In early-1960s Memphis, there were seven black high schools in the city. Among them was Booker T. Washington between downtown and South Memphis. Among the students who attended BTW were Rufus Thomas, Booker T. Jones, the Bar-Kays, and a young man by the name of David Porter, who wanted more than anything to be in the music business. He worked his way through school sacking groceries and singing around town as Little David with a group he formed that included his friend and BTW classmate, Maurice White, who eventually went on to form Earth, Wind & Fire.
While working at the store, Porter kept paying visits to a relatively new recording studio across the street and trying to get his foot in the door. That studio was a small, family-owned company named Satellite Records and when Porter was finally hired as the label’s first salaried songwriter in 1963, its name changed to Stax Records and it was about to take off. Porter had six months to make it or he would be out the door.
He not only made it, but he made it in a way that established him as one of the very architects of American soul music and one of the most successful songwriters in the world.
Within two years after being hired on at Stax, Porter asked his friend Isaac Hayes to start writing songs with him. They had one car between them that was falling apart and Hayes was working at a meat packing plant. When Atlantic Records sent a duo named Sam & Dave to Stax to see if the Southern soul label could make something out of them, Porter wrote their first song and co-wrote the flipside with Steve Cropper, who would go on to become Booker T. & the MGs’ guitarist. But when Isaac joined Porter in writing for the duo, Stax Records, Memphis, Sam & Dave, and Porter and Hayes would never be the same again.
Porter and Hayes cranked out hit after hit for Sam & Dave and almost every other act on the Stax label. It’s a songlist that includes such classics as Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin,’” (1966), “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby,” (1967), “Soul Man,” (1967), and “I Thank You” (1968), and more than 300 Stax songs by artists such as Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Wilson Pickett, The Soul Children, Eddie Floyd, and Mable John.
The Porter-Hayes powerhouse came to a temporary halt in the late 1960s, when Hayes embarked on what would turn out to be a solo career that made him one of the most celebrated musical artists in the world. Porter also had a solo career and released four albums at Stax, but his passion for writing and business was stronger than his desire to perform. Over the next four decades his songwriting credits became like a list for a who’s who in American music history, a list as diverse as it is star-studded, including Joe Cocker, ZZ Topp, Bonnie Raitt, Waylon Jennings., Aretha Franklin, BB King, Ted Nugent, Hall & Oates, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Wu Tang Crew, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Mary J. Blige. In all, Porter’s songs represent over 300 million units sold worldwide.
Porter, who was born in Memphis on November 21, 1941, has always made Memphis his home. He is a successful businessman and civic leader, having served on the boards of many nonprofit organizations and various commissions. In 2005, he and his songwriter partner and lifelong friend Isaac Hayes were inducted into the National Songwriters Hall of Fame. He continues to write and produce music today and is the creator and star of the traveling musical “Stories of a Real Soul Man: An Evening With David Porter & Friends.”