Eddie Floyd isn’t a household name like Wilson Pickett or Otis Redding, his private life was never as lively as Marvin Gaye or James Brown, and it’s probably due to his genial, unflappable and rather cautious nature that he’s still with us, having turned 83 in June. All of which might suggest that this autobiography – inevitably titled after his best-known song – could be a dreary affair but his extraordinary memory for songs, names and dates makes Knock! Knock! Knock! On Wood: A Life In Soul a valuable historical record of his life and times, especially the period when he was associated with Memphis-based Stax Records in the mid to late sixties. Although the book is advertised as Eddie Floyd’s autobiography, it has been ghost written by my friend Tony Fletcher whose interest in sixties soul, dormant during the period he wrote books about white bands, seems to have been reignited by his 2017 biography of Wilson Pickett. Tony has now written ten books, including one novel, but this is his first shot at ghost-writing, a discipline that requires a writer not just to step into the shoes of their subject but to interpret their voice as well.
The task of the ghost writer is helped enormously if there’s a shared heritage, a similar cultural background, but that’s certainly not the case here. Eddie Floyd was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1937, and Tony was born in Beverley, in East Yorkshire, in 1964. Beyond the fact that English is their shared first language, their circumstances couldn’t be much more diverse, a factor that adds considerably to what Tony has achieved as he gets inside Eddie’s head to translate his life in the correct vernacular and thereby convey his ‘Steady Eddie’ character to the reader.
Tony first met Floyd in 2015 while he was researching his Pickett book. Without hesitation he agreed to be interviewed and they met at Montgomery’s smartest hotel. “Eddie, his silver hair the only sign of old age on a honed body that men half his age would cover, was dressed to the nines, sporting a stylish two-tone suit as if ready to step on stage at a moment’s notice,” writes Tony. “I came away under no illusions that I had just spent several hours with the living embodiment of the Soul Man.” Indeed, the encounter so impressed Tony that after the Pickett book was published he contacted Floyd again to suggest he write his own book with Tony’s help. This is the result.
That Eddie Floyd is a gracious and amiable old soul is easily detectable from its pages and while you can’t help but admire this likeable aristocrat of the soul trade, in some respects the book resembles one of those old fashioned showbusiness memoirs wherein everybody is great and any unpleasantness brushed beneath the carpet. Although he raises an eyebrow or two at the behaviour of his rival Pickett, Eddie is too nice a guy to bear any grudges. Grit is kept to a minimum.
Eddie is certainly dismayed by the financial woes that befell Stax after it became clear that its owners had inadvertently squandered valuable assets but he doesn’t point the finger in an angry manner, even though his own fortunes were certainly buffeted by the label’s misadventures. Most everyone he meets in his career is wonderful, talented and kind-hearted, and only rarely is a song or record criticised. And while the many musicians with whom he works are exhaustively listed and given due credit for their work, there is a distinct lack of information about his personal life, which involves more than one wife and plenty of children. We are told that Eddie remains on good terms with his female partners, but of his domestic arrangements we remain ignorant, fleeting references to his family serving to whet an appetite fulfilled only by reference late in the book to a son, Anthony, also a musician, with whom he collaborates.
Similarly, Eddie avoids much mention of racial discrimination or politics. I came away from the book with the impression that he simply doesn’t want to rock the boat on such matters, that whatever he thinks is better left unsaid and, in any case, no good can come of it by venting his spleen about what he probably believes he is powerless to change. He’s a musician not a senator, full stop.
On the plus side, the detail is extraordinary. Lovers of Stax music – Motown’s little but cooler brother in my book – will revel in the inside information about what went on in the converted movie theatre at 926 E McLemore Avenue in Memphis. The process of song writing is lucidly explained, with copious examples, the point well made that although Eddie is perhaps best known as a soul singer it’s his song writing skills of which he is most proud.
Key episodes in Eddie’s life receive the coverage you would expect. I defy anyone not to be charmed by Eddie’s warm recollections of his first visit, in 1967, to the UK and elsewhere in Europe where the reception rivalled a royal tour. “As far as that Stax/Volt tour of Europe went, it was perfect. Just perfect,” he writes. The death not long afterwards of Otis Redding is sadly recalled, not least because it indirectly gave rise to another of Eddie’s songs, ‘Big Bird’.
Many collaborators and admirers were interviewed for the book, among them Bruce Springsteen, Steve Cropper, William Bell, Alan Walden, Paul Young and Bill Wyman. As you would expect, Springsteen’s recollections of inviting Eddie on stage with E Street Band in 1976 are particularly erudite and heartfelt. Eddie was obviously overjoyed at the inclusion of ‘Raise Your Hand’ on his Live 1975-85 LP set in 1985.
Eddie Floyd was never workshy. From his days with The Falcons, his fondly-remembered first singing group, to the awards shows he invariably shows up for today, he feels a duty always to do his best, for his audience and for his own gratification. If things sometimes don’t go according to plan he simply gets back up and starts over, cheerfully too. He’s level-headed and, when necessary, as tough as some of the boxers he so admires. Most folk he meets know he doesn’t go looking for a fight but it’s wise to avoid starting one with him. It’s left largely unsaid that the publishing revenues from ‘Knock On Wood’, and to a lesser extent ‘634 5789’ and ‘Raise Your Hand’, all songs of his that have been covered by a host of singers, have kept his bank account in credit all his life.
And he knows he’s been fortunate. “I have no regrets,” he writes in a feelgood closing chapter that summarises a life many would envy. Touch wood, or knock on it as Americans say, it’ll continue that way and he’ll live on for plenty more years.