Stax Records’ Year of Crisis and Grit

 

Title: Stax ’68 – A Memphis Story
Artist: Various
Label: Stax/Craft Recordings
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: October 19, 2018

 

1968 was a year that tested Stax Records, the wellspring of Memphis Soul, to its soul. The label emerged victorious, but the story of its three-pronged existential crisis and how the company and its key personnel responded is an epic chapter in music-industry history. Continue reading

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

Melissa Etheridge – Memphis Rock and Soul

melissa-ethridge
Title: Memphis Rock and Soul

Artist: Melissa Etheridge

Label: Stax

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: October 7, 2016

 

I love Stax Records. When I see that distinctive logo, you know, the one with the finger snapping, I never hide my love. To quote the great singer Rufus Thomas, “Motown was cute, but Stax was souuul.” So when I heard that Melissa Etheridge was releasing a tribute album on the legendary label, two thoughts ran through my mind: (1) Shock and (2) No way (now if it was Bonnie Raitt, those two thoughts would have never entered my mind). Etheridge did what any true artist should do when you want recreate the magic and aura of Stax—she recorded at Royal Studios in Memphis, where some of the original songs on Memphis Rock and Soul were recorded. Al Green, Ann Peebles, and believe it or not Bruno Mars have all recorded there over the years.

On “Respect Yourself” Etheridge tries not to outdo Mavis Staples, which is smart. The opening guitar on this remake is similar to the Staple Singers’ version. On the Johnny Taylor cover “Who’s Making Love,” Etheridge slows the pace way down and changes the words to “Who’s Making Love To Your Sweet Lady.” If you know the original, it is much faster and has the kicking guitar along with Taylor’s soulful delivery on “Who’s Making Love To Your Ol Lady.”

Of course if you are going to cover Stax, you have to include Sam & Dave. Etheridge plays both Sam & Dave on the vocals to “Hold On, I’m Coming” and yes, I personally wanted to hear the horns just like original, and my wish was granted.

Stax’ biggest act, no question, was Otis Redding, who is covered on two tracks. The first, “I’ve Been Loving You,” is very underrated. Etheridge stays true to the original—no words changing here—and her vocal delivery is perfect. The second, “I’ve Got Dreams,” is again nothing fancy, with Etheridge showing respect for the original.

No doubt, it must have been a dream for Melissa Etheridge to record this album and pay respect to perhaps the greatest American record label ever.

Eddie Bowman

William Bell – This is Where I Live

william bell_this is where i live

Title: This Is Where I Live

Artist: William Bell

Label: Stax

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release date: June 3, 2016

 

 

William Bell has come full circle with his new album, This Is Where I Live, which marks the famous soul singer/songwriter’s return to the Stax label after several decades. The Memphis native started working at Stax as a teenager and began recording for the label in 1961 with the hit song “You Don’t Miss Your Water (Until Your Well Runs Dry);” he scored another hit in 1969 with “Everybody Loves a Winner.” Bell is likely more famous, however, for the indelible hits he penned for other artists, including “Born Under a Bad Sign” (co-written with IU alum Booker T. Jones), famously covered by Albert King, Jimi Hendrix, Etta James, and Homer Simpson.

Though never completely out of the spotlight, Bell’s new album has certainly rejuvenated his singing career, bringing one of the original Southern soul singers to the attention of a new generation. Acclaimed country music producer and arranger John Leventhal worked side by side with Bell to shape the sound of the album, which blends the original soulful sounds of Stax with more contemporary influences. Leventhal co-wrote most of the songs with Bell; plays guitars, bass, keyboards and percussion throughout; and recorded and mixed the tracks.

YouTube Preview Image

This Is Where I Live appears to be semi-autobiographical, drawing upon Bell’s Memphis roots and life experiences. Opening with the ballad “The Three of Me” (discussed in this recent NPR interview), he sings about “the man I was, the man I am, and the man I want to be.” This reflection on life by the 77-year-old singer permeates the album, including the following track, “The House Always Wins,” with the chorus “I wish someone had told me you gonna sink before you swim, you may take a couple of rounds, but the house always wins.”

