On a stormy night in Memphis, two members of the Stax family summoned up the elements for an instant R&B classic
The Making Of “Knock On Wood”
Memphis’ Lorraine motel is infamous as the place where martin Luther King was shot on April 4, 1968. Before the tragedy, however, the motel was the birthplace of a host of classic songs on the city’s stax label.
“A lot of times i would try to get the bridal suite to write in,” remembers eddie Floyd. “it was there in the middle, where Dr King
[was assassinated in 1968]. We actually wrote quite a few songs, steve Cropper and i, in almost every room of the motel.”
One of the songs the pair wrote at Lorraine was “Knock On Wood”; inspired by storms and superstitions, it was recorded just hours after being written, with help on the arrangement from top musicians such as drummer Al Jackson Jr and piano player isaac hayes.
“it just really all came together, and absolutely every one of them contributed something to that song,” says Floyd of the session. “if you get a good groove, and everybody feeling it, that’s it. so when it sounded like a record, we went for it!” stax was itself a beacon of racial integration, with white musicians, such as Cropper and Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn working day-inday-out with black musicians such as Booker T Jones and hayes. “everybody worked as a team,” says Cropper.
2017 sees a wave of stax reissues, boxsets and compilations to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the label – then, on september 1, eddie Floyd, steve Cropper and William Bell will play London’s Royal Albert hall as part of the proms.
“how is it playing ‘Knock On Wood’ now?” says Floyd. “it never changes.” TOM PINNOCK
EDDIE FLOYD: i came down to memphis with Al Bell [Stax co-owner] from Washington DC and that’s how i got there
[to Stax], really to be a writer, but my aim was to be an artist.
STEVE CROPPER: Al Bell said to me, “i’ve got a guy, a friend, that writes really good, and you guys would really hit it off.” And we did. We’ve been friends ever since.
FLOYD: When i first went to memphis we stayed at the Lorraine. it was a very appropriate place to write songs, even in the middle of the night.
CROPPER: We wrote some songs at the studio, but the motel was always a quieter place to write. We wrote “Ninety-Nine And A half (Won’t Do)”, and a whole bunch of others. When the manager of the hotel, Old man Bailey – mr Bailey – had the bridal suite open, he’d put us back there if he knew he wasn’t gonna book it. FLOYD: it wasn’t that room [ for “Knock On Wood”]. i think that would be 302, which was right on the corner, on top of the office.
CROPPER: i’d have just my regular Telecaster unamplified. in a closed room with no noise it sounds pretty good! i know we wrote well over 100 songs together, but probably only 10 or 15 were recorded.
FLOYD: We put it all together one night. it was raining, storming, and we were just trying to come up with an idea. We would always sit and talk about different subjects. There was thunder and lightning and i was telling steve about my brother and i being so frightened of thunder and lightning here in Alabama.
CROPPER: it was storming like crazy that night. Big storms move over from Arkansas; they always moved east from west. memphis is known as the Bluff City; it’s on a bluff – one bank on the Arkansas side is lower than the bank on the
“We were trying to write a song about superstitions – that’s what it was about” STEVE CROPPER
Tennessee side, so a lot of storms come in, come across the mississippi, hit that bluff, bounce up, and they don’t come down until 50 or 60 miles east of memphis.
FLOYD: We were just talking about it, and we came up with the idea – “It’s like
thunder and lightning,” but we still had to put something together anyway.
CROPPER: We were trying to write a song about superstitions, and after we’d exhausted about every superstition known to man at that time, from cats to umbrellas, you name it, we said, “What do people do for good luck?” And eddie tapped on the chair and said, “Knock on wood, there it is.” so basically the whole theme of the song changed, and we started to sing about, i’d better knock on wood for good luck, that i can keep this girl that i got, ’cos she’s the greatest – and that’s what it was about.
FLOYD: i think steve mentioned “Knock On Wood” being a title we could work on.
CROPPER: i remember eddie and i both agreed that we really did have a good song. i called Wayne Jackson, who had a nightclub gig over in West memphis. They were onstage, but i said, “have him call me at the Lorraine motel when he takes a break.” And he did. i said, “When you’re done with your gig, come on over with the horns, ’cos we’re gonna cut this tomorrow.” he came over about 1.30am when he got off his gig, and we worked on the horns.
DAVID PORTER: Occasionally the horn players would be there at the Lorraine – not loud, but there.
FLOYD: Did any other guests complain? No, not really. We went down to the studio in memphis, stax Records, the next morning and tried to [cut it].
CROPPER: i was producing. same band we had on everything. Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn, Al Jackson Jr… i know Wayne played on it, and Floyd Newman, but i don’t remember which tenor player was on it.
FLOYD: The mGs would always come in every morning, and if you’d got a song they could work it out. They said, “We’re thinking about Otis Redding, because he’s coming into town soon, and maybe we could get this song together for him.”
PORTER: Generally it would take an hour or so to come up with the arrangements, so i would think we were there maybe three hours. it was not quick, but it was quick compared to today.
CROPPER: it was all definitely recorded live. We didn’t have the facilities to overdub in those days. You’d give the band some changes or a rhythm feel and they’d come up with a line, or sometimes you’d have a line. On the Otis Redding stuff, Otis would always have in his mind melodies for his horn lines, and i think the horn players really enjoyed putting harmony to them.
FLOYD: We had “Knock On Wood” going, but it didn’t have that stop: “I’d better
knock –” [boom boom] “– on wood…” The rhythm would continue, but Al Jackson being the drummer, he mentioned, “Let me try something… let me make a little stop,” so we thought it was just gonna be a stop, but i guess him knowing that the title was gonna be “Knock On Wood”, something like that, he did the drumbeat – boom boom boom! Another amazing part of it was isaac. he said, “Let me play something in the bridge…” [sings line] And everybody laughed and said, “Wow, this sounds like a soap opera or something, that’s great! We love it!”
PORTER: isaac and i were just there. isaac created the whole arrangement in that bridge section of the song.
FLOYD: Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn – well, it wouldn’t have been anything without him playing his type of bass, the way Duck played. All this is happening that morning, though, just in the matter of
“It was supposed to be the demo for Otis Redding, but Otis don’t come” EDDIE FLOYD
a couple of hours… But I didn’t have any background vocals.
PORTER: I supported Eddie, so I was in there and saw that it needed background on it, and I suggested some parts. William Bell was around – I asked William to sing – but we needed a third voice. So the third voice was a guy by the name of Quincy Phillips. After we’d created the part, we laid it all down live.
FLOYD: The way we did things at Stax, if I happened to walk through and someone’s doing something, I’ll run in and sing background! Johnny Taylor did that on “Raise Your Hand” when I recorded that song. Like a family thing.
PORTER: You’d have to have the energy – everyone would have to be in sync with the right amount of energy. That was extremely important for the feel. Fortunately for us, we had an exceptional drummer in Al Jackson Jr. Steve had a great sense of rhythm… he was most effective as a rhythm guitarist. So from that perspective, he would always know what to do for the sake of the rhythm on his projects. He had a sense rhythmically of where he wanted the music to be, and he was good at that.
FLOYD: This was supposed to be the demo for Otis, but Otis don’t come. And then everybody started saying it sounded like a record like this. CROPPER: We were pretty sure it would be a hit, but the powers that be – [Stax co-founder] Jim Stewart – wouldn’t put it out. We got together with Al Bell and [label co-founder] Estelle Axton and said, “We wanna put this record out, we think it’s gonna be a hit.” And Estelle said, “Well, you can put it out, but you gotta spend your own money.” Jim had a way, where if he opposed you he just wanted to see how serious you were about your beliefs. If you were serious enough, you’d do something about it. He’d tell you a song wasn’t any good, but he knew if you fought for it, it probably was good! He had a way of pulling the best out of people.
FLOYD: I wasn’t really playing live then; it began with “Knock On Wood”. As soon as it was released, we started getting different reports on it. They played it in the States, they played it in London also.
CROPPER: “Knock On Wood” was a smash, No 1 [on the Billboard R&B chart]. It could just as easily have been a flop – then we’d all have been eating dirt!
FLOYD: We went over to London in ’67 and it was great, it really was! We were seeing The Beatles and The Rolling Stones coming over here, getting off the plane in New York – and we got to London and got basically the same reception. Not quite as big, but you know. Then at the theatres where we played, everybody was there like they really knew them songs. They were liking the style of it. I’ve played England every year since ’67.
CROPPER: Amii Stewart’s version is a really nice version, and that went to No 1. I think the David Bowie version is great. The big artists were such fans of Stax, and a lot of them took a chance and were brave enough to cover some of them.
FLOYD: Bruce Springsteen’s manager called Stax to see if I was in town – I think he had just released his first album. So I went down to the soundcheck and he was telling me, “I do five of your songs.” I said, “Really?” He named the first one and I said, “No, I don’t do that one…”, second one, “No, I don’t do that one…” Third one – “No…” They were just on the album to fill them up, you know? He was liking all of them. Then the fourth song he came up with was “Raise Your Hand” – I was like, “Yeah, I do that!” And then he named “Knock On Wood”. So I went back down that night and he announced me, and we did both songs. The Eric Clapton version is exact! I was once with Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn; we were playing with the Blues Brothers band. I said, “Duck, have you ever heard ‘Knock On Wood’ by Eric Clapton?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Man, it sounds real close to our version.” And he’s a sweetheart – he says, “That’s me, big dummy, playing bass!” I said, “Well, no wonder it sounds like that!”
CROPPER: It’s hard to believe that “Knock On Wood” became a big hit in ’67 and here we are, 2017… It’s nice to be doing a tribute to those days. The Stax celebration Prom takes place at London’s Royal Albert Hall on September 1, 2017; Stax reissues and boxsets will be released throughout this year.
Eddie Floyd in 1967: “My aim was to be an artist”
isaac Hayes (left) and David Porter at Stax Records in 1967