Americana Highways presents this chapter excerpt of Eddie Floyd’s autobiography Knock! Knock! Knock! on Wood: My Life in Soul, written with Tony Fletcher and due out on Aug 11 on BMG.
Enthralling in its rendition of Eddie Floyd’s experiences with Stax, an array of bright light musicians and more, this chapter is centered on Otis Redding, and Floyd’s song “Big Bird,” co-written with Booker T. Jones.
All things was happening then, buddy; 1967 was one busy year. My family was growing as Sonja and I had a daughter, Nicholle, that year. I’d end up with seven children in all, and my relationships with the three mothers has been close all the way down the line, just like it has been with the children themselves. I’d been going back up to Detroit to see the kids from my first marriage, but now with “Knock on Wood” such a big hit in the States, I get up there to sing under my own name as well, and
I play the Greystone, one of the greatest rooms anywhere for a singer. All the original Falcons come to the show and everyone’s genuinely happy for me. When it’s over, I take Mack Rice aside. Mack has carried on releasing some singles of his own, but the main thing he’s got going for himself is that Wilson Pickett just covered his recent single “Mustang Sally.” Mack wrote it, in true Motor City style, about a girl and her new Ford Mustang, and Pickett’s version—recorded at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals after Al Bell and Jim Stewart decided to keep Stax exclusively for Stax artists from now on—is everywhere. It’s like “Knock on Wood”: it’s crossed over from R&B to pop and rock, and it’s exploding overseas as well. This is Mack’s moment.
“You want to go down to Memphis with me,” I tell him. “It’s really happening down there. Stax is the right place for you, man.”
I knew Mack was the only one from the Falcons who would want to travel. Willie was long off the road, and Joe Stubbs was locked in at Motown. At first Joe was with the Contours—they had a big hit round this same time with “Just a Little Misunderstanding”—and then he was put on lead with the Originals, on a cover of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene.” The Originals did a lot of backing vocals at Motown too. Joe cut a couple of songs under his own name for the label, but nothing came of it. Joe may have felt he was standing in the shadows of his brother Levi because the Four Tops were turning out number-one singles at the time like nobody’s business.
But I think it was mainly that Joe wasn’t really trying to reach anymore, he was just happy doing the shows that came his way and not thinking any other way. Most people are like that.
But not Mack Rice. I felt that I had enough respect at Stax now that I could invite him down to Memphis and know that they’d take a meeting with him. I mean, you gotta gure they’d want to meet the man who wrote “Mustang Sally.” So I told him, “I’ll get you a ticket, and it will be at the airport tomorrow. Come on man, go for it.”
I thought he wasn’t going to come because he didn’t like to fly. Nobody liked it back then—and for good reason, as we’reabout to confirm. Anyway, I’m at the airport the next afternoon, and the flight is getting ready to board. There’s no sign of him, and I’m sure he’s not going to take up my offer. And then, right as we start boarding, I see Mack running through the waiting area. In Memphis, I introduce him to the people at Stax, and he instantly starts writing songs. His rst single for the label comes out shortly after we get back from Europe; it’s called “Mini- Skirt Minnie” and although it isn’t a hit on him, it certainly is once—yeah, you guessed it—Wilson Pickett gets his hands on it down in Muscle Shoals later on in the year. Mack would commute back and forth a lot from Detroit to Memphis—he still had his own family up there to take care of, just like me—but now there are three of us Falcons doing some serious business under our own names, and all of us connected one way or another to Memphis and Muscle Shoals, as well as Detroit. Plus, I got one of my best friends in at the Stax family.
Mack and I didn’t write together at this point; it would be a few years before that would happen. Officially, Cropper was still my writing partner, and we were on a roll.
“Writing with Eddie was fun,” recalls Steve. “If we got something out of a writing session, great. If we didn’t, we had
a good time doing it—as far as I remember. We used to drink a little rum, have a good time. It was just a chance for us to let our hair down, have fun. Writing late at night most of the time was like a way to get out of the house! So some nights we’d write our butts off. Other times we’d nd something else to do.”
