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Heroin and the Soul Man: a Cautionary Tale of Degradation and Redemption

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When sweet soul music was at the top of the charts in the late ’60s, the singing duo of Sam Moore and Dave Prater drew huge crowds, alongside stars like Aretha Franklin, the Supremes and James Brown. Sam and Dave toured with a 30-piece revue, a closetful of matching custom suits and a medley of solid soul hits that included Soul Man, the song that John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd chose as the centerpiece for their “Blues Brothers” parody. Though soul slipped in the early ’70s, Sam kept working with Dave (clubs, revival shows, anything) to support what had become so much more important to Sam than music—a $400-a-day cocaine-and-heroin habit.

More than a decade of addiction reduced Sam to a life of sleazy hotels and Harlem “hit houses,” foul, murderous, junkie shooting galleries. On the way down Sam and Dave lost their recording contract and their friendship. Still the show went on, and they managed onstage harmony through most of the ’70s, playing wet T-shirt nights and after-hours clubs. The pair enjoyed a brief revival when they got a spot on Saturday Night Live. But heroin had caught up with Sam. Given a chance at a lucrative tour with Sha Na Na, he missed opening night, too strung out to perform.

Despite two near-fatal overdoses, Sam was unable to kick the habit. Nothing worked—cold turkey or methadone—until he found an experimental drug treatment and the tough love of his manager and companion, Joyce McRae, who once worked as an administrative assistant for Michael Jackson’s father in his management-production office. Now, free of drug dependence for the first time in 15 years, Sam Moore is working again, in Vegas, in Europe and in the recording studio.

The struggle is still uphill. Since Sam and Dave broke up on Dec. 31, 1981, Dave has found a new “Sam. “Naturally the duo bills itself as Sam and Dave, which has somewhat hampered the original’s ability to find work.

In his spare time, Sam has become an active campaigner for the FDA’s approval of naltrexone, the experimental antiopiate that helped him become drug free. Currently being tried in various clinics throughout the country, the drug, which has no known negative side effects, maybe approved in a matter of months. Sam also works with addicts on a one-on-one basis and through the national cocaine hot line (number: 800-COC-AINE). In his California home Sam talked to writer Gerri Hirshey about the battle a junkie has to fight to retrieve a life.

A couple of nights before this year’s Grammy awards I was walking down the street near my condo in Encino, and Michael Jackson pulled up in his car. Said he’d been out for ice cream. I’ve known Michael since he was a bitty kid opening for us with his brothers at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. I got in the car, and we had a serious talk. He was just about to win all these awards, and he had a lot on his mind. Suddenly he looked at me—he can have a real intense way about him—and asked, “How did you handle success?”

“Not too well,” I had to tell him. I think I was caught too off guard to say much more. But if I’d had some time to think about it, I guess I could have given him chapter and verse on what to look out for.

For me the trouble started right on the heels of our biggest success. We’d had this big crossover audience—you know, we played the Apollo and white universities, headlined at the best clubs and all over Europe. Suddenly, around 1969, our career hit a sort of limbo. We lost our magical production team [Isaac Hayes and David Porter], changed record companies, and nothing was happening. I didn’t know how to handle it. I’d snorted and skin-popped heroin. Call it recreational. Then I started shooting. For a long time I couldn’t bring myself to use a needle, so I hired someone to do it. When I realized I’d have to learn myself, I spent one night putting 30 holes in my body before I got it right.

You mistakenly believe you’re in control. I did. One night I told my dealer I wasn’t coming back. It was too much of a problem to work and keep doing the junk. I wasn’t feeling well, but I thought I was coming down with something. That’s how it comes on you—you sweat, your stomach and back ache. Like the flu. The dealer looks at me and says, “You’ll be back.” I said, “No man, I’ve just got a cold.” But that night my “cold” got worse. And worse. I caught the subway up to Harlem and found the dealer’s house. As soon as I put my arm out and he put the drugs in, my head cleared up, my back stopped aching. I felt good. That’s when I knew I was really hooked. That was about 1972, when it cost about $75 a day.

