The Innovators: Stax Artist Spotlights
Released in 2010, compilation Stax Number Ones offers a focused snapshot at the hit-making caliber of the iconic soul music label. Often referred to as the Southern U.S. answer to the supremacy of Detroit, Michigan’s Motown Records dynasty, Stax Records’ heyday as a force at the top of the charts spans two decades and a diverse array of sounds. Unbeholden to the “assembly line” approach to production made famous by Berry Gordy and the Midwestern powerhouse that created international stars out of The Temptations, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and Smokie Robinson & The Miracles, Stax’s warm embrace of bluesier roots grew branches in several directions and bore fruit on radio, in jukeboxes, and on record shelves the world over.
The collection begins much like Stax’s global recognition did, with Booker T. & The MG’s’ 1962 debut Green Onions. The instrumental track, born from an unlikely outtake workshopped between session musicians during the downtime in the studio, is known as a ubiquitous earworm, played at sporting events, in commercials, and film. Upon its original release, though, the track took a roundabout path to the top of the Billboard R&B chart, having been issued on Volt Records, Stax, and eventually Atlantic. It spent four weeks in the position, while subsequently hovering near the top of several other charts, including the Billboard Hot 100. Miraculously, it’d only ever crack the Top 10 on the UK Singles Chart in 1979, following the song’s appearance in the film Quadrophenia, bolstering a wave of national interest in the music of the prior decade.
Also accounting for much of Stax’s high-profile output of the 1960s are entries on Stax Number Ones from earth-shaking soul icon Otis Redding (“Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”), solo star Eddie Floyd (“Knock on Wood”) and the efforts of dynamic duo Sam & Dave, whose “Hold On! I’m Comin’” and “Soul Man” rank among the most recognizable tunes in the Stax catalog. And, though it may not have survived the times as a golden oldie still heard commonly among all ages of music lovers, Johnnie Taylor’s cheeky “Who’s Making Love” takes its rightful place in this soul survey as the debonair vocalist’s defining chart success. Following its release in 1968, the song, notable for its risqué subject matter for the time period, pushed the boundaries of lyrical decorum all the way to a three-week stand in the No.1 spot of the Billboard R&B Chart and scaled its way to No.5 on the Hot 100. As evidenced further down in the Stax Number Ones’ tracklist, Taylor kept the momentum rolling, repeating his turn as a chart darling with the driving beat of “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone,” an equally salacious relationship saga set to song, in 1970.
Although the label faced a brief phase of uncertainty as the 1960s came to a close, severing ties from former distributor Atlantic Records and in turn losing the entirety of their hit-making catalog to that point, Stax re-emerged with a new direction as the ’70s began. To that end, an expansion of new talents and the promotion of longtime in-house contributors both yielded encouraging returns. On the dancefloor, veteran entertainer Rufus Thomas, whose association with Stax dates back to the days just after the studio opened in a defunct neighborhood theater, earned his long-awaited romp at No.1 on the R&B chart with a song befitting of his signature playful, call-and-response, this time in the form of “(Do The) Push and Pull (Part 1).” Conversely, another No.1 released on the label that was destined for dance clubs emerged from tenuous origins, lifted from a session discarded by Jackson, Mississippi’s Malaco Records by a New Orleans-bred singer on the verge of giving up her dreams in the music industry. Instead, she’d been working as a cook on campus at Loyola University. Almost a year removed from recording the song in collaboration with producer Wardell Quezergue, Jean Knight’s patience would pay off when “Mr. Big Stuff” impacted on radio in 1971. However, almost as quickly as the song shot to the top of the R&B chart, Knight’s overnight success simmered, despite a Grammy® nomination for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.
Once heralded as a key co-writer of a slew of hits during Stax’s 1960s streak of world-beating records, Isaac Hayes retooled his repertoire and took on the music industry as an artist, pushing his way to the top of Stax’s pecking order in the absence of the late Otis Redding. Already established by his album-oriented breakout sophomore LP Hot Buttered Soul and its follow-ups The Isaac Hayes Movement and …To Be Continued, Hayes garnered a litany of accolades upon the release of the unprecedented soul music film soundtrack, Shaft. Its lead single, “Theme From Shaft,” represented Hayes’ greatest single success, not only dominating radio and nightclubs but miraculously earning him an Academy Award® for Best Original Song.
Further emblematic of the enterprising spirit of the rejuvenated Stax Records, the compilation turns to Chicago’s The Staple Singers and their sibling singles “I’ll Take You There” and its spiritual successor, “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me),” both songs wearing an inspirational tone that nods to the ensemble’s past as a gospel outfit. And before the collection’s close, Detroit soul men The Dramatics appear with “In the Rain,” representing the might of the Memphis company’s abilities, as they’d skillfully crossed over into Motown’s turf. Unfortunately, Stax’s days in the hunt for dominance among soul labels would come to an end with 1974’s “Woman to Woman,” with the label closing its doors months later.
Along with its original release on CD and vinyl in 2010, the 15-track Stax Number Ones saw subsequent reissues in the United States, in both red/gold and red/white vinyl iterations in 2015 and 2020, respectively. In Europe, the collection was released in 2020 in a translucent red vinyl limited edition.
by Jared Boyd