We quickly followed up “Raise Your Hand” with “Love Is a Doggone Good Thing,” a solid groover, which Cropper says
is “musically, probably the only song I co-wrote I tried to put a Motown feel to it.” I guess he doesn’t count “634–5789”! Then, within a couple of months, we followed it with another hit, “On a Saturday Night.” As I told Hit Parader back at the time,
“I wanted it to be in the old style with a spiritual favor. I got the spiritual group the Dixie Nightingales to do the harmony part. I got the bass line from one of those old ‘doo-wop’ groups. Then I got the guitar idea from Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. I think it was ‘There’s A Thrill Up on The Hill.’ You know, that old tinny guitar. Then I put in the shuffle beat.”
Some people like to pretend that they pull songs straight out of thin air. I’ve always been honest about the various influences that go into a hit record. Either way, the result was one of my most popular and enduring songs in the States. It’s a staple on the beach circuit, and we play it in the Blues Brothers Band to this very day—“we” meaning me and Cropper, who gave it one of his classic guitar introductions in the studio.
Steve told me his favorite line is this: “If we’re going to have a good time, then it might as well be a good time . . . me and my baby and a glass of wine, on a Saturday night.” It still don’t get much better than that!
“On A Saturday Night” has a real party feel to it, with some fantastic piano and brass along with the great backing vocals. Stax was starting to nally upgrade its equipment, and it was getting a little easier to overdub down there—but we still did the core backing track in one take, live to tape. For the flip side, I recorded a Hayes-Porter song, “Under My Nose.” Even though I was close friends with Isaac and David, that was the only time I ever did one of their songs: they had their own artists they were writing for, and I was pretty comfortable writing for myself. Like David Porter says, “We didn’t have to jump on board and ride that train.”
In the States, “On a Saturday Night” was my fourth single of 1967 already—and my third Top 30 R&B hit. I had three proper hits in the UK as well that year, though with different songs. I’ve already mentioned “Knock on Wood” and “Raise Your Hand” competing against each other in the charts when we hit London for the Stax-Volt Revue tour back in March. “Knock on Wood” won, if that’s how you want to look at it, spending four whole months in the British pop charts. When it finally eased off in the summer, Stax rereleased my debut, “Things Get Better,” and that one charted as well. A single we couldn’t give away in the States eighteen months earlier was now a hit 4,000 miles away, and I got invited back over for a headlining tour. This was when I really cemented my connection with the British audience. On the Stax/Volt Revue, wonderful as it was, I had just a very short time to make my connection with the crowd. As a headliner, though, I was able to work my way through a whole set and really show what I was capable of.
Everything seemed to be going just perfect. Not just for me, but for everyone at Stax. The European tour had done wonders for all of our profiles, helping turn Sam & Dave into international stars and further confirming Otis Redding as probably the greatest crossover soul singer of them all. In June, the Big O had played at the Monterey Pop Festival and won over what he called the “Love Crowd” with his performance, helped along in no small part by having the M.G.’s and Mar- Keys behind him. Fair to say most of the young hippies in the crowd that day had never been taken to church like that before—though those of us who grew up in a gospel environment and sung our souls out every day and night maybe took it more for granted. But I was happy for Otis. He was my friend, and what was good for him was good for all of us. Fact, he took two of my songs into the charts that summer: as well as his duet with Carla on “Knock on Wood,” there was also “I Love You More Than Words Can Say,” the ballad I wrote with Booker. Round this time Carla also recorded “I Will Always Have Faith in You,” which had slipped by unnoticed when Grover Mitchell cut it on our D.C. label, Sa ce; Carla’s recording added strings, which was something still new for Stax in general. It was beautiful. The single was massive on R&B and crossed over to pop as well. I remain so proud of that one.
For all that the hippie rock thing was starting to happen, soul was very much the sound of America at this point, proving the wisdom of Al Bell claiming “Soulsville” for Stax in response to Motown’s “Hitsville” back at the start of ’66. The word showed up in our label’s two biggest singles of ’67. Sam & Dave had a number one in the summer with Hayes & Porter’s enduring “Soul Man.” But before that, the Bar-Kays, those kids who weren’t even old enough to drink at the nightspots they played, had scored almost every bit as big with the instrumental “Soul Finger.” Both are stone Stax classics, but “Soul Finger” is perhaps truer to the real Stax spirit: David Porter says it’s the only session that had a sense of total collaboration in the studio similar to that of “Knock on Wood.” The Bar-Kays, who’d named themselves partly after the Mar-Keys, were emerging now as the next generation’s M.G.’s. Perhaps because the original M.G.’s were always needed in the studio, Otis took on the younger band as his own. He brought them up to New York with him for a residency at the Apollo, alongside James Brown, and after they graduated high school that summer, he took them all over the country too. The Bar-Kays—James Alexander, Jimmy King, Carl Cunningham, Ben Cauley, Ronnie Caldwell, and Phalon Jones—were like our kid brothers. We loved them.
