Stax Compilations
The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles, Volume 2: 1968-1971

Where other collections curate a selection of hits, The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles, Volume 2: 1968–1971 caters to the needs of completists, presenting the entire Stax/Volt singles output from a pivotal period in the label’s history. This comprehensive compilation, released by Craft Recordings, picks up where its spiritual predecessor, The Complete Stax-Volt Singles 1959–1968, a 1991 Atlantic Records release, left off. The shift in present-day record companies is emblematic in telling the story of the Stax Record Company, which experienced a defining shift in its business dealings as the 1960s wound down to a close.

Beginning in 1968, Stax Records underwent a radical transformation in response to the termination of its distribution agreement. Faced with adversity, the label’s leadership embarked on a concerted effort to revamp its productions, launching what would become known as “The Soul Explosion.” This marketing blitz saw the rapid release of nearly 30 LPs, aimed at reigniting interest in the Stax brand and its roster of star talents. In the face of challenges, Stax Records demonstrated remarkable ingenuity, fighting to secure its place in the establishment of the burgeoning genre of soul music.

Throughout The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles, Volume 2: 1968–1971, a 9-disc CD boxed set, listeners will encounter the creative resilience of a record company determined to thrive amidst adversity. Rooted in its Southern heritage and fueled by the competitive spirit of its in-house collective, Stax Records delivers a collection that reflects the dynamic evolution of soul music during this transformative period.

From the beginning of Disc 1 and throughout the compilation, Volume 2 serves as a reacquaintance with Stax’s early roster of stars, capturing their late-’60s and early-’70s essence, as they prepared to evolve into the sound and production style that would define the later-period Stax. These artists, previously associated with the Atlantic Records iteration of Stax Records, are reintroduced here, setting the stage for the label’s transformation. Among them are Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, William Bell, Eddie Floyd, and The Mad-Lads.

Among the key players vital to Stax’s early period who make an impression early in this collection are Booker T. & The MG’s whose “Soul Limbo” (Disc 1, Track 4) released in May 1968, marked a departure from their usual style with its incorporation of reggae and calypso elements. The track, selected as one of Stax’s flagship singles for its relaunch, achieved commercial success, reaching No.7 on the R&B chart and No.17 on the Pop chart. Today, the single enjoys enduring popularity and near ubiquity in the UK. There, the song is known for serving as the theme for BBC’s cricket coverage.

New to the label in 1968, the Chicago-based group The Staple Singers made a resounding impact throughout the numerous discs of this boxed set. Their gospel-tinged soul contributions defined a tradition of “message music” that made Stax famous for its distinct lyricism and keen awareness of the times. Here, they offer a healthy sampling of such singles, including standout tracks like “Long Walk to D.C.” (D1, T12), “The Ghetto” (D2, T1), and their own rendition of “(Sittin’ on The) Dock of the Bay” (D2, T15). From the socially conscious anthem “The Challenge” (D3, T6) to the soul-stirring “Give a Damn” (D5, T8), The Staple Singers’ versatility shines through. Before the box set comes to its conclusion, the family band turns up with the iconic “Respect Yourself” (D9, T2), a timeless anthem of empowerment and arguably their signature offering.

Though not exactly concerned with a conveyor belt of singles leading to little in the way of success in the long-playing album sector, Stax was no stranger to the occasional one-hit-wonder. This collection features prime examples of such phenomena, including Linda Lyndell’s blue-eyed soul hit “What a Man” and Jean Knight’s bouncy “Mr. Big Stuff.” Lyndell’s track, found on the first disc (T7), soared to success, topping the R&B chart and making significant waves on the Pop chart. Similarly, Knight’s catchy release, featured on the seventh disc (T14), quickly climbed the charts, securing the No.1 spot on the R&B chart and peaking at an impressive No.2 on the Pop chart.

After Otis Redding’s tragic death in 1967, Stax Records sought a new leading male soul vocalist. Unexpectedly, Isaac Hayes, originally known as a songwriter, stepped into this role, shaping the label’s direction in the 1970s. While his debut album, Presenting Isaac Hayes, didn’t yield hits, his subsequent release, Hot Buttered Soul, surpassed expectations, becoming a cornerstone of the “Soul Explosion” era. Tracks like “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (D3, T20) and “Walk on By” (D3, T21) showcased Hayes’ early experimentation with lush interpretations of popular songs, transforming them into dramatic musical narratives. This compilation also includes “The Look of Love” (D7, T10) and “Never Can Say Goodbye” (D7, T21), further illustrating Hayes’ talent for infusing familiar melodies with his unique style and emotional depth, offering glimpses into Hayes’ evolving artistry and setting the stage for his later iconic works.

Elsewhere on the label, another act forced to revamp following the very same plane crash that claimed the life of Otis Redding was The Bar-Kays. As the soul music community grappled with the devastating loss of Redding and most of The Bar-Kays’ original lineup, Stax Records found itself amidst a period of profound transition. The Bar-Kays, formerly known for their largely instrumental soul stylings reminiscent of groups like Booker T. & The MG’s and The Mar-Kays, shifted gears to become a more funk-focused outfit, developing a sound unlike any other act on the Stax roster. These songs exemplify their early breakout success as they embraced funk, infusing it with their trademark energy and innovation. Notably, the inclusion of vocalist Larry Dodson, formerly of the vocal group The Temprees, added a new dimension to their sound, further distinguishing them from their peers. With Dodson’s soulful vocals complementing their infectious grooves, The Bar-Kays solidified their place as trailblazers in the evolving landscape of soul and funk music. Among the tracks included on this compilation are “Copy Kat” (D1, T24), “Don’t Stop Dancing (To the Music) (Part 1)” (D2, T17), “Montego Bay” (D6, T11), “Sang and Dance” (D4, T21), and “Midnight Cowboy” (D3, T16), each showcasing The Bar-Kays’ musical evolution and their enduring impact on the genre.

Stax Records expanded its musical palette by welcoming soul veterans from different regions. Darrell Banks from Ohio, Barbara Lewis from Michigan, and Major Lance from Chicago each brought their unique styles to the label. Banks’ “Just Because Your Love Is Gone” (D3, T3) pleads with raw emotion, while Lewis’ soothing rendition of “Ask the Lonely” (D7, T6) captivates with smooth vocals and poignant storytelling. Lance’s “Girl, Come on Home” (D9, T9) energizes listeners with its upbeat rhythm, reflecting his dynamic stage presence.

In essence, The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles, Volume 2: 1968–1971 encapsulates the spirit of innovation, resilience, and creative excellence that defined Stax Records during a transformative period in its history. Through its comprehensive curation of soul music gems, this collection not only preserves the legacy of Stax but also celebrates the enduring influence of soul veterans who shaped the genre. From the iconic hits of well-known artists to the lesser-known tracks from acts like Eric Mercury, Delaney & Bonnie, and Ernie Hines, every song in this compilation contributes to the larger narrative of soul music’s evolution. This collection offers curious listeners an opportunity to explore the breadth and depth of Stax’s output during a transitional era for the label, setting the stage for its dominance in the 1970s and beyond. As listeners delve into the diverse sounds and stories within these nine discs, they gain a deeper appreciation for Stax Records’ enduring impact on the landscape of popular music.

by Jared Boyd