One of the outstanding features of the album is the blend of soul with country music, perhaps most evident on “Poison in the Well,” featuring Leventhal on guitar with Shawn Pelton sitting in on drums. They steer back to a grittier soul sound on the ballad “I Will Take Care of You.” Weaving in a chorus and B3 accompaniment, it’s the perfect vehicle for Bell and fits right into his vocal comfort zone. Bell is also given an opportunity to cover his earlier song, “Born Under a Bad Sign.” In a departure from Albert King’s signature version, Leventhal’s arrangement successfully melds blues, rock and country influences into a more contemplative, less guitar-oriented rendition of the song which places more focus on the vocals.

Bell demonstrates his devotion to his home town on the title track, hinting at the difficulty of life in Memphis during the Civil Rights Movement, and the inspiration found in Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” with its “promise of a brand new day.” Getting back to Bell’s signature ballad singing, the woeful “All the Things You Can’t Remember” (I’m still trying to forget) tells the tale of a man mistreated and underappreciated by his woman.  The album closes with “People Want to Go Home,” an introspective but still upbeat song touching upon cultural meanings of space and place, expressed here by the strong desire to return to one’s roots at the end of life’s journey.

This Is Where I Live is highly recommended, with excellent song writing, musicianship and production from Bell, Leventhal and the supporting musicians. The balladeer’s voice is still silky and supple, hearkening back to a special time and place in the music industry that will be especially relevant to those over 50, but with plenty of potential appeal for younger soul music fans. The CD is accompanied by liner notes written by the noted Memphis rock and soul music historian, Peter Guralnick.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Various Artists – Take Me to the River

take me to the river

Title: Take Me to the River

Artist: Various Artists

Label: Shout Factory

Release date: February 5, 2016

Format: Blu-Ray, DVD

 

 

This month sees the  DVD release of a film celebrating the enduring legacy of Memphis soul music, Take Me to the River. This music documentary aims to address all things Memphis soul, mostly focusing on the Stax operation. Narrator Terrence Howard tells the story of the city’s musical past and continuing legacy, interspersed with clips of musicians interacting in the studio as well as musical performances (including Howard himself singing and playing guitar on one song). While the film’s narrative gets lost at times, this is largely mitigated by the wonderful performances on this record, combining a number of musical legends (several of who have passed away since this film was shot) with musicians of various successive generations. This often results in interesting fusions, like Bobby “Blue” Bland and Yo Gotti performing a rendition of “Ain’t no Sunshine” together, complete with an original rap verse by the latter.  Other high profile guest artists include William Bell, Snoop Dogg, Mavis Staples, Otis Clay, Charlie Musselwhite, Frayser Boy, and North Mississippi Allstars, who make up the backing band on several cuts.  The film also highlights the legacy of Memphis soul by addressing the role of music education in the city and the work of the Soulsville Foundation, including high school youth being mentored by Stax legends. This movie focuses on an important slice of Memphis’s musical culture and Take Me to the River includes some wonderful performances that celebrate the city’s vibrant history of soul music.

Here is a trailer for the film: YouTube Preview Image

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Apollo Saturday Night


Title: Apollo Saturday Night

Artists: Various

Label: Collectors’ Choice Music

Catalog No.:  CCM-998

Release Date: March 10, 2009



As entertainment, one show at the Apollo is about the equivalent of an entire evening of TV watching, a dozen hours of radio, plus four double features at the movies all rolled into one — Bob Altschuler, from the original LP liner notes.

There have been a number of ‘Live at the Apollo’ albums reissued in recent years, but most focus on concerts by a single artist, such as James Brown.  The beauty of Apollo Saturday Night is the variety of talent captured onstage in a single performance from November 16, 1963.  The artists were drawn primarily from the stable of Atlantic and Stax Records (Atlantic had a distribution arrangement with Stax at the time)—Ben E. King, The Coasters, Doris Troy, Rufus Thomas, Otis Redding, and The Falcons—and backed by the King Curtis Orchestra. The album captures an important period in African American music, when elements of rhythm and blues, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll were frequently intermingled, and the pop-soul of Motown and southern soul of Stax were just on the verge of breaking loose and taking over the charts.  The concert also illustrates the performance practices and reception of the artists when playing to an almost exclusively African American audience.