Otis had some throat problems that fall, and he had to come off the road, have an operation, and wait several weeks for the results; he wasn’t allowed to sing in the meantime. But the operation was deemed a success, and at the start of December he returned to the Stax studio, where he recorded a real soft song called “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay” that was unlike anything he’d done before. He wrote it with Cropper, who played acoustic guitar on it, which was almost unheard of at Stax. Otis cut almost a full album’s worth of material at the same time, including “Hard to Handle.” He was back on a roll. Then, the weekend of December 8–10, he took the Bar-Kays with him for dates in Nashville, Cleveland, and Madison, Wisconsin.
Otis was a real star, traveled in a private plane, and that summer he had upgraded to an eight-seater, in part so he could fit the Bar-Kays in alongside him. Well, there was more than eight of them in the whole touring setup, so a couple of guys would take turns to drive the others in rental cars to the airport and then take a commercial flight. That’s how it went that particular weekend. On Saturday December 9, prior to his concert that night, Otis appeared live on the Cleveland TV show Upbeat, closing it out by singing “Knock on Wood” as a duet alongside Mitch Ryder from the Detroit Wheels, the Bar-Kays holding down the fort behind him. The next day, a Sunday, it was the turn of bassist James Alexander, along with the roadie, Carl Sims, to drive; the others got in the Beechcraft 8-seater to fly on up to Madison. But there was bad weather outside of Madison, and the plane was apparently low on battery, which might have affected the engines or the instrument panel because, as you probably know, Otis’s plane never made it to Madison: it crashed in the icy waters of Lake Monona just a couple of miles short of its destination. Everyone but Ben Cauley was killed, either on impact or from drowning. Ben was seconds from giving into hypothermia and going under himself when the emergency crews got there, just seventeen minutes after the crash, and pulled him out of the water. The average age of the four deceased Bar-Kays and their valet Matthew Kelly was just eighteen. Otis Redding, like his pilot Richard Fraser, was all of twenty-six.
I was in England when we got the news, in London at the Cumberland Hotel. I was woken up to it at 6 a.m. in the morning, by the BBC asking me for a statement. I was shell- shocked. Nothing like this had happened to any of us before. Maybe we’d had a death in the family back home, but not seven of them all at once, not that of a close friend who’s also one of the world’s great singers and performers, one of the world’s true nice guys. We’d certainly never experienced the deaths of four talented, fun, hard-working teenagers you’re expecting to see grow into their adulthood right around you.
That Monday, as we digested the news, I wasn’t sure what I was meant to do. It was still the middle of the night back at Stax, and besides, turned out everyone there had flown up to Madison, where the search for bodies went on for the next week. Eventually, word came through that Otis’s funeral would take place on Monday the eighteenth and that I should see out my tour. I was told there wasn’t much I could do back home that others weren’t taking care of, and if we could avoid canceling any shows, we should.
So that’s what we did. But it meant that my first real European headlining tour was not the high point I might have expected it to be. Those last few dates were something of a blur.
Come the day for me to fly home, the plan is to catch a plane to New York, then another to Atlanta, and from there drive down to Macon, where the service for Otis is being held in his hometown. We board our plane, and soon enough we’re taxiing down the runway. Suddenly we hear a noise, the plane swerves, and then stops, and they tell us the plane has to return to the gate. When it does, we get sent back into the lobby of the airport and we sit there for hours. At first we figure they’re going to find us a different aircraft, but instead they decide to fix our plane. I’d never seen that before. We’re sat in the lobby of the airport, wondering, Do they know what they’re doing?
Well, it takes about five hours, and when we finally get back on board, it’s obvious I’m going to miss my connecting flight, which means I’m going to miss the funeral. And after what’s just happened I can’t help but worry, Is my plane heading for disaster too? By the time we’re nally taxiing back down the runway again, everyone on board is clearly nervous after what happened first time around, several hours ago, and I nd myself willing the plane into the air for a safe journey across the Atlantic.
