Things Get Better: Soul Man Eddie Floyd (Part 3 of 3)

Continued from Part Two

That success extended well beyond Eddie Floyd’s records. In fact – as he recounts in detail in his new memoir, Knock! Knock! Knock! On Wood: My Life in Soul – Floyd got his start at Stax as a songwriter, not a performer. His first success as a Stax house writer was “Comfort Me,” recorded by Carla Thomas. Soon after that, he teamed up with Cropper to write songs for Wilson Pickett.

Even though Pickett was signed to Atlantic Records, a distribution deal paired Stax with the label, giving the songwriting duo the freedom to compose tunes for the fiery soul singer. Two Cropper/Floyd songs became major hits for Pickett: “Ninety-nine and a Half (Won’t Do)” and “634-5789 (Soulsville U.S.A.)” Floyd also had a hand in writing songs that would be recorded by Sam & Dave, Rufus Thomas, Johnnie Taylor and many others.

But Floyd says that when he sat down to write a song, he didn’t do so with a specific artist in mind. He wasn’t wring to a particular style. “I listen to all [styles] of music, and I feel like I can become a part of it,” he says. “I might be writing a song and all of a sudden it sounds jazzy. And that’s fine with me. Sounds bluesy? That’s fine with me, too. The trends change, but I never change. And I never stopped writing.

And in those Stax years, there was a ready market for Floyd’s songs. “Every time I would submit a song, I was lucky,” he says. “Because I never had anybody turn any of my songs down. Everybody would accept the song just as it is. I’ve always done it that way, and I wouldn’t know any other way to do it.”

Even “Knock on Wood” was originally envisioned planned as a Pickett single, and in fact Pickett did record it in 1967 for his The Wicked Pickett LP. And Otis Redding cut it as a duet with Carla Thomas, included on their King & Queen LP. As a single, their cover charted on both the U.S. pop and R&B charts. The song would go on to develop a life of its own, being recorded by blues guitarist Buddy Guy, harmonica star James Cotton, David Bowie (on his 1974 David Live LP) and in a disco version by Amii Stewart in 1979; Stewart’s cover of “Knock on Wood” top-tenned in ten countries worldwide.

But Floyd makes the point that he’s never “shopped” his songs around. “I’ve never actually spoken to another musician and said, ‘Let me play this for you. Maybe you might want to do it,’” he says. “All of a sudden, somebody will tell me a different artist has just covered one of my songs. I’ve been honored that way.”

Floyd’s string of hits came to an end just as Stax Records crumbled in the middle 1970s. He cut a few singles in 1977 and ‘78 for small labels – including the not-really-disco tune “Disco Summer” – but his days as a charting artist were over. Yet he has remained a popular draw as a live performer. Following the success of the 1980 motion picture The Blues Brothers, several members of the all-star band continued as a recording and performing unit. That band – including Floyd’s old friends Steve Cropper and (until his death in 2012) Duck Dunn – embarked on a series of U.S. and world tours, often featuring Eddie Floyd as a guest vocalist.

Floyd’s popularity continued apace in the UK as well. As early as 1981, Floyd was asked to join London soul revival act The Q-Tips, led by a pre-fame Paul Young. Floyd notes that even though “Raise Your Hand” and “Knock on Wood” were his biggest Stateside hits, in England he first hit the charts with another song. “’Things Get Better’ was my first hit record there during that time,” he says. “And then I met Paul Young over there with the Q-Tips; they were the band playing behind me for a long time. And Paul was singing all his soul tunes sounding like Booker T. and M.G.s with his band!”

Today at age 83, Eddie Floyd lives on a large plot of land in his native Alabama; he says that he visits Memphis fairly often, but in most cases he’s there attending the funeral of an old friend or associate. “It really gets a little sad when I’m there,” he says. The ghosts are everywhere. “When I go to the studio, I see all these guys who can’t talk back to me no more.”

Though he still writes and occasionally records, Floyd is more often spotted on his riding lawnmower, cutting the grass on what he calls his “farm.” His memoir – co-written with Yorkshire-born author Tony Fletcher – describes in candid and colorful the details of his early life, brushes with the law and a period of incarceration.

That time in juvenile detention – at an institution ominously known as Alabama Reform School for Juvenile Negro Law-Breakers, more commonly called Mount Meigs – served as a turning point for a young Eddie Floyd. “The best thing that ever could have happened to me is that I met a person [there] who knew music,” he says. “Mr. Arthur Wilmer taught me theory as far as harmonies and melodies. And I left there with intentions of trying to get a career. I didn’t have any idea if it would happen. But it was my intention, and it did happen.”

Though he’s lived in Detroit and D.C. and traveled extensively abroad, Floyd’s home is situated quite close to where he started out. And he fondly refers to Mount Meigs as his alma mater. “I pass by my school maybe three, four times a week,” he says. “And when I’m out on the highway, every time I pass by, it’s ‘thumbs up.’ That’s what I do.”

The Mount Meigs era notwithstanding, Knock! Knock! Knock! My Life in Soul doesn’t get into the sort of lurid sex-and-drugs-and-violence accounts that often characterize music memoirs. In fact, throughout his career, Floyd has remained wholly free of scandal and controversy. “I stay to the music and not politics,” he says. I come from that era: you won’t get me to say too much about politics. But if you wanna talk music, we good to go.”