The master-of-ceremonies, King Coleman, kicks off the show which opens with the Falcons performing their 1962 chart topping Wilson Pickett penned hit “I Found a Love,” followed by “Alabama Bound.” Apparently Pickett had already left the group by the time this concert was recorded (according to the liner notes), and the lead is sung by the Falcon’s founder, Eddie Floyd (the Falcons disbanded shortly after this concert, and the name was taken over by the Fabulous Playboys).

Next up is a young Otis Redding, one of the big headliners of the night, who draws screams from the ladies in the audience over his renditions of “These Arms of Mine” and “Pain in My Heart,” his first two major hits released just months prior to the concert.

Redding is followed by Doris Troy, best known for “Just One Look” which debuted that summer, but for some reason is passed over in favor of a rousing rendition of “Say Yeah” and an up-tempo jazz version of “Misty.” The venerable Rufus Thomas performs his signature song, “Walking the Dog,” which had just charted at #5 a month prior to the concert.   The Coasters, whose popularity had peaked in the late ‘50s with their seminal early rock ‘n roll hits “Young Blood” and “Poison Ivy” (which had recently been covered by the Beatles (1962) and the Rolling Stones (1963), respectively), contribute “Speedo’s Back in Town” and “T’Ain’t Nothin’ to Me,” which would be released the following year on their last charting single.

The other big headliner of the night was Ben E. King, who kicks off his set with the lesser known “Groovin'” (from the 1962 album Ben E. King Sings for Soulful Lovers), followed by “Don’t Play that Song, ” which hit #2 on the charts the previous year.  And of course he closes with his iconic #1 hit from 1961, “Stand By Me.” The concert concludes with a rousing group performance of Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say,” which must have brought down the house, but unfortunately the recording fades out before the applause.

The original Apollo Saturday Night LP was released by Atco (a subsidiary of Atlantic)  in 1964 and didn’t garner much attention, and a previously released budget label CD is no longer available. Thanks to Collector’s Choice, this remastered edition once again allows us to witness the excitement of a Saturday night at Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Original Soul Men

Title: The Original Soul Men
Artists: Sam & Dave
Producer/Director: Joe Lauro, Historic Films
Publisher: Hip-O/Universal
Format: DVD, Dolby, DTS Surround Sound, NTSC (120 min.)
Release Date: December 9, 2008

Sam Moore was supposed to have been Sam Cooke’s replacement in the Soul Stirrers, after Cooke made his historic decision to pursue secular pop music. But then Moore saw Jackie Wilson, and everything changed. The Original Soul Men: Sam & Dave is an invaluable visual document that shows the connection between Moore and partner Dave Prater. Featuring seventeen of the duo’s fiery live performances, the DVD is also interspersed with testimonials from Stax/Volt founder Al Bell, Moore himself, bassist Duck Dunn and others, that highlight the connection of soul music to its roots in the black church.

Before we see the duo perform “Soothe Me,” Moore admits that the title was adopted from the gospel song “Save Me, Jesus, Save Me.” Bell confesses one of his marketing maneuvers for “You Don’t Know Like I Know” (which we see performed on the German Beat Beat Beat program) was to pitch it as a “holiday” song to radio DJs the day before Christmas, which worked because of its clear musical connections with the church. The DVD’s bonus features include three live performances labeled “The Roots of Sam & Dave,” which also highlight the pair’s connection to sacred music. In particular, Jackie Verdell and Brother Joe May’s duet on “You’re Gonna Need Him After a While” is, by itself, worth the price of the entire DVD.

