DAVE PRATER’S GREATEST HITS
By Jonathan Bernstein
To most, Dave Prater was the secondary member of the pioneering r&b duo Sam & Dave. During their heyday at Stax Records in the mid-sixties, the majority of Sam Moore and Dave Prater’s most successful singles—from “Hold On, I’m Comin” to “Soul Man” to “Soul Sister, Brown Sugar” to “I Thank You”—featured Sam on lead vocals. In the years since Dave Prater’s premature death in a 1987 car accident, Sam Moore’s name alone has become synonymous with the group.
But, as I write in the Oxford American’s Georgia Music issue, Prater played a quietly essential role in Sam & Dave, one that’s been often overlooked by the group’s collaborators, contemporaries, and critics alike in the past thirty years. It takes only a slightly closer listen to Sam & Dave’s discography to hear the vital contributions of the duo’s soft-spoken half.
Often times, Dave’s contributions were subtle. He sang low-harmony to Moore’s louder high vocals, he frequently took lead during a song’s bridge, and he often sang wordlessly, in low moans, rhythmic shouts, and high-reaching falsetto cries: nuanced contributions that can be as easy to take for granted in a record as a perfectly-executed bass line.
Below is a selection of some of the greatest moments of Prater’s recorded legacy, an attempt to construct Dave Prater’s greatest hits when many, if not most, of his finest moments on record can only be found on B-sides, obscure out-of-print singles, or deep album cuts that have rarely been anthologized amongst the Sam & Dave canon.
“I Need Love” (1962)
Sam & Dave
Before they were discovered by Jerry Wexler and sent to record at Stax, Sam Moore and Dave Prater spent several years in Miami recording for various smaller labels. None of the sixteen total singles that the duo recorded in the early sixties resulted in a bonafide hit—and the group’s early period is generally dismissed as inferior to their later work—but there are a number of underappreciated gems to be found in their earliest songs. Released in the spring of 1962, “I Need Love” was a pop ballad deeply indebted to Sam Cooke and features one of Dave’s finest early vocals. Prater, twenty-five at the time, takes the second verse on the crooning devotional, which is one of a few early singles written exclusively by Prater and Moore.
“It Was So Nice While It Lasted” (1963)
Sam & Dave
Before they got to Stax, where Moore became the prominent lead vocalist on most recordings, Prater handled a much larger share of the group’s vocals. “It Was So Nice While It Lasted” was just one of many early examples of Prater taking lead, with Moore’s high harmony vocals during the refrain serving as mere complement. This elegant, driving rendition of a song written by Johnny Nash shows Prater in perhaps his most natural state: crooning pop balladeer. “If you really listen, Dave’s the music,” said Rosemary Prater, who giving a fascinating, and self-professedly “one-sided” take on Sam & Dave’s music. “When Sam sings, it’s all voice and vocal. When Dave sings, there’s rhythm, movement, and music.”
“A Place Nobody Can Find” (1965)
Sam & Dave
The first single Sam & Dave recorded at Stax marks a transitional moment for the duo. Prater handles the lead vocals on their debut, which would not happen again on a Stax single for several years. “Isaac [Hayes] and I talked about a church direction for them. There was no artist at Stax into that kind of vibe, and we thought it would be a great move,” said David Porter, who wrote “A Place Nobody Can Find” shortly before teaming up with Hayes to develop the gospel-inspired sound for Sam & Dave. “If you listen to ‘A Place Nobody Can Find’ and then you listen to songs like ‘You Don’t Know Like I Know’ and ‘Hold On, I’m Comin’,’ you can see a transition into that other direction.”
“If Jim Morrison screams at us to ‘break on through to the other side,’” Jon Landau once wrote in Rolling Stone, “Well, Sam and Dave don’t have to tell us about it because their music is on the other side.” Though the song’s arrangement feels restrained, almost quaint, compared to some of their later unhinged singles, “A Place Nobody Can Find” hints at the otherworldly ecstasy and spiritual deliverance that would come to define so many of the Sam & Dave’s music during their Stax years.
