In a recent visit to Memphis, Tennessee, I made time to chat with legendary songwriter David Porter. David was one of the early employees of Stax Records, venturing from his job at the grocery store across the street to work as a songwriter, producer, and artist. His co-writing with Isaac Hayes generated some of the biggest hits, including Sam & Dave's "Soul Man" and "Hold On, I'm Comin'," as well as Carla Thomas' "B-A-B-Y" and many others. These days David is still musically involved, and with Made in Memphis Entertainment there is a plan to bring the Memphis music scene some excellent exposure and support. I dropped by their complex where I found studio designer and architect Michael Cronin getting his hands dirty while putting together some impressive recording spaces. David and I sat down in one of the completed studio spaces to talk about the past, and the future.
Growing up on the West Coast, I always thought rock ‘n' roll and soul music were from different places, and different times. Then I came to Memphis...
That's exactly right. A lot of the music you hear is influenced by R&B. The motivation for me was always, "How good is the material?" I was always trying to find out what "good" meant. When I was a young kid, I loved, "I'm so young and you're so old/This, my darling, I've been told" – "Diana" by Paul Anka. If it was good, it was good. I didn't care. I was passionate about learning all of it, but I also found a lot of inspiration. Having met Elvis and finding out his biggest inspiration was a guy named Roy Hamilton? It just amazes me.
And Arthur Alexander.
Do you still sometimes feel like the kid that worked at the grocery store across the street from Stax?
I've had a chance to have a little bit of experience. After 75 years, I vividly remember being the young kid at the grocery store across the street and coming over to that building. A country-western label had just moved in right across the street, and that was the beginning.
They had the record store in the front?
They had a record store in the front that was an old movie theater. The Capitol Theater. The neighborhood was changing over. Whites were moving out and blacks were moving in. It wasn't all the way at that point, but the transition was going on. Jim Stewart and Estelle [Axton] got this building. I knew they were making music over there, but I didn't know what kind or anything like that. I was working at the grocery store across the street, so I just went across [and introduced myself]. I said, "I like to do music. Would you be, uh, could I…" Estelle said, "No, we do country." I said, "Well, will you listen to some of my music?" She said again, "No. We do country." That was my introduction. Because there was a record store in front of the building, and Estelle Axton was such a beautiful, spirited lady, I was able to start conversations with her and that ran into getting inside.
Did you ask them about buying soul records that you wanted to hear at the record store? Did you get to listen to things that were currently out at that point?
No, I can't take claim to being that smart. With that record store being what it was, they were putting hit records in the store. WDIA [radio] had just launched, in a powerful way. Those records had an appeal to the community that was making that transition. Estelle was buying what was working on radio; I was just a kid coming over and listening to what they were playing inside the store to sell. She just saw my interest and excitement for music and befriended me. I befriended her as well.
You'd been playing music before, as well as in school?
Yes, I had been. As a matter of fact, I had a record out right after my senior year in high school called "Farewell". This was before I got into Stax. I did terrible with the record but, needless to say, I was already making music. I was singing around clubs. I thought that I wanted to be a recording star. I was not thinking in terms of [being] a songwriter.
Did Stax finally relent? Or did someone say, "Let's do something with you"?
What happened was I was given permission to come inside. I was going into the record store, and Estelle actually got comfortable with me. I finally was able to ease my way into the recording studio. In the building at the time was a fellow by the name of Chips Moman. They didn't call it A&R at that time, but he was the guy who worked for the label. They had two artists: Nick Charles and Charles Heinz. I heard them do the country music, and I just started pestering. "Jim, would you give me a chance to record?" I was pushing him to give me...