Along with Otis Redding, Sam & Dave were Stax/Volt’s standard-bearers for soul straight from the pulpit. Soul Men even features a performance of “I Take What I Want” by the duo-in matching fire truck-red suits, no less-on Redding’s own short-lived TV show called “The Beat.” Later in the film, Moore confesses to a bit of friendly competitive rivalry between the duo and Redding, based around which act could produce the most incendiary live performance. The performance of the classic “Hold On, I’m Coming” featured in the film proves beyond any doubt that the duo was able to match Redding’s own flair for the dramatic. Taking place in front of a ravenous crowd at London’s Hammersmith Odeon in 1967, the intense, constantly zooming and cutting cinema-verité style photography of the performance directly recalls the manner in which D. A. Pennebaker’s crew captured Redding that same year, performing “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” at the Monterey Pop Festival. Moore and Prater allow the Stax/Volt band to vamp for a few minutes at the end of the performance, as they dance exuberantly and allow crowd members to touch not only the hems of their garments, but also their hands.

The film pays brief homage to the duo’s backing musicians as well, an important inclusion for those who think that the MGs were the sole soul providers of the music behind the singing. Moore recalls wanting a band that could “dance and play at the same time,” which led to the formation of what he calls a “22 piece orchestra.” That group is as much a part of this film as Sam & Dave themselves, injecting as much refined energy on risers in the background as the two men testifying up front. The film includes a performance of the band alone performing “Roadrunner,” as well as a fun bonus track of the band playing a brief version of “Secret Agent Man.”

Much of the rest of the film is evidence of the popular music atmosphere during the late 1960s and early ‘70s, when the music was proliferating wildly, and live producers were inventing new ways to present it using available technology. From Danish television, the performances of “You Got It Made” and “I Don’t Need Nobody” feature Sam & Dave singing in the center of the screen, framed on either side by two women go-go dancing in front of polished metal backdrops, creating a dated, vaguely psychedelic tableau. The video for “You Got Me Hummin'” sees the duo in impossibly bright, nearly glowing yellow suits, backed by their band in variations of yellow and blue suits on risers behind them. Finally, the filmed promotional video for “Baby Don’t Stop Now” is evidence that, in 1970, most people still didn’t know what to do with the music video medium. The clip mostly shows Sam & Dave, dressed to the nines in fur and leather, walking around what appears to be London, peering in shop windows and trying their best not to look at the camera.

According to Bell, Sam & Dave playing on the Ed Sullivan Show “was like manna from heaven.” They certainly made the most of their appearance, and their medley of “Soul Sister Brown Sugar” and “Lucky Ol’ Sun” is the highlight of the film. Sam’s vocal on the Ray Charles-penned “Sun” is his best performance here, but that’s only the start. “Sun” expands dramatically, picking up its pace and threatening to collapse from its unreleased energy, and then segues seamlessly back into “Soul Sister,” which ends the set. The music echoes cavernously throughout Sullivan’s studio, but that only gives the performance an increased sense of bigness to match the of-the-era sense of liveness.

Later, two other high-profile performances show the group’s sense of humor and ability to stretch beyond rhythm-based soul music. Burt Bacharach jokes about shooting the pair with tranquilizer darts to calm them down, and then asks them to sing his “Make it Easy on Yourself” with, as Bacharach notes, “a whole lot of strings attached.” On the Mike Douglas Show, Douglas comments that “it wears me out just watching you guys,” and then they put him on the spot, giving him a vocal solo on “Lucky Ol’ Sun.” Needless to say, this bit is more of an enjoyable historical curio than a crucial performance.

The video’s main point of historical significance is mentioned in a brief title card after the video fades out, which tells us that, “After shooting this promotional video, Sam & Dave broke up the act.” The film picks back up in 1980, when the duo had been persuaded to appear on Saturday Night Live. Their performance of “Soul Man” showed that they were still more than capable, 13 years after the song’s original release, of investing it with their uniquely passionate approach, even when their backing band breaks down mid-song into something that sounds less like soul and more like Billy Preston-style piano-driven gospel funk. It’s fitting, of course, that performances of “Soul Man” bookend the film. Watching the two chapters back-to-back on the DVD, especially with the knowledge that Prater passed away in 1988 (in the film, his widow offers a few bits of insight about the duo), is a poignant reminder that, though they were only around for a brief time, Sam & Dave’s musical and performative legacy is one that will be remembered and re-visited for years to come.

Posted by Eric Harvey

Take Me to the River: A Southern Soul Story

Title: Take Me to the River: A Southern Soul Story, 1961-1977
Artists: Various
Label: Ace/Kent
Catalog No.: Kentbox 10
Date: 2008

Take Me to the River is the best soul music box set of 2008, with a selection of 75 songs on 3 CDs, packaged with a lavishly illustrated and annotated 72 p. hardcover booklet. The goal of the compilers, Tony Rounce and Dean Rutland, was to set out in chronological order a selection of some of the best Southern soul music, noted for its “rich blend of blues and gospel, with a dash of soulful country added to the mix.”  Included are chart topping hits, such as “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge and Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” (the previously unreleased first take), interspersed with “hideously obscure 45s that often didn’t get far beyond the limits of the cities in which they were recorded.”

In terms of defining Southern soul, the compilers set strict guidelines- “recordings made below the Mason-Dixon Line and, mostly, in the studios whose names are synonymous with the sound: Broadway Sound/Quinvy, Royal, Stax, Muscle Shoals Sound, Criteria, Fame, etc.” That is, studios located in Tennessee (Nashville, Memphis), Alabama (Muscle Shoals), Florida, Louisiana (Shreveport, but NOT New Orleans), Mississippi, and Georgia. Furthermore, they limited their selections to artists who either hailed from the South, or who recorded some of their most significant work there. Using the latter criteria, they were able to slip in Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” and Etta James’s “I’d Rather Go Blind,” which were both recorded at Muscle Shoals in order to inject an “authentic” southern soul sound.

The three CDs each bear their own title. Disc One, “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” begins with William Bell’s 1961 version of that song and takes us through Oscar Toney Jr.’s “Without Love (There Is Nothing),” recorded in 1967. Other featured artists include Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Jarvis Jackson, Eddie Floyd, Charlie Rich, Toussaint McCall, June Edwards, Laura Lee, and Etta James. Disc Two, “The Rainbow Road” (as sung by Bill Brandon on track 3), begins in 1968 with Maurice & Mac’s “You Left the Water Running” and concludes with Gwen McCrae’s “You Lead Me On” (1970). Along the way are selections by Don Bryant, Shirley Walton, Ollie & the Nightingales, William Bell, Spencer Wiggins, Clarence Carter, Candi Staton, Joe Tex, Doris Duke, ZZ Hill, and Johnnie Taylor, among others. Disc Three, “The River,” sets off in 1971 with Marcell Strong’s “Mumble in My Ear” and concludes in 1976 with Geater Davis’s “I’ll Play the Blues for You.” This 1970s compilation also features Denise LaSalle, King Floyd, Al Green, Sam Dees, Ann Peebles, Bobby Womack, Millie Jackson, the Soul Children, Chet Davenport, Luther Ingram, and more.

If you already have a large soul music collection, this box set may not offer any new material. However, it is such a wonderful overview of southern soul music, thoughtfully programmed and expertly annotated, that both the novice and the soul music aficionado will reap the benefits. And, let’s face it- there just aren’t that many great compilations being produced anymore. This is a set that you’ll want to buy and hold on to for the long term.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Rufus Thomas: His R&B Recordings, 1949-1956

Title: Rufus Thomas: His R&B Recordings, 1949-1956
Artist: Rufus Thomas
Label: Bear Family
Catalog No.: BCD 16695AH
Date: 2008

Rufus Thomas is best known as the Memphis soul singer who, along with daughter Carla Thomas, helped the fledgling Stax label rise to fame in the ‘60s and ‘70s. His biggest hits-“Do the Funky Chicken” and “Walking the Dog“–not only became his signature songs, but established Thomas as a consummate entertainer. Not surprisingly, he first honed these skills as a vaudeville performer and emcee for shows down on Beale Street. Thomas also had a long career at WDIA in Memphis, the nation’s first all-Black format radio station, where he spun rhythm and blues records that caught the attention of many a white teenager, including a young Elvis Presley. Since his fellow WDIA deejay was none other than B.B. King, it should come as no surprise that Thomas decided to take a stab at recording. “I just wanted to be on record. I never thought of getting rich. I just wanted to be known, be a recording artist.”

