Thursday, February 19, 2009

Boss Tracks, Knock on Wood by Eddie Floyd (interview)

Recently I was lucky enough to score an interview with the great Eddie Floyd. As a major Soul fan interviewing Eddie Floyd is a big deal. Though when mentioning mister Floyd to friends I got a shocking amount of raised eye brows from people in their thirties, Floyd was at the cradle of what we see today as classic Soul music. Though his star never has been as big as Sam Cooke, Ray Charles or Otis Redding, you can argue that his influence comes close to matching those legendary performers. Even today, Knock on Wood and Raise Your Hand are standards any bar band worth its salt should know by heart. Even though not everybody remembers him as sharply, Eddie wrote and first popularized those tunes, they are a big part of our collective musical memory through later versions by the Blues Brothers, David Bowie, Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen. So picking up the phone to talk to Eddie, I suddenly felt my palms go sweaty and my hands shaking. I was nervous, I was going to talk to a hero of mine.

Eddie Floyd’s story is particularly interesting to tell, not just because he wrote some of those big hits, but because he was there from the beginning. Even though his recent performance on BBC’s Jools Holland shows a vital man seemingly in the prime of his life, make no mistake, Eddie is 71 years old, he’s been around long enough to tell us a story or two.

Floyd’s story seems to revolve around music, he lives and breathes it. Over the course of the interview his answers on the business or political side of things would be short, to Eddie they seem to be secondary to the process of making music. When I’d ask mister Floyd about that process his voice seemed to warm up through the crackling phone line, the chuckles and his voice would break in enthusiasm. His taste for music was spoon fed. “My momma would take me out to see everybody that had a record out,” mister Floyd remembers, “Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, I saw them when I was just a little kid and I sung all that!” His early musical influences didn’t stop at Jazz, “there was Country and Western as well, I hadn’t heard of Muddy Waters at the time, but Hank Williams was a local I guess. Franky Lymon and the teenagers was the first group I saw that I knew I wanted to be in a group.” Eddie picks Hank Ballard and the Midnighters as one of the biggest influences on the Falcons at the time, “we loved Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, they were the rough and tough sounding group!” Eddie Floyd incidentally is one of the many artists who mentions the Midnighters as an influence, a list that goes all the way up to James Brown. “They did the Twist,” Eddie adds exited, “everybody is giving it to Chubby Checker, but the Hank Ballard was the Twist ya’ll!!”

By 1956, when Franky Lymon hit big with “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” Floyd had already formed his first incarnation of the Falcons. Eddie had moved from his native Montgomery Alabama to Detroit with his uncle Robert West. Ahead of his time the first Falcons were an integrated group, half the group, Bob Monardo and Tom Shelter, was white at the time. “The original Falcons only lasted long enough to take a photo,” Eddie laughs today, “no recording was ever made because Bob and Tom were drafted.” From there on the group would quickly take on the shape that would make the Falcons legendary later. Sir Mack Rice and Joe Stubbs (brother to recently deceased Levi Stubbs from Four Tops fame) were added to the group. With the hit single “You’re so Fine” shooting up the Billboard charts in 1959, landing a whopping #17 in the pop charts, the Falcons were flying. Joe Stubbs soon left for the Contours, who were signed with Motown, and was replaced by the exiting Wilson Picket. The sound of the Falcons had begun to shift Floyd recalls today, “we saw a shift from the Detroit sound to the Memphis sound,” something Floyd credits sir Mac Rice for.

With Picket on board, the Falcons would score their last big R&B hit, 1962’s “I Found a Love” with the Wicked Picket on the scorching and wailing lead vocals. Though the song saw little action on the pop charts, peaking at #75, today it is considered as one of those tracks that is the watershed between R&B and Soul. Picket’s ambitions however would prevent the group from cashing in on the success of the single, soon after “I Found a Love” hit, Wilson went solo. Today mister Floyd looks back on the Flacons as the place where he could hone his skills, “the Falcons paid off eventually when we all could go solo,” he explains. It wouldn’t take long for Eddie Floyd to test his skills. Soon after the Falcons fell apart, he struck up acquaintance with future Stax president All Bell, who was a DJ in Washington at the time. “At the time I met All, [Stax recording artist] Carla Thomas was going to university in Washington. Al and I got together and wrote a few songs for her.” Those songs were the deep soul classic “Stop! Look What You’re Doing To Me” and “Comfort Me.” Those compositions would give Floyd a foot in the door at Sax when All Bell was landed at Stax in a promotion position. “I more or less just came along,” he laughs at it today.

At first Floyd would be hired at Stax as a songwriter, coming in every month or so for some writing sessions. He fondly remembers those early Stax days, “everybody was having a ball, creating new songs daily.” Explaining further “most of those hit songs were accidents. We’d just go with the flow, we’d write a song but didn’t have tape recorders yet to put the idea down and go back to it.” As a result the recording process would often be a team effort, a more natural process. Stax studios at the time was equipped with a simple 4 track recorder, “we had to just pray it came together that particular instant.” The songs were often created on the spot, Floyd remembers, “everybody put a little bit in those songs, there was a great sense of togetherness.” Everybody would bring their own thing to the floor Floyd explains, “Steve Cropper would create all the Rhythm, he was great on playing those intros, when you hear his lick, you know what song it is. Booker T was great at absolutely everything” he recounts with still that sense of marvel in his voice.

