Stax Singles Vol. 4: Rarities & The Best of the Rest

stax

 

Title: Stax Singles Vol. 4 – Rarities & The Best of the Rest

Artist: Various

Label: Stax/Craft Recordings

Formats: 6-CD set, Digital

Release date: February 9, 2018

 

From the early days of the CD era, there has been a constant stream of reissues from the legendary Stax/Volt catalog. Three volumes (28 CDs total) of The Complete Stax/Volt Singles plus artist-specific box sets, plus a pile of compilation CDs and box sets. Not to mention the many individual album reissues, which often included extra singles and other tracks not on the original LPs. What is left in the vaults to compile into this new 6-CD box, issued in conjunction with Concord Music Group’s celebration of the 60th anniversary of Stax’s founding?

It turns out, not 6 discs worth of compelling music, but there are many interesting obscure gems lurking among a bunch of tunes that were forgotten for a reason. The set is also padded with familiar material such as Booker T. & The M.G.’s cuts already issued on the artists’ own box set, and slightly edited single versions of Big Star hits.

The set has a scattershot focus, which actually works to its benefit by offering interesting music to several audiences. Discs 1-3 are B sides of singles included in the first three massive “Complete Singles” boxes (which, it turns out, contain mostly A sides and not “complete” singles by the definition of both sides of a record). Compiled by Rob Bowman, author of Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records and co-producer of the first three sets, these discs probably contain the fewest of what the casual listener might consider dull duds. For the deep-diver, some of the sides are obscure enough to be sourced from dubs of scratchy old 45’s, meaning the master tapes are missing.

To Concord’s credit, they offer a detailed listing of the set’s contents, so consumers can decide for themselves if there is enough interesting material to justify the purchase price. If the music compels you, the physical product is recommended because the 76-page booklet provides much detail and context, plus some nice artist photos from the old Stax promotional files.

Which brings us to the other half of the box. Discs 4-6 cover Stax’s attempts to diversify its catalog from its southern-soul target market. The material is mined from sub-labels: Enterprise (pop and country), Hip (pop and rock), Ardent (rock), and the gospel imprints Chalice and The Gospel Truth. The booklet offers very detailed information about these labels, which will be of interest to the deep-divers and completists. In general, these efforts were not financially successful for Stax, but some of the music (particularly the Ardent albums released by Big Star) turned out to be widely influential and critically acclaimed.

Stax’s pop and country releases were obviously a mixed bag. If the “best” is collected here, there was a lot of dreck in the catalog. The rock offerings are more interesting, including the more rock-ish and psychedelic pop songs. The Memphis music scene of the 1960s and ‘70s had a unique take on rock, with both soul flavorings and a “garage” feel. It’s exciting and doesn’t sound manufactured. Likewise with the best of Stax’s pop productions—they don’t sound as plastic and disposable as much of the competing material that was churned out of NYC, L.A. and Detroit.

The best of the back three discs is #6, covering the gospel labels. In general, the arrangements and performances hue toward Stax’s soul sound and feel, of great benefit to Sunday’s music. The gospel passion is turned up a notch in the caldron of backbeat soul, creating great impact. It might have been a better idea to peel off this material into a separate Stax gospel compilation.

For the hardcore Stax fans, and for listeners deeply into American soul music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, there will be enough material in this set, plus the booklet text, to justify its place in your collection. For others, the appeal will depend on your curiosity and willingness to wade through a wide variety of artists, styles and genres.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song

Sweetback

Title: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (An Opera)

Artist: Melvin Van Peebles; Earth, Wind & Fire

Label: Concord/Stax

Formats: Vinyl, High-resolution digital

Release date: May 26, 2017

 

In the February issue we gave a brief preview of Concord Music Group’s year-long celebration of Stax Records 60th Anniversary, including the new compilation CDs paying tribute to the many iconic artists in the Stax roster. Now Concord has released the first of their Stax 60th anniversary remastered vinyl offerings—a 108 gram pressing of the original cast soundtrack album for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.

As most already know, this landmark independent film was written, produced, scored, and directed by Melvin Van Peebles, who also portrayed Sweetback: “a black protagonist who not only overpowers the oppressive white cops, but he manages to get away with it.” Released in 1971, the film contributed to the creation of the Blaxploitation era and was promoted by the Black Panthers, who filled theaters with members for whom it was required viewing.

The soundtrack album, distributed prior to the release of the film to raise cash and garner publicity through airplay, was also notable for introducing an unknown group by the name of Earth, Wind & Fire. Van Peebles also performs as his alter ego, Brer Soul. Without the Sweetback soundtrack and contributions of EWF, who transformed Van Peebles hummed musical ideas into a funky soul-jazz score, the film may never have made it into theaters. And without Sweetback to pave the way, there may never have been a string of soulful ‘70s soundtracks scored by the likes of Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye, Bobby Womack, Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway, Gene Page, Johnny Pate, James Brown, Roy Ayers, and Willie Hutch. As EWF’s Verdine White noted, “at the time there weren’t a lot of movies that had black music” (Quincy Jones was the only black composer with a string of film scores to his credit).

