hen you're a sharecropper and you're poor and have no shoes, you think of that pair of shoes you want to wear. When you have no clothes, you think of the wardrobe you want. When you have no roof over your head, you think of the fine home you want to live in. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew I would not spend the rest of my life as a sharecropper.
The people I was around all the time in the cotton fields would call me a daydreamer and a good-for-nothing. I simply was not motivated to pick cotton, but it was how we made money. You'd make enough money to go to the fairgrounds, or you'd go up to the cafés and beer joints and get drunk. I said, "This is not for me."
I used to hang on the corner with the fellows singing doo-wop, and we'd sing in the cotton fields. But even then I'd stand there and watch the planes and say, "I'm going to be on one of those planes, wherever it's going." I always thought beyond my immediate environment.
When I was a ninth grader in Memphis, I won a talent contest. I was a raggedy kid with holes in his shoes up onstage singing the Nat King Cole song, "Looking Back." All of a sudden I win this contest and I'm signing autographs and the pretty girls are noticing me.
Black kids didn't have much access to entertainers. The only entertainer I came remotely close to as a kid was Sam Cooke. I was singing with the Teen Tones and Sam Cooke was hospitalized in Memphis from a car accident in Arkansas. We sneaked up the fire escape, into his room, and he had a thermometer in his mouth. The nurse looked up and saw us and said, "Get out of here." We had to sneak in to see him, but Sam Cooke was the closest guy we ever got to.
When I graduated high school, I had seven scholarships in vocal music, but I didn't pursue it because I got a job at a meat packing house in Memphis slaughtering hogs and cows. But still my mind was on music. In my yearbook people had written, "See you on TV, Ike. Good luck."
I did a lot of playing in a lot of small clubs and then Jim Stewart, president of Stax Records, heard me play and said, "Hey, would you like a job?" Booker T., of the MG's, had gone off to school, an Stax needed a keyboard player and a staff musician. I said OK.
I had been to Stax a few other times -- with a blues band, a rock 'n' roll group -- and they always turned me down. Now, here I was in this big old empty theater where they had cut "Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes)," "Green Onions," and "Walking the Dog."
My first session was an Otis Redding album. I was scared to death. Otis was incredible. He was dynamic, exciting. There were times he made up lyrics as he went along.
Then David Porter, who was going under the name of Little David, came in one day and said, "Why don't we hook up? I write lyrics, you write music. Let's be a team like Holland-Dozier-Holland, or Bacarach-David." I said OK, and the first thing we wrote was a thing called "How Do You Quit Someone You Love" for Carla Thomas.
And then Jim Stewart came in and said, "Look, we have Sam and Dave, these two guys Jerry Wexler sent down from Atlantic. They'll need some writers."
David and I wrote a thing called "I Take What I Want," which was our first Sam and Dave single. Then we followed with "You Don't Know Like I Know," "Hold On, I'm Coming," and "Soul Man." We had no idea how good we were. We were just doing something we felt, and the stuff was catching on.
Stax was a family atmosphere. Everybody knew everybody else. Jim was a banker. He'd come in evenings, after banking hours. Pretty soon we were revving it up and doing well, so Jim resigned from the bank. He was quiet and unassuming, almost introverted. We used to tease him. His instrument was the flute.
I had been bugging him about cutting an album, and he'd say, "Isaac, your voice is too pretty."
And then Al Bell, who was head of promotion, and I locked the door one day and downed two bottles of champagne. And Al says, "Ike, let's cut a record."
I say, "When?"
He says, "Right now."
I say, "Sure, I ain't feeling no pain." So we get a few of the guys together -- Al Jackson on drums, Booker T. played a little organ, me on piano -- and we do an album. I didn't take Al seriously because I was drunk, full of champagne. Well, we do "Misty," "Stormy Monday Blues," "Goin' to Chicago," "Rock Me, Baby." We finish it, play it back, and I'm still half high, OK? And then we go our separate ways.
About three weeks later, Al says, "You got an appointment with a photographer."
I say, "What for?"
He says, "For the album cover."
I say, "You're kidding?"
Well, he wasn't kidding. I show up at the photographer. They put me in a tux, top hat, tails, and a cane. I was so embarrassed, but a lot of critics liked it, and it served as a prelude to Hot Buttered Soul and Shaft and all the incredible things that happened to me later on.
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