“When Something Is Wrong with My Baby” (1967)
Sam & Dave
The recording of “When Something Is Wrong with My Baby” was the definitive star-making moment of Dave Prater’s career. With one line, Prater proved himself to be one of the finest balladeers of the sixties, delivering a heart-wrenching take on what Stax historian Rob Bowman has called “one of the most sublime records in soul music’s history.” Reviewing one of Sam & Dave’s final shows together, in 1980, for the Globe and Mail, critic Paul McGrath wrote: “The soul method was revealed in its full glory during ‘When Something Is Wrong With My Baby.’ The horns became louder and Prater so forceful he had to step back from the microphone, all of them leading to the dead spot just before the chorus when the whole world seems to drop away in the silence, leaving only the two voices to bring it back again.”
This is the tune that nearly everyone close to Prater has named as their favorite Sam & Dave song.
“Small Portion of Your Love” (1967)
Sam & Dave
Released as the B-side of “When Something Is Wrong with My Baby,” this understated mid-tempo ballad is one of the finest examples of the dynamic interplay between Moore and Prater’s voices, with the two alternating between singing harmony and trading off lines during the call-and-response outro. Written by Hayes and Porter, “Small Portion of Your Love” might be the best bridge between the church-filled gospel revivalism made famous in Sam & Dave’s biggest hits and the softer, more tender pop-based balladry that the two singers began their career with. It also may be Porter’s personal all-time favorite Sam & Dave song. “Just listen to the texture of how they perform that song,” Porter once said. “You want to hear how great they were together? Listen to that song.”
“Let It Be Me” (1967)
Sam & Dave
Sam & Dave cut this rendition of the saccharine duet made famous by the Everly Brothers for the Soul Men LP in 1967. In the style of the Everlys, Moore and Prater sing in delicate harmony on nearly every line on the tune. But while the original relied on the Everlys’ smooth-flowing, dream-like vocal delivery, Sam & Dave offer a more staccatoed intonation, turning the song into an elegant r&b anthem. Though first-rate, like many other slower Sam & Dave songs during this period “Let It Be Me” fell to the wayside in favor of the more up-tempo singles Stax and Atlantic ended up releasing for them. “When we got a niche with up-tempo things happening with Sam & Dave we just tried to ride that,” Porter says in Soulsville USA. “[In retrospect] we should have done more ballads.”
“Just Keep Holdin On” (1967)
Sam & Dave
After Sam & Dave struck big with their 1965 hit “Hold on, I’m Comin’,” the songwriters and label heads at Stax and Atlantic tried to capitalize on the phenomenal success of the single with follow-ups like “Hold On” and “Just Keep Holding on.” The latter, released on Soul Men, is one of the most bizarrely moving songs in the group’s discography. Written by Stax President Al Bell and Booker T. Jones, “Just Keep Holding On” feels like stumbling into a conversation you shouldn’t be hearing, a private sit-down between two old partners talking through their troubles. After Prater takes the quivering, gorgeous first verse, Moore begins to address his partner, no longer even bothering to sing: “Now listen to me, I know your friends say it, Dave, a long time ago that I was no good,” Moore pleads, as the Booker T & the MG’s horn section slowly begins swelling towards the final chorus. “Maybe they’re right. I don’t know. I didn’t even treat you like I should’ve.”
“Keep My Fingers Crossed” (1971)
“They just put ’em out and that was that. No promotion,” Dave Prater once said of his short-lived attempt as a solo artist. Prater released just two songs under his own name in his entire career, both coming in 1971 after one of Sam & Dave’s early, temporary breakups. Prater always wanted to have the chance to sing more pop and delicate balladry (his two favorite songs were Elvis’s “The Wonder of You” and Willie Nelson’s “You Were Always On My Mind”), and his two sides without Moore might have provided an interesting opportunity to explore his softer side. But in an effort to spark interest in Prater’s solo career the debut single became a close imitation of the type of driving r&b Porter and Hayes had already mastered at Stax. Written by a young Clarence Reid (who would go on to become the pioneering, controversial rapper Blowfly), “Keep My Fingers Crossed” is a fascinating portrait of an artist trying, for the first and only time, to explore his solo voice.