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