From 1949 to 1956 Thomas recorded 28 sides for various labels, though a number were unissued and have since been lost (all extant recordings have been included in this compilation). His first sessions in Memphis were for the Star Talent label (based in Dallas) and featured several of his own songs, including the bluesy “I’m So Worried,” the somewhat derivative “I’ll Be Good Boy,” and the previously unreleased “Who’s That Chick” and “Double Trouble” (the latter in rather poor sound). These were followed by two sides for Bullet-the rockin’ party song “Beer Bottle Boogie” and another of Thomas’ own compositions, “Gonna Bring My Baby Back,” a swinging jazz number backed by members of Lionel Hampton’s band let by saxophonist Bobby Platter.

The following year Thomas stopped in at Memphis Recording Service–soon to be renamed Sun Studios–and convinced Sam Phillips to record several songs which were released on the Chess label, including “Night Workin’ Blues,” his own cryin’ blues tune “Why Did You Deegee,” the uptempo boogie woogie “Crazy About You Baby” featuring Billy Love on piano, and “No More Dogging Around.” Additional sessions followed in 1952 producing the notable song “Decorate the Counter”–this had originally been recorded by Rosco Gordon, but only Thomas’ version was released by Chess (both versions are included on the CD for comparison). Two additional songs were recorded at the same session but were never released: “Married Woman” included here with two alternate takes; and “I’m Off Of That Stuff” which is a bit stiff, not to mention somewhat truncated.

Thomas’ big break came in 1953 when he recorded “Bear Cat” for the new Sun label. An answer song to Big Mama Thornton’s bluesy “Hound Dog” that had topped the charts a few weeks earlier (also included on the CD), “Bear Cat” was a huge hit, signaling the shift towards rock ‘n’ roll and no doubt making an impression on Elvis Presley, whose cover of “Hound Dog” catapulted both him and Sun Records to fame three years later. Thomas cut several more sides for Sun, including “Tiger Man (King of the Jungle)” complete with Tarzan yells, and the straight-ahead blues song “Save That Money.” His early recording career concluded at Meteor, a short-lived Memphis label, which released “The Easy Living Plan” and “I’m Steady Holdin’ On,” both penned by Rufus Thomas and Joe Bihar.

Rufus Thomas: His R&B Recordings, 1949-1956 is a great tribute to this legendary artist who passed away in 2001. Interestingly, two other compilations including much of the same material have also been released in 2008 by Document Records and Important Artists. However, the Bear Family set is far superior in terms of remastering and production. The wonderfully illustrated 67 page booklet (bound into the package) features a complete 1950s discography and an overview of Thomas’ pre-Stax career by Martin Hawkins, including lengthy discussions about the role of WDIA and Black radio.

The other thing that really sets this CD apart are the bonus features and alternate takes previously mentioned, as well as airchecks from Thomas’s WDAI radio show and a ten minute interview from the Daddy Cool Show. With a total of 29 tracks, this is indeed the definitive compilation of Thomas’s early recordings. Anyone interested in Memphis soul, the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, and the story of Black radio will want to purchase this set–it would also be perfect for classroom use. Rufus Thomas: His R&B Recordings, 1949-1956 is absolutely the best single CD historical reissue that I’ve come across in 2008.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Soulsville Sings Hitsville

Title: Soulsville Sings Hitsville: Stax Sings Songs of Motown Records
Artists: Various
Label: Stax/Concord
Catalog No.: STXCD-30391
Date: 2008

In his book, Soulsville, U.S.A. – The Story of Stax Record (1997), popular music historian Rob Bowman documents the story of Memphis-based Stax Records. Bowman describes the story of Stax as “about as improbable and unforeseeable as any tale could possibly be.” Originally founded as Satellite Records in 1957 by white country fiddler Jim Stewart, Stax from its conception was racially integrated in all facets of its operations. Stax was also instrumental in establishing Southern soul and the south Memphis sound. The signature sound and style are attributed to its house band, which consisted of Booker T. & the MGs, Isaac Hayes, and the horn section from the Mar-Keys. Additionally, the Stax sound was also derived from the physical characteristics of its recording studio. Essentially a converted movie theatre, the studio had a slanted floor with sound proofing affixed to the interior walls and sound equipment installed on the stage.