I started missing club dates. Or I was too strung out to perform well. When I could perform, I’d run into people I’d played for in all those colleges in the 60’s, and it hurt. They’re doctors and lawyers now, professionals. They’d say, “You guys were our heroes, you’re the greatest.” And I’d smile and thank them, thinking the whole while, “How long till my next shot?”

Some dealers in Harlem wouldn’t sell to me. They couldn’t stand to see what I’d become. But I don’t want to say these guys were charitable. I know now how they work on your mind to get you hooked more. You tell your dealer you’re “ill,” which is a junkie expression for strung out. They say they’ll bring you something to make you feel better. You wait, but they don’t show on time. And making you wait, they hook you just a little more. I’ve stood for hours, waiting for that knock. You’re sick, you have cramps, you’re crying, walking the floor, tearing up the room. Suddenly he’s there, your savior. But once he gives it to you, you can’t wait for him to leave. You feel dirty. I’d get high, then run to shower.

Pretty soon that stopped, though. You don’t even care about keeping clean. You look in the mirror, and you say, “Aw, I’ve just lost a little weight.” I’m nearly six feet tall, and I was down to 118 pounds. My hair was falling out, my skin was like elephant hide. But you don’t really care.

Things got really out of hand when I discovered how to combine cocaine and heroin—the thing that killed Belushi. It’s an old junkie belief that cocaine “eats up” heroin, so if you combine them, you don’t get as sick. Of course I found out it was a myth. And cocaine was so expensive by then that the combined habit was costing me up to $400 a day. Every penny I had went toward it. And it was so bad I had to ‘fess up to my manager. He knew I had to work, so he kept me working. And he kept a whole lot of my money. But by then I was too strung out to keep track.

I had to move out of a nice apartment to hotels that were $10 a night, and I couldn’t even afford that. All the fancy suits were sold or stolen. Lots of junkies steal to make it, but somehow I had enough class left not to do that. Never. I conned instead—friends, women, strangers, club managers.

By the late ’70s I was still working as much as I could. I’d have packages of heroin sent in the mail, and for road trips I had a phone book with every dealer from New York City to Kalamazoo. They always introduced themselves as “friends.” My “friends” were so good to me; I was paying them hundreds of dollars every time we met.

I had to start hanging out in hit houses. You know you’ve had it when you have to do the drugs right where you buy. Some hit houses are clean, but the average ones are full of chinch bugs. And vomit. And blood all over the place. Old nasty needles. It’s nothing to see somebody lying there who hasn’t had a bath in months. Believe it or not, you pay to go in these places. And it can cost you your life.

I started seeing some new customers in the hit houses and on the streets. White suburban kids. So very many. Now these kids don’t come in wearing Guccis. They’re quiet and scared looking, and they usually come in groups, five or six in a car. Some would come from as far as Virginia. And for a time, I helped them out.

They were strung out, and so was I. They were on real dangerous turf, and I’d help them cop and get out safely. We talked about dope. Only that. How good was it, how much more did we need. I tried to make sure they didn’t get hurt or robbed, but I never lectured them or said, “Go home.” They wouldn’t listen to a junkie. And how could I tell them what to do? I was literally dying, and by helping them cop I might get a free hit myself. To survive.

I don’t care how all this sounds. It’s past time to be polite. For too long people, especially parents, have been afraid to know the gruesome details. These kids would sell out their mothers for a score. I watched a pretty little white teenager—a mother—shoot junk into the sutures from an operation she’d just had.

Still I had that junkie’s mind-set—that you yourself are invincible. I still thought, “Hey, I’m Sam. The singer.” But the first time I overdosed, my girlfriend let me know what I was. “You’re just a junkie!” She kept screaming that over and over. Booking agents said it too. So did audiences. We may have been going through the motions onstage, but Sam and Dave were gone. At one time I lived to sing. But by then I was just singing to stay alive—though I wouldn’t call it living.