Concord’s 180-gram vinyl gatefold edition features audio remastered from the original analog tapes and cut on the original Stax lathe at Ardent studios in Memphis. Newly penned notes are provided by Jeff Weiss, who credits Van Peebles with the birth of “badass cinema” via a film “that captured the spirit of rebellion, frustration and the refusal to accept injustice.” Mario Van Peebles, whose 2003 film Baadasssss! chronicled the making of his father’s famous film, also reflects on the film’s profound influence in the liner notes.

Long out of print with the exception of foreign pressings, this remastered vinyl release of Sweetback belongs in everyone’s collection!

Editor’s note: Melvin Van Peebles has recently performed with other bands featured in Black Grooves, including the Heliocentrics.  

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Stax 60th Anniversary Releases

Stax

Just in time for Black Music Month, Concord Music Group announces its Stax Records 60th Anniversary celebration.  The year long celebration will include new hits compiliations as well as remastered vinyl offerings and brand new box sets with rare deep cuts from the Stax catalog.  Great tracks from artists like Isaac Hayes, Johnnie Taylor, The Staple Singer, Sam & Dave, Booker T. & The MGs and of course Otis Redding will be revisited during the year.

For those of us who are well steeped in the most popular output of the record label, Stax 60th also promises some surprises: a re-release of the soundtrack to Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song which features music by Earth, Wind & Fire in their pre-That’s The Way Of the World orientation; a box set spanning Isaac Hayes’ catalog from 1962-1976; and a new fourth volume of their acclaimed Complete Stax Singles box sets. This new box set will include lots of music from Stax’s subsidiary labels like Volt, Enterprise, Hip, Chalice and others.  While much of this music is being kept alive and well in Memphis at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and Stax Music Academy, it’s a great time to make sure the whole world remembers what made the music from Stax Records so special. We’ll be reviewing these new releases in the near future.

Levon Williams

Otis Redding – Live at the Whisky A Go-Go, The Complete Recordings

otis-redding
Title: Live at the Whisky A Go-Go, The Complete Recordings

Artist: Otis Redding

Label: Volt/Concord

Formats: CD, digital, LP (excerpts, limited edition)

Release date: October 21, 2016

In this new 6-disc set, Concord Records, the current owner of the Stax label and catalog, puts out for public consumption every inch of tape rolled during Otis Redding’s 3-day/3-night stand at Los Angeles’s Whisky A Go-Go club on April 8-10, 1966. The completist approach is for better or worse, especially since “the best” material from these sets was released in 1968 as In Person at the Whisky A Go Go (Atco), and then more material was released in 1982 (Atlantic LP) and 1993 (Fantasy/Stax CD with bonus tracks) as Good To Me.

In keeping with the year-end holiday spirit, let’s start with the “for better” aspects of this set. The number one good new feature is the improved sound quality. Engineer Seth Presant remixed the original 4-track tapes and the result is a near-clear window into what Otis and his 9-man band sounded like on that stage. The new reissue also features some snazzy packaging; including liner notes on the back of a poster-sized reproduction of the box set cover art. Liner notes include essays by reissue co-producer Bill Bentley and Los Angeles arts and culture writer Lynell George.

The CDs are broken up mostly into individual live sets, the exception being the long second set from Friday, April 8, 1966 being spread over the end of disc 1 and all of disc 2. Disc 3 contains the longer first set from Saturday, April 9, while disc 4 contains the shorter second and third sets from that night. Disc 5 and disc 6 are, respectively, the two sets from Sunday, April 10. Several songs are heard in nearly every set. Indeed, buyer beware—there are many repeat performances of key tunes in the Otis Redding songbook, so variety is not the strong suit in this album.

Which brings us to the “for worse” aspects of this reissue. The big problem with these performances is, the band just didn’t hit its mark most of the time. The horns were often out of tune and rhythm was not tight enough for album-quality takes (which is probably why a few tunes were repeated over and over). The liner notes mention the club’s audience being mainly white kids, and Otis Redding was just beginning to have crossover success at that point in his career, so there was probably a bit of an energy gap between performer and audience. For whatever reason, the overall performances ebb and flow through each set, although it’s clear that Redding was working hard to get his music across and leave L.A. with a viable live album in the can.

After listening to all the Whisky A Go-Go shows, I’m not convinced that Redding would have wanted the complete package released. The performances just weren’t good and consistent enough, which is likely why a lot of editing was employed to get the first two releases. And, even in the edited form, these performances pale in comparison to Redding’s tear-down-the-house triumph at the Monterey Pop Festival a year and two months later. It’s worth noting that Redding played Monterrey backed by the super-tight Stax house band, Booker T. and the MG’s (see the film “Monterey Pop” to witness the incendiary results). Otis Redding died in a plane crash, at age 26, six months after Monterey.

Reviewed by Tom Fine