"Soul Man" was released on Stax Records, a legendary soul label where Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Isaac Hayes recorded. It was written and produced by Hayes and David Porter, and the Stax house band of Booker T. & the MG's played the instruments, except for Booker himself who was away at college, which is why Hayes was brought in to Stax.
Isaac Hayes talked about this song in an interview with National Public Radio: "I got the idea from watching on TV the riots in Detroit. It was said that if you put 'soul' on the door of your business establishment, they wouldn't burn it. Then the word 'Soul,' it was a galvanizing kind of thing for African Americans, and it had an effect of unity, it was said with a lot of pride. So I thought, 'Why not write a tune called 'Soul Man.' And all you had to do was write about your personal experiences, because all African Americans in this country at the time had similar experiences. But we realized that in addition to being an African American experience, it was a human experience, and therefore it crossed over and became very commercial."
When this song was written, there was no clear definition of a "Soul Man." After Isaac Hayes came up with the title, David Porter wrote the rest of the lyric based on what he thought a Soul Man would be.
Describing this guy, Porter said: "He didn't have the fancy big-city slant, but had the emotional thing happening inside of him that made people really love him."
Interestingly, Porter's co-writer Isaac Hayes would exemplify a new, funky soul when he wrote the theme to the movie Shaft. This Soul Man is a bad mother...
Isaac Hayes wanted the record to have rhythmic elements similar to Bo Diddley's song "Bo Diddley," and Porter asked singer Sam Moore to give him "the Bobby Bland squall."
The Soul Man was "educated at Woodstock" (sometimes misheard as "educated from good stock"). This was two years before the famous festival; David Porter chose the name "Woodstock" to envision a school out in the sticks. "The word denoted a school that was out in the forest somewhere and they couldn't come up with the name for the school," he said. "Trees were cut down the school was made, and they called it Woodstock."
Sam & Dave were Sam Moore and Dave Prater. Moore was in The Melionaires gospel group; Prater was a solo artist before they met in 1961. They were signed by Roulette in 1962 and switched to Atlantic in 1965 before recording for Stax. In 1988 Prater was killed in a car crash. They were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.
At the 1:15 mark, you can hear guitarist Steve Cropper play four notes that elicit the reply from Sam Moore: "Play it, Steve!" This was spontaneous, and done in one take.
Cropper recalled to Uncut in 2015: "Sam said ' Play it, Steve!' only one time, on one take, which happened to be the best take, so we used that. I didn't think about it at the time. We didn't know it was going to make history."
The Stax studio where they recorded the song was a converted theater, and a bastion of creative energy. Cropper's guitar lick came after producer Isaac Hayes asked him for an Elmore James-sounding slide part. Cropper used a Zippo lighter as a slide and got those famous notes.
Speaking about coming up with the famous guitar intro, Steve Cropper said: "Isaac Hayes came to me the night before the session. It was in the late afternoon and they had been back in their office, writing all day long. He came out and he said, 'David Porter and I have got this great idea. I really think this song is a hit, but I just can't come up with anything for the intro on this thing.' He asked me if I would go down to the piano with him for a minute and fool around, which I did. He was always coming up with these changes - he was such a good jazz musician, and he could come up with these different sets of changes, and sometimes leave it to me to put some sort of lick or something on top of those changes, and that's how the intro of 'Soul Man' was born."
This won the 1967 Grammy for Best Rhythm And Blues Group Performance. It was just the second year the award was given out.
The Blues Brothers released this as their first single in 1979. It hit #14 in the US, and helped establish the duo as a legitimate musical act. The Blues Brothers were Saturday Night Live comedians John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, and they turned their skit on the show into a movie and tour. Their backing musicians included Paul Shaffer from Late Night With David Letterman as well as Steve Cropper and Donald "Duck" Dunn, who were members of Booker T. And The MG's.
Cropper explained: "We were working on material in New York to try to put a show together with Dan Akroyd and John Belushi, and I happened to suggest that they do something probably a little more danceable or a little more commercial because we were doing a lot of blues. They were the Blues Brothers, but I thought that Rhythm & Blues should play a little part in our show so I suggested 'Soul Man.' We jumped into it right away and I said, 'You know, Sam & Dave used to do all these dance steps and stuff.' So they got into it and had a lot of fun with that song."
Giving his thoughts on the Blues Brothers version of this song, Sam Moore said: "I'd say they were good comedians. I looked at it the way you look at the Coasters. It was a parody from a comedy team."
When Bob Dole ran for president of the United States in 1996, he used this song, repurposed as "Dole Man," as his campaign song until he was sued by the copyright holders of the song.
Sam Moore re-recorded this with Lou Reed as the theme to the 1986 film of the same name. The movie is about a white guy who pretends to be black so he can get a scholarship to Harvard; hijinks ensue when he gets picked to play basketball and turns out to be terrible. Reed and Moore performed the song on Saturday Night Live on November 15, 1986.