By now, the history of Stax Records has become more than just a story. The history of this haven for southern soul musicsteeped in gospel and the blues, blues tempered with rhythm or served straight up bluehas grown into something closer to legend, a legend that the recent series of ten Stax Profiles
, compilations from seminal Stax blues and soul artists, will only serve to advance.
The history of Stax Records and its Volt subsidiary, from its inception in 1961 until it ceased operations in the mid-1970s, reads like a Who's Who of American Soul Music. Albert King, Otis Redding, and Booker T & The MGswhose fluid yet funky ensemble sound seamlessly integrated black and white music, jazz, gospel, rhythm and the bluesespecially embodied the label's prowess, and did most of their best work for the label. If it was on Stax, it was generally hot, funky and good.
The tragic 1967 plane crash in which Redding and four members of the Bar-Kays, on tour as his backup band, perished also marked the end of the first era of Stax Records, a time dominated by most of the artists celebrated on these first Stax Profiles.
The label continued for nearly another decade and launched a second wave of stars, including the Dramatics and Isaac Hayes, who wrote or co-wrote (mainly with David Porter) many Stax hits, including "Soul Man and "Hold On, I'm Coming. In 1971, Hayes' Stax soundtrack to the film Shaft was the first album by an African-American artist to top both the US R&B and pop charts and garnered Hayes the first Oscar for Best Musical Score by an African-American composer. It also won a Golden Globe Award, the NAACP Image Award, and three Grammy Awards.
Rance Allen sang gospel music like he thought it was rock and roll. This guitarist, pianist, composer and vocalist recorded heavenly music for Stax from 1971-75, most often in harmony with brothers Tom (drums) and Steve (bass).
Through every style of material, Allen testified with the full power of fervent religious conviction. A live performance of perhaps his most popular tune, "Lying On The Truth tears open this compilation with raw, fuzz-toned lead electric guitar that screams from hurt, recorded at the historic 1972 Wattstax benefit concert at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
"Joy and "Let The Music Get Down In Your Soul move more up-tempo, positively bubbling up through their contemporary R&B sounds. Allen's voice soars on angel's wings through the upper reaches of "Ain't No Need Of Crying, written by David Porter; Allen's voice, in tandem flight with the song's light, supple melody, suggests the sparkling R&B vocals of Philip Bailey for Earth Wind & Fire.
Lord knows that Allen knew his old-time, "come to Jesus religious music too, and his spirit illuminates Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "Up Above My Head and the traditional gospel testifying of Rev. James Cleveland's "That Will Be Good Enough For Me. In addition, "What Is This? burns with the twin flames of the blues and gospel, and one of Allen's most sparkling, soulful and jazzy, piano solos, like Ray Charles.
(Compiled by Deanie Parker, former singer, songwriter and publicity director for the Stax label, and President of the Soulsville Foundation for the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis.)
Booker T & The MGs
To many music fans (yours truly among them), the nimble and funky Hammond B-3 organ sound of Booker T & the MGs is the sound of Stax Records, as various combinations of Booker T. Jones (keyboards), Steve Cropper (guitar), Al Jackson, Jr. (drums) and Lewie Steinberg or Donald "Duck Dunn (bass) served as house band on many Stax recordings.
Compiler Elvis Costello doesn't miss a hit from the twist and shout of the opening "Time Is Tight, and tosses in live versions, Beatles covers ("Lady Madonna and "Something ), and rarely heard gems such as the closing, churning tempest "Fuquawi.
The hits include "Hip Hug-Her, perhaps the ultimate sound painting of the suggestive, symphonic symmetry of a shapely woman sauntering past in form-fitting blue jeans; live versions of "Boot-Leg, where Cropper shreds hot shards of melody and rhythm from his guitar, and then ravenously chews up his "Green Onions ; and "Chinese Checkers, where the Mar-Keys horns expand the MGs tight ensemble sound and Jones contributes both the horn chart and trombone.
As for the leader, Jones' electric piano solo in "Jellybread spreads some mighty sweet and tasty jam. In "Over Easy, his acoustic piano glides into cool, Ramsey Lewis-sounding jazz, and his gospel piano, in counterpoint with Cropper's sharp blues guitar, lays down the perfect testimony in his "Sunday Sermon.
Costello's liner notes are the most extensively and lovingly rendered in the series.
(Compiled by Elvis Costello, whose album Get Happy! was a tribute, particularly in its organ sound, to classic R&B and soul.)
If Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett flashed across the soul music scene like incendiary lightning, Eddie Floyd was vocal rolling thunder. Before they went their respective ways, Floyd sang alongside Pickett (in the Falcons) and the two remained close enough that Floyd co-wrote with Cropper Pickett's hit record "634 - 5789. (Small wonder that Floyd saunters through his own version on Profiles like he owns it.)
Floyd received the full spectrum of Stax accompaniment and recorded most of Profiles with Booker T & The MGs or the Con Funk Shun Rhythm as backup, plus the Mar-Key Horns and Hot Buttered Soul (Hayes' usual backing troupe) on backup vocals. He also wrote hits for himself, such as his classic bump and grinder "Knock On Wood (co-written with Cropper) and "Big Bird (co-written with Jones), which features Hayes on tumbling dice piano and his own big, warm powerfully soaring voice.
A flat-out howlin' blues, "When The Sun Goes Down proves a genuine revelation: Floyd's voice resounds hot and blue enough to carry the verses without any instrumental accompaniment. When the band enters to jackhammer the blues down hard and tight, Floyd wails four consecutive times over, "I just want to be loved! It's a magical blues moment, primal expression of a basic human element, that many listeners might not have heard before.
Floyd's mojo was a bit more musically derivative than Redding's primal fury: "Raise Your Hand echoes the bass of "Midnight Hour ; "Love Is You sounds more than a little inspired by George Harrison's "Something ; and the sweetly layered vocal harmony to "I've Never Found A Girl (To Love Me Like You Do ) is a rare Stax acknowledgement of the other American record company dominating 1960s soul music, Motown.
(Compiled by Dan Aykroyd, aka "Elwood Blues" from The Blues Brothers franchise.)
Brandishing a big voice and an even bigger-sounding guitar, Albert King walked among blues royalty and could lay down a hurtin' that truly embodied the blues.
Slow rolling and powerful, like a blackout at midnight, "Angel Of Mercy and "The Sky Is Crying conjure mystically dark blues. So does King's own "Don't Throw Your Love on Me So Strong, his first single to chart, here a live version shotgun blasted from King's acclaimed series of 1968 performances at the Fillmore Auditorium, hot and dangerous.
But King could pull a sunny smile out from underneath his blues. Just try to get through the rollicking "She Caught The Katy And Left Me A Mule To Ride without cracking a grin.
Compiler Bill Belmont bookends King's Profile with two of his most famous and powerful bluesa previously unreleased live version of "Born Under A Bad Sign where King swaps meteoric riffs with one of his most famous devotees, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and the full-length version of the title track to King's ultimate studio work, I'll Play the Blues For You, in collaboration with the Bar-Kays, the Movement, and the Memphis Horns.
(Compiled by Bill Belmont, producer and executive for Fantasy Records, who notes that King "...was a great influence on Sixties and Seventies players, most notably Michael Bloomfield, Eric Clapton and of course Stevie Ray. )
Few if any artists could make the blues sound so soulfulor, if you prefer, could make soul sound so deep-down blueas songwriter, guitarist, vocalist and producer Little Milton Campbell, who recorded for the venerable labels Sun Records, Chess Records, and, for the first half of the 1970s, Stax Records.
Milton proved as durably soulful and bluesy a guitarist and vocalist as you'd expect from a musician who claimed his two primary influences were guitarist B.B. King and vocalist Bobby "Blue Bland. This set honors Bland with a slow-rolling "Blind Man, heavy with the emotional weight of the blues, and B.B. with King's trademark "The Thrill Is Gone. It would normally seem unwise to select a song so closely associated with the person it sets out to honor, but Milton's guitar and vocal prove full worthy, their combined sound completely saturated in wanting and then wrung out until it leaves the listener limp.
Milton's slow in-concert boils of "Let Me Down Easy and Willie Dixon's "I Can't Quit You Baby are deeply pained blues. So is this original single version of his classic "Walkin' The Back Streets And Crying, a blues, but with the crescendos and other emotional dynamics of soul music like "It's A Man's Man's Man's World (and a blues where, as sharp as Milton's guitar stings, his vocal is probably even better). He also expertly draws out "Blue Monday long and slow, like trying to stretch out putting your feet to the cold floor for the first day of the workweek until the last possible moment, with the Memphis Horns swaying sleepy counterpoint.
(Compiled by Lee Hildebrandt, blues journalist and historian who wrote notes for Little Milton albums on Stax, including Grits Ain't Groceries.)
Stax Profiles, Part 2: Otis Redding, The Staples Singers, Johnnie Taylor, Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas