Before discussing this week's DeepSoul track, I must clarify what this column is not about. When I write "Knock on Wood," I am not referring to Amii Stewart's 1979 disco tune. Because it became a monster hit, topping the pop, soul, and dance charts, it stands as the most well-known version of the track. Nevertheless, Eddie Floyd's 1966 original exemplifies gritty Southern soul, otherwise known as the Stax sound.
Born in Alabama in 1935, Floyd's family relocated to Detroit early in his childhood. While in the Motor City, he eventually founded the Falcons, a harmonic group that had a major hit in 1959 with "You're So Fine." While undergoing personnel changes, legend Wilson Pickett at one point joined the group. Subsequently Pickett and Floyd decided to embark on solo careers, leading to the dissolution of the act. However, according to AllMusic, The Falcons greatly influenced 1960s groups such as the Temptations and the Four Tops.
After working as a behind-the-scenes studio musician, his connections led him to co-found his own label, Safice, in the early 1960s. Floyd and his business partner, DJ Al Bell, struck a distribution deal with Atlantic, who also worked with the Memphis-based Stax label. When Safice began using Stax's Memphis studios, the duo began spending more time in the South writing and producing material for other artists. Soon the label tapped Bell to be a promotion man, then hired Floyd be part of their songwriting stable. Paired with Stax house guitarist Steve Cropper, the pair penned major hits for labelmate Pickett, including "634-5789 (Soulsville U.S A.)" and "Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won't Do)," both from 1966. Earlier that same year Floyd released his first single on the Stax label, "Things Get Better," which failed to chart. But the summer found Floyd back in the studio recording a demo for "Knock on Wood," a single he co-wrote with Cropper.
Amazingly, the song almost never saw the light of day. The co-writers originally composed the track with Otis Redding in mind; however, Stax passed on the track, believing it sounded too similar to Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour." But parent company Atlantic felt that "Knock on Wood" was a potential hit, and released Floyd's demo version. Their instincts proved right: the song topped the Billboard R&B charts and peaked at number 28 on the Hot 100. Floyd instantly became one of Stax's stars, racking up more soul hits such as "Raise Your Hand" and "I've Never Found a Girl (To Love Me Like You Do)." While his sales declined in the 1970s, he stayed with Stax until their bankruptcy in 1975. He subsequently recorded for several small labels in the 80s and 90s, but returned to Stax in 2008 for his critically acclaimed album Eddie Loves You.
Quite simply, "Knock on Wood" separates the men from the boys, the women from the girls in terms of requiring vocal prowess. As George Clinton once said, "You can't fake the funk," and in this case you simply cannot fake the soul. Floyd may not be a showy vocalist, but he strength perfectly accentuates that strong, midtempo beat. Add in those Stax horns and a funky guitar riff, and you get an instant classic. According to Floyd's website, the song is a team effort. Floyd intended that beat to resemble Native American tom-toms, while Isaac "Shaft" Hayes arranged the horn sections. Through his seemingly laid-back, subtle style, Floyd effortlessly demonstrates what rhythm and blues is really all about. Many vocalists have tried singing this song--including, more successfully, Phoebe Snow and Michael McDonald during Donald Fagen's 1989-1993 New York Rock and Soul Revue tour--but none have equaled Floyd's flawless delivery.
Radio may continue to play Stewart's disco workout, but Floyd's original should never be overlooked.