By 1966, Eddie Floyd had been a staff writer and producer for a year at Stax Records, the legendary Memphis pop, soul and R&B label of Otis Redding, Sam and Dave and Booker T. & the M.G.s. Working with Stax guitarist Steve Cropper, Floyd had already written two hits for Wilson Pickett: “634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.)” and “Ninety-Nine and A Half (Won’t Do).” Cropper had also co-written with Pickett the singer’s “In the Midnight Hour.”
One night in 1966, he and Cropper set out to write a song about luck and superstition at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Floyd worked with the superstition that if you touch wood after stating a hope or wish (“I hope I win the lottery, knock on wood”), it will come true.
The belief goes back to early cultures who believed that living things like trees held mystical powers; when cut, the wood lost its magical qualities. Knocking on, say, a wooden table is supposed to drive away any evil spirits inhabiting the wood.
A loud crack of thunder and the ensuing lightning gave Floyd the line “Like thunder, lightning, the way I love you is frightening.” The addition of the line helped change the tune’s focus from luck to love.
The song the pair wrote was “Knock on Wood.” To Floyd’s lyrics, Cropper contributed the song’s signature intro. Cropper’s inspiration was his own “In The Midnight Hour.” For “Knock on Wood,” Cropper played the “Midnight Hour” intro backwards!
Believing they’d written a hit for Otis Redding, Floyd and Cropper went into the studio the next day to record a demo of “Knock on Wood.” Issac Hayes contributed the horn arrangement and Al Jackson came up with the distinctive four “knocks” on the drum that follows Floyd’s “You gotta knock…”
But Stax founder Jim Stewart believed the song was imitative of “In The Midnight Hour” and refused to let Redding record it. The demo remained in the can untouched for months until Stewart could be convinced to release the record as an Eddie Floyd song.
The demo of “Knock on Wood” would become the final version everyone knows today; it was never re-cut for release as a single.
“Knock on Wood” would become the biggest hit of Floyd’s career and has been covered by more than 100 artists, including Eric Clapton and Seal; Amii Stewart’s disco version topped the pop charts in 1979.
And despite Jim Stewart’s initial opinion of the song, Otis Redding would record “Knock on Wood” in 1967 in a duet with Carla Thomas.