“Get on up, big bird, ’cause I got to make it.”
Then it hits me: I’ve got a song title! Well, as you must have figured, our plane made it to New York in one piece and, as I’d already figured out too, I missed Otis’s funeral. Every other person from Stax was there. So was James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Joe Tex, Percy Sledge, Arthur Conley, Joe Simon, Gene Chandler . . . And of course there was Otis’s family: his wife Zelma, and the three little kids left behind, Karla, Dexter, and Otis Redding III.
It broke my heart to miss the funeral, but over the years I’ve become very close friends with Otis III, and every year, when it’s Otis Redding Day in Macon, Georgia, I go down there to sing or whatever else they want from me. Macon has become like a second home for me. The day before Otis’s service, a joint funeral for three of the Bar-Kays had been held in Memphis, where almost as many people showed up as did in Macon. In the middle of the service, it was announced they’d finally found the body of the fourth. No words I write in this book can begin to address the scale of the tragedy.
But at the same time, there is no choice but to get on with our lives. This is what we do at Stax: we write songs, we record them, we release them, and hopefully people get something from them. None of us can bring Otis back, or the Bar-Kays, but we can carry on making music. So while Stax releases “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” and it goes all the way to number one on both the pop and R&B charts the way posthumous singles have a habit of doing, I get together with Booker to flesh out this “Big Bird” song idea.
Why Booker? Why not Steve? There’s a lot of stories about some things that happened on the European tour, about some kind of show-down, the result of which saw Al Bell promoted to head of A&R and Steve Cropper demoted from that position, and there are people who will tell you things weren’t the same at Stax after we all got back, that egos started acting out and getting in the way. But that’s not what I saw through 1967. I saw a label going from strength to strength. I saw the Mar-Keys finally get put on wages—too late for Joe Arnold, who quit, but just in time for Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love to commit themselves to the company—and with the four M.G.’s plus Hayes and Porter all getting an equal split of the action, there were enough reasons for everyone to remain fully committed to the company. You couldn’t dispute that, since he’d joined, Al Bell had turned Stax from a regional record label, with the occasional breakout single, to a national record company that was delivering major commercial hits on a regular, worldwide basis, while retaining total credibility with its core audience. The tragedy that was Otis Redding’s death did not alter that.
So it wasn’t that I called on Booker to write with me, or that he called on me. Remember, we’d just recently had a hit together for Otis, so this was not something brand new. Maybe Steve was doing something with another artist that day. And that’s fine. But Booker and I, well we’d always been looking for a reason to write further together, and here’s our opportunity.
Now, I’ve never said that the song “Big Bird” was for Otis— Booker wrote a song with William Bell called “Tribute to a King,” which took care of that. But if somebody asked the question, I’m saying it’s sort of about Otis because he’s on my mind while I’m flying. “Get on up, big bird . . .” You wouldn’t know the reason I said that unless you know that I’ve just lost someone, and that has never happened personally before.
I told Booker about the flight, the whole bit, and I guess he just started playing guitar—because Booker, like I told you way back, could play just about anything—and he put in a little intro, and I heard it right away, melody-wise.
“Open up the skies, ’cause I’m coming up to you.”
And now we got a verse going. Then, all of a sudden, Booker makes the change-up, and I’m singing:
“You know I’m standing at the station, ready to go Oh, big ’ol aeroplane, I’m trusting you so.”
The song is rising at this point, and it keeps rising, but then it levels off with the chorus, like the plane is finally in the air. And that’s the feel too, to this day, when we’re onstage playing it.
By the time we finished writing it, I knew I had a great lyric. The chorus is saying, “Get on up, big bird, to my baby’s love” and so you can think of it as a love song. But that other part of the chorus, the rst part that I came up with, well, that’s obviously me willing a plane to just get up in the air and not kill us all! And then the second verse, well, once you know when and how I wrote it, you can understand why some people might say it is about Otis:
“With me down here, And you up there, Now all I know is it ain’t fair.”
