MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The Bluff City is known worldwide as the Home of the Blues and Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll. To kick off our 5 Star Stories Studio Sessions series, legendary soul man David Porter gave WMC Action News 5′s Kontji Anthony uncharted access to his music empire.
“I’ve always had a passion for music,” Porter explained.
His passion paid off with more than 2,000 song credits and a music catalog that has sold almost 400 million units, from Will Smith’s Getting’ Jiggy Wit It to Mariah Carey’s Dream Lover. In fact, Porter is one of the most sampled songwriters in the world and has become a go-to for hip-hop artists ever since rapper Biggie Smalls first sampled Porter in 1995.
The songwriter, producer, singer, entrepreneur and philanthropist was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005 and the Grammy award-winner is now producing songs for emerging artists signed to his own label, Made in Memphis Entertainment (MIME) Records, which launched in 2017.
“A major recording studio, state of the art, top of the line in a city that I was born in, Memphis, Tennessee, Union Avenue. That just takes the cake,” Porter smiled.
The 16,525-square-feet of recording space was designed by a British studio engineer who used mathematics to optimize the sound.
“I think it’s amazing to have fresh faces represent Memphis,” said MIME Records Recording Artist Jessica Ray.
“It’s a great thing for me and Jessica to be a part of David’s legacy,” added MIME Records Recording Artist Porcelan.
It all began when Porter found his voice singing at Memphis’ Rose Hill Baptist Church in South Memphis and he wrote his first song at age nine for a talent show at La Rose Elementary School. He recalled the words to the song, “‘Til the end of my life we’ll never part, ‘til the end of my life, you’ll have my heart.”
He says he knew music was his life after attending Booker T. Washington High School with his best friend, “Earth, Wind and Fire’s” Maurice White.
“That high school, for so many of us, ended up being the catalyst for us to move towards a target of having aspirations for music,” Porter recalled.
He’ll never forget being booed during a talent show in 9th grade.
“It was a pop, pop song. It became something so, so funny because I froze on stage,” he said.
Porter met singer-songwriter and producer Isaac Hayes on Beale Street at a weekly talent competition years before they were old enough to get into the nightclubs.
“He was singing with a vocal group called Teen Tones and I had a vocal group called The Marquettes and we would compete on Wednesday night,” said Porter.
By day, he worked in a grocery store to make ends meet and by night pursued music, often singing in segregated clubs.
“I’d have to be in the back and the only time anyone would see me at this time is when I would come out and perform. Back then, I was Little David,” he said.
After a stint selling insurance, Porter convinced Memphis’ Satellite Records Label to let him record a demo. Satellite became STAX after a copyright dispute, Hayes became a chart-topper and Porter became the label’s first staff songwriter.
When Porter and Hayes produced the song Soul Man in 1967, it became one of the most iconic tunes in music history.
“Having the good fortune of Isaac Hayes and I joining forces together in a creative sense, we became what one would call the anchor songwriting team for the company,” said Porter. “I had no idea when Isaac and I first started writing songs that the material that we were writing would be around for 50 years later.”
Porter said Hayes’s death was “tremendously impactful” to his life. He said, “The day before Isaac passed, we were on the news together talking about the passing of Bernie Mac. The next day, I go to the golf course playing golf and I get a phone call saying ‘David, David, David, Come to Isaac’s.’ He’s gone and I don’t know what they are talking about, but that didn’t sound right.”
Porter added, “It went from the day before to the next day. He’s gone and the journey while he was sick, I was the one that was closest to him and so it has always been difficult for me.
Maurice White’s death was also difficult for Porter. “It’s been equally as difficult for the loss of Maurice White about four years ago because that was my best friend. So, yeah. I lost some dear, dear people, and Isaac’s loss was tremendously impactful,” said Porter.
The hit-maker gave our cameras VIP access to some of his most treasured mementos stored in a special place. He has a photo sitting on a couch talking to Nelson Mandela with Desmond Tutu and Tutu’s wife, a BMI TV Music Award and the crown jewel: his Songwriters Hall of Fame award.
“It’s one of the greatest honors you can have. You’re in there with people like Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Elton John,” he said.
Porter’s collection also includes books with personal messages from presidents and Representative John Lewis right before his death. There’s even a recording of a private rehearsal session with Justin Timberlake.
“We wrote for a couple of weeks working on ideas and I just recorded part of that session and then a writing session with him,” which Porter said will always remain private.
Artists fly to Memphis from all over the world to collaborate with Porter and rent out studio time, but, like Timberlake, many are homegrown.
“Moneybagg Yo and NLE Choppa record at the studio, he believes in Memphis. Yo Gotti records there. Megan Thee Stallion has recorded a track,” Porter explained.
He’s also giving back. His non-profit Consortium Memphis Music Town (MMT) program, which launched in 2012, incubates people hoping to break into the music industry, from the back offices to the stage.
“Being able to see that it still is vibrant and doing well with young talent, that means so much,” he said.
In addition to cultivating artists and renting out studio time at his 4 U Recording studio, Porter’s Beatroot Music is the only Black-owned music distributor in the U.S., his Heavy Hitters Music label includes a film, TV, and ad sync company and his Royalty Claim service recovers unclaimed royalties for artists.
Porter just signed deals to expand MIME to Atlanta and Los Angeles and he has no plans to slow down.
“To live to the extent that you can say you’ve really had all of your bucket list, it’s been an incredible journey.”