The Innovators: Stax Artist Spotlights
In September 2017, Craft Recordings released Soulsville U.S.A.: A Celebration of Stax, a sonic treasure trove dedicated to the heyday of Stax Records. A 60-track ode to the legendary Stax Records, this compilation spans the early ’60s to the mid-’70s, encapsulating the essence of the “Memphis Sound.” Featuring luminaries like Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers, Booker T. & The M.G.’s, William Bell, Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave, and The Dramatics, among others, it pays homage to the iconic label’s biggest hits. This collaboration between Rhino Records and Concord Bicycle Music serves as an updated version of the bestselling 2007 release, Stax 50: A 50th Anniversary Celebration, bringing fresh insights with new liner notes by journalist Jeff Slate.
A perfect entry point for enthusiasts reminiscing about Stax’s classic era, Soulsville U.S.A. also stands as an excellent introduction for those new to the historical content. The compilation weaves together numerous hits associated with the Stax Records brand and showcases a gallery of lesser-known singles, painting a more detailed picture of the Stax story. While some artists on the compilation may not be immediately recognizable, the musical conventions established by the recordings within the collection collectively shaped global music. These influences, spanning soul and inadvertently rock ‘n’ roll, continue to resonate across decades and serve as a foundational inspiration for music lovers today.
In the late 1950s, Jim Stewart, inspired by the recording trend led by figures like Sam Phillips in Memphis, founded Satellite Records. With support from his sister Estelle Axton, Stax emerged (a portmanteau of both founders’ last names), marking the beginning of a transformative journey in soul music. This compilation commences with The Veltones’ “Fool in Love,” an early R&B gem echoing doo-wop nuances on the Satellite label, predating Stax’s official inception. As it transitions into the era of Stax proper, following the label’s move from a primitive studio in Brunswick, Tennessee, to its iconic home at 926 East McLemore Avenue, carved into the annals of a defunct neighborhood theater, artists such as Carla Thomas unfold the genuine essence of Stax. Her angelic voice shines in “Gee Whiz,” setting the stage for the label’s multifaceted offerings. The Mar-Keys exhibit instrumental finesse in the infectious “Last Night,” foreshadowing their role as the label’s house band. Booker T. & The M.G.’s, who would later form around their ubiquitous hit “Green Onions,” follow, showcasing the label’s instrumental prowess. Soulful balladeer William Bell makes his mark with his reflective and emotive “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” while the ever-infectious Rufus Thomas injects upbeat energy with “Walking the Dog,” underscoring Stax’s early commitment to diversity in their musical offerings.
In the heart of the first disc, Wendy Rene and Otis Redding stand as contrasting figures, embodying two distinct facets of stardom within Stax’s narrative. Otis Redding, a towering presence in the music industry, reached unparalleled acclaim, leaving an indelible mark on iconic acts like The Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Janis Joplin. His soul-stirring rendition of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)” on this compilation serves as a poignant testament to his enduring artistry. On the flip side, Wendy Rene, a relatively obscure figure in her time, posthumously gained recognition through hip-hop sampling, with Wu-Tang Clan reshaping her track “After Laughter (Comes Tears),” in 1994. Together, their voices illuminate two disparate realms of soul supremacy and present distinct narratives of tragic legacies, as both artists never fully witnessed the acclaim they deserved.
As the first disc concludes and the second disc unfolds, the compilation marks the pinnacle of Stax’s collaboration with Atlantic Records, its early distributor. Highlighting this prosperous era are timeless hits like Sam & Dave’s “Hold On! I’m Comin'” and “Soul Man,” co-authored by David Porter and Isaac Hayes, alongside Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood,” Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness,” and Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y.” However, this period of success was met with a double blow to the label’s rising profile. The first came with the tragic passing of Otis Redding in late 1967, a profound loss felt across the music industry. Subsequently, Stax faced a rift with Atlantic Records, as the distributor had been sold to Warner Bros, in 1967. The changing landscape led to a shift in leadership and direction for Stax as it confronted the challenges of a new decade.
Stax Records’ launch into the 1970s was punctuated by an ambitious expansion into other soul markets, signing acts such as Chicago’s The Staple Singers. Led by Pops Staples, the group famously featured lead vocals by Mavis Staples, known for her downhome gospel-tinged vocal stylings. Their inclusion in the compilation highlights their penchant for socially conscious anthems like “The Weight” and “Respect Yourself.” Hailing from Detroit, The Dramatics were all but completely overlooked in the crowded landscape of the Motor City soul music scene. Signing with Stax under the direction of producer Don Davis, the group turned in hits such as “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get,” “In the Rain,” and “Hey You! Get off My Mountain.”
Still concerned with the successes of their homegrown talent, however, Stax’s rejuvenated dominance in the 1970s is largely connected to the emergence of former staff songwriter Isaac Hayes as a solo artist. At the pinnacle of his hitmaking status is “Theme From Shaft,” found here on the compilation alongside “Do Your Thing,” which also appeared on the Shaft motion picture soundtrack and The Bar-Kays’ answer song “Son of Shaft.”
Stax’s revitalization in the 1970s was marked by the continued success of long-time solo performer Johnnie Taylor, renowned as the “Philosopher of Soul.” Taylor, with his distinct low-tenor voice, transitioned through various genres, including gospel, blues, and soul. His breakthrough hit “Who’s Making Love” in 1968 solidified his status as a soul superstar. Featured on the compilation are Taylor’s signature hit along with other notable tracks such as “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone,” “Cheaper to Keep Her,” and a duet with Carla Thomas titled “Just Keep on Loving Me.”
The compilation concludes by highlighting significant Memphis-based acts from Stax’s later period, showcasing The Temprees and The Soul Children. However, it’s noteworthy that the collection also features several one-hit wonders whose singles played a crucial role in maintaining Stax’s presence on radio and dancefloors. Among these hits are blue-eyed soul singer Linda Lyndell’s “What a Man,” Jean Knight’s bouncy proto-disco dance track “Mr. Big Stuff,” and Shirley Brown’s syrupy-slow soul operetta “Woman to Woman,” which holds particular significance as Stax’s final true hit record before the label’s closure in 1975. These one-hit wonders, while brief in their chart impact, contributed to Stax’s continued cultural influence during its later years. At its conclusion, Soulsville U.S.A.: A Celebration of Stax serves as a condensed yet vibrant testament to Stax’s lasting impact on American music, offering a snapshot of the label’s rich legacy.
by Jared Boyd