Well, we’re at Booker’s house, and he’s got the song in his mind all right, and I got it in mine, so we go straight to the studio the next morning on that one. And we introduce it to Al Jackson, but he’s the only other one of the M.G.’s who’s there. We don’t mind. As long as we got the drummer, we’re good to go. Remember, Stax is multi-track now. Plus, we got the brass section, and the brass is central to the song; it really signifies that plane taking off.
In the studio that day, Booker ends up playing guitar, bass, and piano. It always blows peoples’ minds when they find out that’s Booker on the guitar, because “Big Bird” is my rock song, my psychedelic rock song. And people figure Steve Cropper to be a rock guitarist, and as for Booker, even if they know he plays instruments other than the organ, they figure he can’t possibly be a rocker as well. To be fair, it was amazing to me, too, that he could play all those instruments on that song—and feel it so well. It’s like “Knock on Wood”: who knows what would have happened had Otis jumped on the song when it was available to him? And who knows what would have happened to “Big Bird” if Steve and Duck had played on it? It might actually have been better! But this was Booker’s sound. And I loved it.
On “Big Bird” you can hear me sing differently than my previous singles. I’m reaching more. I’m stronger. Louder. Maybe it’s all the performances in Europe. Maybe it’s the exposure to the rock scene over there. And the backing vocals follow suit—it’s more like they’re being shouted than sung. This is one loud record. I was so enthused about it all that I never corrected the one line that didn’t make sense: why am I standing at the station waiting for an aeroplane? I should be standing at the airport! But nobody ever mentions it: at a certain point, a song becomes familiar just the way it is. And it’s all part of what makes “Big Bird” unique, because it’s one of those songs that can be about whatever you want it to be about: an airplane journey, death, your love, all of those things.
These days, “Big Bird” is considered one of my greatest songs. I’ve seen it described as “one of the most thrilling singles ever made.” I’ve had people tell me it’s their favorite song in the world. But I guess it was a little unusual for Stax at the time to have a rock-sounding record like that, because when they released it at the start of 1968 . . . man, it died a death! Although I was never the kind of person to watch the charts, I’ve been informed it was the only one of my singles from 1966, when “Knock on Wood” came out, all the way through until 1971, that did not make either the American pop or R&B charts. Other than that, I had a run of about thirteen or fourteen hits in a row. “Big Bird”? I guess people just didn’t get it at the time.
The American singer Rosetta Hightower, who had been in the Philadelphia girl group the Orlons earlier in the 1960s, she recorded an amazing version of “Big Bird” in London later that same year. Her voice brought it just a little further back into soul territory, but the band she had over there, and the producer she used, together they ensured it also appealed to the rock crowd. That version wasn’t a hit either, but given that copies now go for about $200, you have to figure she did something right with it! Meantime, for the next twenty years, I would hear a voice in the crowd every night, somewhere, calling for it. Then, in the early 1980s, about fifteen years after it first came out, I heard that a group called The Jam had put out a live version in Britain. People told me they were the biggest band in the UK, that they were so popular their singles would go into the charts at number one. So that was an honor. Fast forward yet another ten years, to the early 1990s, I was in New York City, and this guy told me, “Do you know there’s a club here has been playing ‘Big Bird’ for years and it’s still number one?” I said, Let’s go! Someone took me down to the Village, to the Empire State Soul Club
on a Thursday night. Here’s the New York Times writing about the place in 1992, when it had already been up and running for several years:
At midnight, the Soul Club hits its peak. That’s when it’s time for Eddie Floyd’s “Big Bird,” the Soul Club anthem. As the horns trumpet their message, the beat pounds higher and higher and Mr. Floyd’s voice reaches a fever pitch.
That night I went to the Empire State Soul Club, a melting pot of people of all descriptions you want to name, and they were waiting when I walked through the door. I guess they knew I was coming! They started playing it, and I just walked straight up on stage and started singing “Big Bird.” Didn’t do a full show but they didn’t ask me to. They just honored me, and I honored them in return.
So, songs like that, might be that nobody calls them a hit, but they still get famous. I call them underground. Fact is, here we are talking about it fifty years later. Got to be doing something right!
That’s what I keep telling young people: if you don’t do nothing you won’t be nothing. So just keep doing it. Some people, they just get halfway, and just don’t quite understand where to go or how to go. I say, keep doing what you doing. Is it a little better than the last thing you did? Okay, that’s it, that’s all you’re going to get out of this one. Now do another one, and see what happens.