Soulsville Sings Hitsville: Stax Sings Songs of Motown Records in essence brings the “city” cousin home to the south, and reintroduces him to long lost country roots. Containing 15 tracks, this compilation provides the Southern soul singer’s interpretation of northern soul songs from the Motown catalog.

“Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” was first recorded by The Four Tops in (1966) and by Diana Ross in (1971). The Mar-Keys’ instrumental version gives this classic Motown tune a rockin’ edge by implementing a couple of rock riffs along with other guitar effects, and places the solo line with the tenor saxophone. Although the song has been altered from its original form, you are still able to recognize the distinguishable Motown flavor which is illustrated through the accents of the tambourine.

Originally recorded by Stevie Wonder in 1970, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” has been revived and given a new walk, so to speak, by The Soul Children. With its heavy blues and gospel influences, you find it hard to resist the urge to snap your fingers as you leave the church revival to pay your dues at the local juke joint.

Other notable tracks include: “You’ve Got to Earn It” by the Staple Singers; “Stop! In the Name of Love” by Margie Joseph; “I Don’t Know Why I Love You” by David Porter; “Can I Get a Witness” by Calvin Scott; and “Chained” by Mavis Staples.

Posted by Terence La Nier II

Stax Does the Beatles

Title: Stax Does the Beatles
Artists: Various
Label: Stax/Concord
Catalog No.: STXCD-30390
Date: 2008

Stax Does the Beatles is something of a companion CD to Stax Does Motown, which was released at the same time (and is also reviewed in this issue). The compilation aptly illustrates how the musical genres of rock and soul have drawn inspiration from one another, while at the same time bridging the racial divide that existed in music up until that time. British groups such as the Rolling Stones were heavily influenced by the blues, especially the electronic Chicago blues of Muddy Waters, but also did cover versions of Southern soul hits, such as Wilson Pickett’s “If You Need Me.” It was only a matter of time before inspiration began to flow in the opposite direction. By the late 1960s, Motown and Stax artists were covering a variety of songs made popular during the British Invasion, one of the most notable being Otis Redding’s version of Mick Jagger’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (check out his incredible live performance on the recent DVD release Stax/Volt Revue Live in Norway).

This new compilation includes a small sampling of “soulful covers” of some of the Beatles’ hit songs that were reworked in the Stax studios. The tracks include an assortment of vocal and instrumental performances. Booker T. & The MGs, the Stax house band led by keyboardist Booker T. Jones, perform “Got To Get You Into My Life” (previously unreleased), “Eleanor Rigby” (released on Soul Limbo in 1968), “Michelle” and “Lady Madonna” (the latter two originally released on the 1969 album The Booker T. Set). Steve Cropper, the MGs famed guitarist, also contributes an instrumental version of “With a Little Help From My Friends.” Another Stax house band, the Mar-Keys, perform their 1971 cover of “Let It Be,” while the Bar-Kays are featured on “Yesterday” and “Hey Jude” (these tracks appear to have been recorded after the 1967 plane crash that claimed the lives of Otis Redding and most of the original members of the Bar-Kays).

