So many stories repeat themselves throughout history. This one began a long time ago with a man fighting the outrage of having his people oppressed.
The 60s was prime for the Civil Rights Movement. It was the day for Martin Luther King, Jr to shine. It saw the formation of the Black Power movement. It was a time of freedom rides and of university integrations.
Needless to say, it caused tensions to rise. And one July night in 1967, the tension became too much.
It started when police raided an unlicensed club, known as a blind pig, above a print shop in hopes of turning out a few of the usuals. But instead of a few Saturday revelers, they unexpectedly found 82 blacks celebrating a homecoming for two soldiers recently home from Vietnam. The police decided to detain the whole lot of them.
But they didn’t have enough room to transport everyone and had to call for extra vehicles. And while they waited, the neighborhood took notice. Soon a large group of spectators were drawn out, angry at the situation.
By the time the last of the arrested were loaded into squad cars, the situation reached a literal breaking point: a bottle was thrown, smashing through the car window. And the police drove away leaving around 200 outraged residents behind.
The crowd’s anger turned to looting and swept throughout the neighborhood. So many people began looting that police were unable to make an arrest until 7 the next morning. By the time it was over, the 1967 Detroit riot became one of the most destructive in U.S. history, leaving 43 dead, over 1,000 injured and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed.
Many black business owners spray painted the word “soul” on their windows in hope of being spared by looters. Still, the tactic didn’t spare all black-owned shops.
“All the black businesses, if they write ‘soul’ on their businesses they’re bypassed. And I thought about the night of Passover in the Bible,” said Isaac Hayes in a 2007 documentary titled “Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story” by Tremolo Productions. Hayes and his songwriting partner, David Porter, extrapolated it into “I’m a soul brother, I’m a soul man.”
In the book of Exodus, God sends plagues upon the Egyptians until the Pharaoh releases the Israelites from slavery. The tenth plague was the death of the first-born in each family, but the Israelites were told to mark the doorpost of their houses with the blood of a lamb and they would be spared from the spirit of the Lord. Those houses would be “passed over.” Passover is a well-known story to Christians, but for the Jews it is a holiday that begins today.
Hayes and his songwriting partner, David Porter, would ultimately turn his inspiration into the song “Soul Man,” released the same year as the riots. The idea was to create “a story about one’s struggle to rise above his present conditions,” said Hayes about Porter’s idea in Rob Bowman’s 1997 book, “Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records.”
The sentiment can be seen in the lyrics:
“Got what I got the hard way
And I’ll make it better each and every day”
“I was brought up on a side street, listen now
I learned how to love before I could eat”
Hayes said “It’s almost a tune kind of like boasting: ‘I’m a soul man.’ It’s a pride thing.” It hit the airwaves when the singing duo of Sam Moore and Dave Prater, known as Sam & Dave, released it on their album “Soul Men.”
From the lazy guitar at the at the beginning, to the time the horns snap the tempo into shape, the song has a way of getting inside of you. It’s difficult to listen to and not have it have you tapping your foot or swaying to the beat.
Sam & Dave were soul men. They cut their teeth singing gospel music in their churches. Dave sang in a gospel group with his older brother, J.T., in Georgia. Sam made a name for himself singing gospel before rising through the ranks on the Florida R&B circuit. The two would meet at a Miami club called the King of Hearts.
The two appeared to be the type of person Hayes had written the song about: men who worked hard to rise above their present conditions. Perhaps it was some of that identification that can be heard in their voices, that carried this song higher than any other they had or would ever sing.
“Soul Man” shot up to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. It would go on to win a Grammy in 1968. Ultimately it would be voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999 and ranks as one of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It’s easy to see why Sam & Dave were called the Dynamic Duo and why the story of Soul Man still resonates with us today.