Some of the biggest hits Floyd did for Stax were accidents, with a laugh Floyd entrusts how Knock on Wood is still a demo today. “When we’d go into the studio to record a demo, we’d play it together at that moment. No matter what the song was, it’s finished by the time you listen at it. Recording is much more technical today,” Floyd reflects. The songs signature lyrics came to Floyd when he was writing with Steve Cropper in the very Motel where Martin Luther King would be assassinated a few years down the line, a moment that would change Stax forever. Floyd and Cropper had hit writers block when a thunder storm hit, “It’s like thunder, lightings, the way you love me is frightening,” Floyd sings in the phone, still amused at how it all still clicked at that very moment. The song fleshed out further when “Al Jackson threw in that drum fill on the studio floor. It sounded funny at the time, we were enjoying what we were hearing, so it must have been right,” he laughs.

Springsteen’s signature encore song, Raise Your Hand, was written in much the same way during those sessions. In Floyd’s mind however, “We didn’t finish it, but when we came to London [for the Stax-Volt Tour] we heard both songs on the radio.” Mister Floyd is still thankful to Springsteen and others who helped his songs further along and collects all different versions today. “There’s so many artists that have done my songs. Eric Clapton is my favorite one [doing Knock on Wood],” adding with some amusement, “there was even one that was Disco, believe me, I wasn’t even thinking Disco!”

April 29th 1976 The E-Street Band featuring Eddie Floyd

MP3 File

During the Born to Run tour Springsteen introduced himself to Floyd when the tour hit Memphis. “Him and Southside Johnny were just regular guys I hadn’t met before and I basically hadn’t heard of him back then. When [Springsteen] called there were people in the studio who did realize who was calling, I just said,” chuckling “do you know him? One of the cats was actually a big fan and went down with me, I guess he’ll never forget that, he was still talking about it years later!” Floyd was pleasantly surprised by the Boss. “I play a lot of your songs Springsteen said. The ones were Knock on Wood and Raise Your Hand, plus two or three others I had never played before live.” Floyd still laughs at Springsteen’s reaction when he exclaimed, “You don’t do those songs!” Floyd had shrugged and admitted, “No, I just play the hits.” Later that night, Floyd joined the young upcoming star on stage to play a few of those.

The memories of Stax are fond and many, Floyd jumps through them throughout the interview. He still seems in awe about hitting Europe and being on the same stage as Sam and Dave or his good friend Otis Redding, “I was working with so many heavies, I mean being on the same stage, WOW!!” he exclaims, “We didn’t expect to be so big, we just went to play music,” he adds humbly. A few years after the Stax-Volt had hit Europe, Floyd was back in London when tragedy struck, Otis passed. Floyd had to hear the news from a reporter. The plane Floyd tried to take home to attend the funeral couldn’t take off because it mall functioned. Floyd´s homage to Redding was born out of that experience when he mumbled “get on up Big Bird” under his breath out of frustration.

Soon after that Martin Luther King passed as well, an event that changed the face of Black music. All Bell, who had introduced Floyd at Stax, would go on to transform the company, as vice-president, to a mixture between a record label and a socially conscious movement, working closely together with various civil rights movements and releasing increasingly assertive music. Though Floyd admits, “it was great to be part of the times, it changed overnight everywhere, it didn’t stop [with King’s passing], we had to move on,” Floyd’s interest isn’t really in politics. His main motivation is Soul music and how that brings people together. “Soul music gotta be in there somewhere, it’s the main ingredient, it is the people putting it all together,” he elaborates, “Everybody’s got to be on that same number.” That is what politics and brotherhood seems to be to Floyd, regardless of race, creed or colour, Soul music unifies.

In recent years, Floyd is enjoying a something of a renaissance in his career. The Soul sound he helped create is everywhere again in the sound of new and upcoming talents such as Amy Winehouse, Eli ‘Paperboy’ Reed and Duffy. Floyd himself is still finding new avenues for his Soul sound, working with Latin legend Poncho Sanchez, amongst others. “Poncho told me he used to do Raise Your Hand as a kid in school. The funny thing is Steve [Cropper] originally had a little Spanish type feeling to the beginning of the song that you don’t here on the record no more, but it was on the original one, so we always felt that it had a Spanish flavour to it. So now Poncho comes up, many, many years later, playing it how we used to do it.” So Floyd decided to re-cut the song with Poncho with the help of his old buddies Steve Cropper and Booker T Jones. “We sung it live!” Floyd proudly relates, “all my songs have always been one or two cuts, not ten or fifteen!”

These days Floyd is a semi-regular with Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings live band, but he still cuts records on his own. His most recent, Eddie Loves You So, revisits that classic Stax sounds and found its release on the recently rejuvenated label. Floyd’s voice sounds surprisingly young and hungry for a man in his seventies. “A band from Boston put the backing tracks together,” Floyd relates, “They did a great job sounding just like those Stax records. That’s just my state of mind, my mind is still there in ’67.” The recording process was swiftly Floyd admits, “I sang them out, bang, bang, bang! They had me scheduled for two days, I was probably up there for two hours,” he laughs, “I wouldn’t know how to sing them any other way than I did. It just fell into place, kind of amazing really, at least the MGs would hear me sing them, but these guys didn’t, but they just kind of locked in and kept it together. I was able to sing everything and feel comfortable.” What helped the process of course was how producer Mike Dinallo went back through Floyd’s song book, spot lighting some rarities to re-record. “Since You’ve Been Gone was a song he didn’t think I’d remember.” Floyd elaborates, “It was one of the first songs I did with the Falcons, I hadn’t heard it since. Mike send me a tape, I heard it once and it just kind of locked in my head, they all came back.” Eddie Loves You So came out as a great album, a Soul legend going full cycle.

Since You've Been Gone

Find out more on the Falcons here
A big thanks to In the Basement Magazine for help on getting this together.

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