It changed when I met someone who cared and had the guts to get into the mind-bending battle you have to fight to help an addict. I had started going out with Joyce McRae in 1981, and it didn’t take her long to realize that what I was calling a heart condition, vitamin B shots—whatever lie I tried on her—was really heroin.

She became my manager in November of 1981. I was trying to maintain myself with methadone. Joyce said she’d try to get me in a program here in California. Understand, I didn’t want to kick. I just wanted to get high legally. But by chance Joyce saw a TV program on this clinic, Community Health Projects in West Covina, that was having success with a drug called naltrexone. Though it had been around since the ’60s and used in some VA hospitals for vets who got hooked on heroin in Vietnam, the drug was still experimental. Naltrexone is an antiopiate, which means that once you’re on it, if you shoot heroin, you can’t get high. Before you begin treatment you have to detox to a lower dosage of methadone.

All I wanted was that methadone. Kicking was not on my mind, but I went along with whatever I was told, thinking I’d be okay with the methadone. Joyce and the doctors had other plans.

We had to do a European tour—I was soloing by then—and we were legally traveling with methadone and Darvon-N, prescribed so that I could work. Joyce knew that to get into the naltrexone program, I had to get down to 20 milligrams of methadone a day. I left the U.S. needing 50. What I didn’t know was that for the three weeks we were in Europe, Joyce was fooling with the dosage—watering the methadone, giving me fewer Darvons. Messing with the dosage was the ultimate con, and it saved my life.

The breakthrough in my mind came on my last night in Paris. Somehow Joyce had gotten me down to that 20 milligrams. I felt good enough to really sing. The response was great. People were screaming and clapping. For me. My voice. And I thought, “Dammit, I can really get up here—myself—and entertain.” On the plane back to L.A. I decided to try this naltrexone thing.

I couldn’t wait, because I was sure this magic stuff was going to give me a big buzz, a high. I was still in a junkie’s headset. First they put me on clonidine for seven days to make sure my system was opiate free. They thought it was, but it wasn’t. They gave me naltrexone, and I ran home, hopped into bed, confident I’d wake up with a nice, fuzzy high.

Lord! This thing jumped on me—hit me, jerked me out of bed, a kind of sickness I’d never had. Apparently I had so much opiate stored in me—in brain tissue and body fat—that the naltrexone hit a big reservoir of the stuff. It was like The Exorcist. Somehow I made it through the night and went back for the next dose. It happened again, but after the third dose I was okay.

I thought I was almost home free. But Don Smith, a counselor at the clinic, warned me about something. Because he knows junkies. He told me I’d try to test the naltrexone, that I’d shoot some heroin to see if it really can keep you from getting high.

I went and did just that—shot heroin before I was to get on a plane for a gig in Texas. Just to test it. Just like Don said. Well I didn’t get high, I got sick. On the plane, it hit me like a wrecking ball. By the time I got to the hotel in Texas, I was sick as a dog. “That’s it,” I said to myself. “Never again.” The sickness left, and I walked out onstage the next night, and man, I had a ball. I haven’t looked back since.

What I do look back on is my understanding of the way an addict thinks. And I use that when I talk on hot lines and radio shows, in clinic counseling, to families and especially to people trying to kick. I’m straight with them, like the clinic people were with me. I can tell them all the games addicts are going to play before they do it. To the families, I say break whatever rules you have to—beat the addict at his own cons if you must. The decision to get off drugs is so lonely. You need love and help from somebody who’s willing to play hardball with you for your life.

It still falls on my mind now—the dope, the lies I told, the terrible things I did to people. It never goes away. They wanted me to stay on naltrexone for six months, but I only stayed on six weeks and I’m okay. I have to exercise a lot since there’s a lot of abuse to make up for. I’m 48, but right now I feel 30. I’m recording, doing gigs. When I sing, I can feel it again. Still I keep pictures on the wall of the way I was at 118 pounds. Even though I’m 185 pounds now, I don’t ever want to take them down. I want to check out that heavy “before” and “after.” Every day.