David Porter may be best known as half of the Hall Of Fame songwriting team, with Isaac Hayes, the creators of many of soul music’s greatest songs: “Hold On I’m Coming,” “Soul Man,” and “I Thank You” among them. But he’s also a longtime vocalist and performer, raising the roof at clubs since he was a teenager. A self-made man, he now works tirelessly to give opportunity to others.
He sang in church at Rose Hill Baptist Church with future Earth, Wind & Fire’s creator and vocalist Maurice White. He wanted to write and sing, so when stars like Jerry Butler came through Memphis, he’d ask if they’d let him carry their bags; in return, he’d seek advice. (Butler counseled: “You can have a hit record, but you better learn how to diversify.”) Still a teen, Porter borrowed $500 from a local preacher to start Genie Records, and released future Stax songwriter, Homer Banks singing “Ain’t That a Lot of Love,” a song that, after a few copies made their way to Jerry Wexler, morphed into the Spencer Davis Group hit “Gimme Some Lovin’.”
Since high school in the late fifties, he’d been singing in clubs as Little David. When Stax’s Satellite Record Shop opened, David was quickly inside, eager to be associated in any way with music in his neighborhood. He met Estelle Axton, then Jim Stewart and Chips Moman, and recorded some of his songs in their transition from country music as Satellite Records to R&B music as Stax. Without success at that time as a recording artist, he won their favor when, hearing they needed a baritone sax for the first Rufus and Carla session, introduced them to Booker T. Jones for that session.
With an eye toward keeping himself nearby, David was employed at the Big D grocery across the street from Stax. Wanting to have more time to pursue any opportunity that may develop at the new label, David quit the Big D grocery and became for a short time an insurance salesman.
His writing talents were nurtured by Estelle Axton, who played him hit songs to help him decipher the structure of verses, chorus, and bridge. He studied writing teams like Bacharach-David and Holland-Dozier-Holland, learning to hear the writer in the production, to hear the personal stamp. His first composition recorded at Stax (co-written with Marvell Thomas), was “The Life I Live,” cut by Barbara Stephens in 1961. He continued to record for other labels, including Savoy and also Hi (as Kenny Cain). In 1965, he released his first single on Stax, “Can’t See You When I Want To,” a title he’d rerecord in 1970 when he rejuvenated his recording career in earnest, and which then went to the R&B top 40.
But in the mid-1960s, after writing with Steve Cropper, he brought in Isaac Hayes and formed his version of a hit songwriting team that would compete with Motown. For the next five years at Stax, Hayes and Porter were the label’s dominant songwriters, producing the material they wrote, and also developing acts.
They wrote for Rufus Thomas (“Willy Nilly”), Johnnie Taylor (“Little Bluebird”), Carla Thomas (“B-A-B-Y”), and many others on the Stax label, but they really found their voice when they began writing for Sam and Dave.
They focused the energy of a church revival into “You Don’t Know Like I Know,” carried soul into the pop mainstream with “Hold On I’m Coming,” and mixed social messages with dance floor fever in “Soul Man.” In addition to these high-energy songs, they showed equal aplomb with ballads, creating the classics “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” for Sam and Dave, and “Your Good Thing (Is About to End)” for Mable John, which later became a million seller for Lou Rawls.
When he resumed releasing his own recordings in 1970, Porter was on and off the charts. His albums combined shorter, punchy tracks with experiments that re-imagined pop songs like “Hang On Sloopy” as extended jams; though he’d helped define 1960s hits, he was not going to be constrained by them. His Victim of the Joke? was an early concept album, and it has been heavily sampled by beat hunters.
David Porter stayed with Stax from its cradle to grave. After the bankrupt company was sold, Porter was hired by the new owners to revive the label. Porter insisted and won his desire to have the new owners keep an office in Memphis if they wanted him on their team. He dug in the vaults and found strong tracks from the Bar-Kays, Albert King, Isaac Hayes, Emotions and others, and he also signed new acts. The label had some initial successes but wanted to emphasize and build its value around the Stax vault of the previous released product to accomplish the quicker route of high return on investment. Porter left that mix but his talent and energy shone.
As Stax was failing financially, Porter had helped buttress his second home with his own funds. Since then, he’s continued to give back to the community. Porter’s musical catalogue has been involved in more than 300 million units sold and his songs are heard in movies, TV, commercials and every medium that uses great music. David Porter was inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame in 2005. As a businessman, he has followed Jerry Butler’s advice, investing diversely in his hometown. As an artist, he has often mentored writers and new talent.
His most recent project, The Consortium MMT, is schooling local and regional youth in the creative phases of the music business, giving them practical advice and real opportunities to turn their talent into their profession. David Porter had to make his own way, but he’s sharing what he learned with others, helping them find their path, make a name, and know how to maintain success once they find it. Memphis soul music has been great to David Porter, now David is giving some of his soul back to Memphis.