All of the above adds up to a CD that is largely instrumental (9 of the 15 tracks), which though enjoyable, was something of a disappointment. In terms of vocal covers, the highlight of the CD is without a doubt the opening track, “Daytripper,” a previously unreleased studio version performed by the late, great Otis Redding. David Porter and Isaac Hayes, who teamed up to write many hit songs for Stax, both went on to record for the label. Featured here is Porter’s thoroughly enjoyable hard-driving cover of “Help” with backing provided by a Motown-style female trio, as well as Hayes’ somewhat meandering arrangement of “Something.” Carla Thomas, another of Stax’s major stars, performs a previously unreleased version of “Yesterday,” recorded live at the Bohemian Cavern (this is NOT included on the 2007 jazz-oriented CD Carla Thomas: Live at the Bohemian Caverns from the same 1967 performance). A pleasant surprise was provided by two of the lesser known artists in the Stax stable. Reggie Millner’s interpretation of “And I Love Her,” which has never appeared on CD, is punctuated by frequent falsetto bursts in the style later made famous by Michael Jackson. In John Gary Williams’ funky cover of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” from 1972, he inserts “a devotional spoken monologue” mid-song, in a similar manner to the opening of Diana Ross’s 1970 cover of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

Noticeably missing from the CD are Otis Redding’s version of “A Hard Day’s Night,” first released in 1982 on Recorded Live: Previously Unreleased Performances (revised, expanded, and reissued by Stax in 2002 as Good To Me: Live at the Whisky A Go Go, Vol. 2 ), and the fabulous version of “Hey Jude” recorded by Wilson Pickett with guitar accompaniment provided by Duane Allman. OK, I know the latter was issued by Atlantic and not Stax, but it certainly must be considered in any discussion of Southern soul covers of the Beatles songbook.

According to the liner notes by noted rock historian Richie Unterberger, Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein explored the possibility of recording what would become the Revolver album at the Stax studios in Memphis, and actually visited the studio in 1966 before scrapping the plan due to security issues. The Beatles and various Stax artists would finally meet for the first time in London in March of 1967, during the Stax/Volt Revue’s European tour. But aside from Steve Cropper’s later collaborations with John Lennon and Ringo Starr, the official alliance between the Beatles and Stax studios never happened. Too bad.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Art of Love and War

angie.jpgTitle: The Art of Love and War
Artist: Angie Stone
Label: Stax
Catalog No.: 30146
Date: 2007

In every genre of music there are those artists who never really break through to super stardom, but their consistent presence and artistry makes them a reliable source of good music. Angie Stone is one of those artists. I remember first hearing her sultry, yet definitely church-trained voice as a part of the group Vertical Hold. Although the group was short-lived, their moderate hit “Seems to Much to Busy” introduced R&B fans to Angie’s distinctive and skillful vocal style.

Throughout her career Angie has continued to find success with her solo work as well as through collaboratiions with artists like D’Angelo, Rapahel Saadiq, Lenny Kravitz, Omar, and Joss Stone. If you go back and listen to D’Angelo’s two albums, Brown Sugar and Voodoo, you can hear Angie-esque intricate vocal arrangements throughout both projects. Seemingly always available to work with others, the quality of her music has rarely suffered. She has steadily created music that is reminiscent of an R&B era where the vocals and lyrics were the central appeal of the songs.

Her latest release The Art of Love & War is a collection of fourteen songs that deal with the convoluted emotions that often accompany love and relationships. But generally, Angie sounds pretty upbeat about love and her tone on most of the tracks reflects that type of positivity. Yet some versatility is displayed on the album. Ballads like “Sit Down” and “Pop Pop” show a tender and introspective side of Angie Stone while the song”Baby,” featuring the legendary Betty Wright, is a sassy retrospective of an ended love affair. The album even has a racially uplifting duet, “My People,” featuring James Ingram.

Here’s the “Baby” video featuring Angie Stone & Betty Wright (Courtesy of Stax)

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The thing about an Angie Stone is that if you’ve listened to her before, you’ll always know what you’re getting. That type of consistency is both good and bad because I, as a listener, am rarely disappointed but also rarely surprised. But after listening to The Art of Love and War, I do come away with a seamless listening experience, and the really great vocal and instrumental arrangements remind me of why I own every Angie Stone record. In the end, Angie Stone fans will really like The Art of Love and War, and those who have never checked her out before will hear what they’ve been missing.

Posted by fredara mareva