering addict and both singers perform regularly and separately.

Between 1965 and 1968 Sam and Dave ignited stages all over the world and recorded several milestone r&b numbers that crossed over bigtime into the pop charts. And as reported by Peter Guralnick, Otis Redding himself insisted that the "double dynamite" not appear on the same bookings with him; they were simply too smoking to match.

Although neither Sam nor Dave were songwriters, Stax producers wisely used their best songwriting talent for their recordings. Backed by the usual Stax rhythm section of Booker T and the MG's and the Mar-Keys, they recorded four albums that contained a transcendent body of work. The Best of Sam and Dave contains every masterpiece from the Sam and Dave canon, including seven songs not found on the LP.

Being a rabid fan of Sam and Dave, I was completely dissatisfied with the sound quality of the domestic LP. There was a great deal of improvement in Japanese vinyl pressings, but the material still sounded muddy and hissy. The compact disc is, again, a step above the vinyl and cassette versions available, but that is not always saying much. Some songs such as "You Don't Know Like I Know" and "Soul Man" pulsate with sound purity and punchiness. Other songs such as "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby" and "Soothe Me" have levels of hiss that are unacceptable no matter how you view it (and remastering whiz Steve Hoffman convinced me that a little hiss is preferrable to chopping off the high end).

No other Sam and Dave compilation has captured so completely and skillfully the full measure of this duo's peerless soul recordings as does this CD. Very little here is extraneous, and I cannot find one omission to blight the perfection of the assemblage. Even with my quibbles about portions of the sound, this disc is all-important to anyone serious about the soul metier. The gliding high tenor of Sam coupled with the grit and gospel winging of Dave makes for a vocal chemistry unsurpassed in popular music and perhaps only even approached by the Everly Brothers (whose voices are the best argument I know of for the existence of a God).

"Hold On, I'm Comin'" is on my list of ten best songs of all time (even though there are about 1000 songs on my ten best list), and if the thought of the Blues Brothers outselling all the Sam and Dave records combined didn't make me vomit, I would vote for "Soul Man" too. One can hardly do better than this disc.

--Tom Graves


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