Sam Moore: Can't stand up for falling down

One half of Sam and Dave, Sam Moore was also a junkie, a pimp and a jailbird. Now he's releasing a solo album and is more interested in gospel than girls. Gavin Martin meets the Soul Man
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The Independent Culture

When Sam Moore enters the drawing-room of his London hotel, his face looks tired and drawn. Momentarily, the 67-year-old soul legend who, along with his late partner/ adversary Dave Prater, made a series of powerhouse, gospel-based classics unrivalled in their emotional intensity – "Soul Man", "Hold On I'm Coming", "I Take What Want", "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby" – looks sorely burdened by his past.

In his time, Moore has been a single parent, a junkie, a pimp and a jailbird. He has fathered "14, maybe 15" children by several different mothers, marched alongside Martin Luther King, supported the Clash, and had tea with George W Bush.

When he met his future wife and manager Joyce Mcrae, in 1977, the title of Sam and Dave songs, "Broken Down Piece Of Man" and "Can't Stand Up For Falling Down", were too close to home for comfort. But under Joyce's guidance, Moore has undergone detox, rehab and therapy. His career has enjoyed a new lease of life through liaisons with Don Henley, Annie Lennox, Lou Reed and Bruce Springsteen. But the past still dogs him.

"I have very bad knees," he says, apologetically, as he eases into a chair propped up with cushions. "All the years of dancing and jumping onstage have got the knees all... painful. When you're young, you never think about all the running, doing splits and fooling around, but it affects you later."

In recent years, Joyce has steered Moore's career with his comfort in mind – corporate entertaining, cruise liners, US military bases. When not working, he enjoys playing golf sometimes with his Arizona neighbour, Alice Cooper. But, the release of Plenty Good Lovin' – Moore's long-lost solo album from 1969, recorded with the cream of Stax Atlantic musicians – The MGs, Donny Hathaway, Aretha Franklin and King Curtis – refocuses attention on his heyday. A lost treasure from soul history, it suggests the unthinkable: Sam and Dave might have been the biggest selling act in Stax history, but freed from the call-and-response set-up, Moore was even greater than those classic sides revealed.

The tapes of the album were long presumed to have been burned in a studio fire. When they were presented to Moore a few years ago, he couldn't remember making them. "After a while, I feel kind of silly, people say, you record something and you don't remember it? But I really didn't." He does, however, have a clear memory of the day in August 1971 when he went to the Harlem apartment of the album's producer, King Curtis, to find out why the album hadn't been released.

"Unfortunately, when I got there he was... ahh... getting murdered. Aretha was sitting across the street and as I was walking towards the apartment, I saw King screaming at this guy to get off his steps. There was a shoving, King staggered and he fell.

"Aretha got out of the car and screamed but at the time I wasn't so clean, I was carrying stuff I didn't want anyone to find. I turned and ran before I saw him die."

It was more likely Atlantic's desire to keep Sam with Dave, rather than King Curtis's murder that kept the album unreleased. But the duo's offstage relationship had never been easy. And after Dave shot his wife in 1968, it was barely tenable. "I took it upon myself to become judge, jury and executioner," says Moore, with a hint of remorse.

"I initiated the break-up. But I've seen very many more evil and abusive men than Dave. After the incident with the gun, I said to Dave, look, I'll sing with you, but I'll never talk to you again, ever. So for 12 years we worked together, but our lives were completely separate."

Their professional career was long past when Dave died in a 1988 car smash. But how did Moore feel when he heard the news?

"I don't know. I have never mourned the man – 13 years on, I still haven't. I didn't cry. I've cried about a lot of things, but I never cried for Dave. I don't know whether that's a good or a bad thing. I think I went too deep into shock to deal with it."

Dave Prater was Moore's passport out of small-time fame in Miami, where the duo was discovered by Atlantic's Jerry Wexler in 1964. At the time, Moore was something of a pimp in his hometown. "I was a local hero not a big star. Women like you? Let them pay you. That's how things were done on my side of the street. I was surrounded by that kind of behaviour, it was accepted. But I didn't make much money from it."

The following year, after he moved to Manhattan, Moore was introduced to heroin by one of his idols, the soul star Little Willie John.

"Heroin and cocaine – they made me feel bigger than life. You can insult people, get in fights, treat women any kind of way. But, eventually, it gets to the point where you're just taking them because you don't want to get sick."

As he recounts in his autobiography, Sam And Dave – An Oral History, the drugs and fame fuelled a rapacious sexual appetite and he has lost count of his offspring. "I'm in touch with three or four of them, that's sad when you consider there's so many of them. I used to crave connection with my children, but some have chosen not to make that connection, some of them resent me or want me to pay for them. I can understand that."

Moore began performing as a child in his backyard in Miami, mimicking the sermons his father, a womanising preacher, gave at the local church. "Golf and gospel" remain his twin passions, and he's still determined to fulfil a lifelong ambition to make an album of sacred songs. "It's where I can express my inner spirit, really get my teeth into a song and let rip. You feel tired and sore when you finish, but you also feel so wonderful. I promised my grandmother that whenever the time came, I'd go back to my roots. And I'm going to do it," he smiles.

He smiles and laughs frequently. The slack, drawn muscles tighten, he laughs loud and slaps his thigh. He recounts time spent with his hero, Jackie Wilson, and contemporaries James Brown and Otis Redding, looks forward to a round of golf when he gets home, and rolls his eyes as he marvels at the generosity of the hotel menu. It's easy to see why his celebrity friends and admirers are lining up to assist with a comeback album, a record that should finally allow him to break free from Dave's shadow.

"For a long time, people used to say, which one are you? Agencies would say, who's going to sing Dave's part? They told me to get a phoney Dave, but I refused to prostitute myself," he says proudly. "For a long time I didn't work because of it, even today there are people who won't let the Sam and Dave thing go. My wife says to them, why don't you go and tell Tina [Turner] to get back with Ike?

"I know I'm gonna have to do "Soul Man" for the rest of my life, like Tony Bennett has to do "San Francisco", or Johnny Mathis has to do "Misty". And in a way I hate it. It's been like an albatross around my neck for 22 years because I do have more to say. But at the end of the night, it's still what people want to hear."

'Plenty Good Lovin' – The Lost Album' is out on Swing Café on 28 Jan. Sam Moore plays Shepherd's Bush Empire, London, on 13 Feb