Memphis Soul Stew – New Box Set Unearths a Staggering 146 Tracks of Classic-era R&B

Various Artists – Written in Their Soul: The Stax Songwriter Demos (Stax/Craft Recordings)

Almost 20 years in the making, an absolute goldmine for classic soul fans

Written in Their Soul is a 7-CD box set that pulls together songwriting demos from Stax Records’ roster of writers in Memphis, all in a variety of settings.  Some are just vocals and guitar, or vocals and piano.  Others are more fleshed out arrangements, with drums, bass and sometimes horns.  These tapes were originally submitted to the publisher as a means of documenting each composition, and were not meant for public consumption.  However, we are super glad to hear them after all these years.  

Stax Records was one of the most unique labels in the industry because the musicians, songwriters, administration, recording studio, even a record store, were all under the same roof. So, a lot of these “demos” were actually recorded in the famed Stax studios, and many were backed by the house band (meaning Booker T & the MG’s, etc).  

Another way to put it?  These aren’t what you’d typically consider “demos.”  Yes, some are rough sounding, but most of it is of phenomenal quality.

Cheryl Pawelski (who runs her own record label, Omnivore Recordings) waded through literally thousands of hours of recordings, mostly unrelated to this project, to track down these lost gems.  She started down this road in 2006.  Let’s hear it for seeing a project to reality!

The box is broken into three sections.  Discs 1-3 are titled Stax Writers, Stax Releases, meaning these are the early versions of songs that got released on the Stax label 

Carla Thomas leads off the set with “Comfort Me.” While the finished version is polished with horns, and backup singers – this demo features only a single electric guitar and her voice.  It’s chilling in its immediacy.  That becomes a recurring theme here – these tracks seem more real.

There’s a humanness to these recordings.  These are songwriters pouring out their souls.  Because of that, clear characters emerge.  Mack Rice, who wrote “Mustang Sally,” wraps his songs in a funky groove and an infectious enthusiasm.  While Homer Banks is often vulnerable and pleading.  Bettye Crutcher exudes confidence and strength, something most women weren’t allowed to show back then, while Eddie Floyd is pure soul, and is often joined by guitarist Steve Cropper on his offerings.  

Comparing the released versions to these demos can bring some revelations.  Floyd’s version of “I Got Everything I Need” is faster and grittier than the one that came out by Sam & Dave. “Slow Train” from William Bell is another spine-chilling performance – it’s stark in its beauty compared with that of the Staple Singers.

Speaking of the Staples – right in the middle of disc one are four tracks from the family band that aren’t actually demos, they’re rehearsal takes for their album, Soul Folk in Action, but they were included because they would’ve been orphaned – and one listen to this rendition of “Top of the Mountain” and you see why they chose to put these here – there’s more church in these versions.

Some of these demos are for songs that we all know.  Dig Rice’s first take of “Respect Yourself” – it’s got a rough funkiness with just acoustic guitar and percussion.  Homer Banks sings his original “(If Loving You is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right” from a woman’s perspective before Luther Ingram switched the gender on the hit version.

Some of the tracks are actually finished – “You Make a Strong Girl Weak” by Jeanne & the Darlings features a full complement of instruments.  Maybe the drums are a tad loud, but this could’ve been released.  And, Veda Brown’s “True Love Don’t Grow on Trees” doesn’t sound like a demo either.  It’s fully produced and it’s awesome.   Except for the tape hiss, “It’s So Wonderful” by Fredrick Knight sure doesn’t sound like a demo either – you can’t call yourself a soul fan and not be moved by this.

Floyd’s “You Can’t Win With a Losing Hand” and Rice’s “Nobody But You” are just two more examples of the many, many treasures here. Oh, and wait til you hear Henderson Thigpen sing “Woman to Woman.”  If it sounds like I could write on and on about these tracks, you’re right.

Disc four, entitled Moonlighting: Stax Writers, Non-Stax releases, features songwriting demos that ended up coming out on other labels besides Stax.  A perfect example of this is “634-5789,” a big hit for Wilson Pickett (who recorded for Atlantic, not Stax).  Here, the demo features Eddie Floyd on vocals, and Steve Cropper on guitar, both songwriters on the track. This does sound like a demo, but it’s still super cool to hear this in an infant stage of development.  Or, how about Delaney Bramlett singing “Told You For the Last Time,” a song that ended up on Eric Clapton’s first solo LP.  

Discs 5-8, titled Uncut Songs, is the real motherlode. 66 songs with that signature Stax sound and feel – and not one of them were ever released, EVER.  Prepare to be amazed.  You’ll keep asking yourself, “why didn’t this ever come out”?  

“Got to Make You Mine” by Eddie Floyd is somewhat distorted, but it’s such an impassioned performance, you can see why the producers included it.  For all the dance hits that Rufus Thomas had, it’s surprising that “C’mon Dance with Me” did not get cut.  I really dig “Spin It” by Deanie Parker – she wants you to put that record on so she can learn to dance.  Parker and Mack Rice team up for “Nobody Wants to Get Old” – everybody wants to live a long time, but…nobody wants to get old!  Great line.

We get to hear Booker T Jones sing on “Oo-We Baby What You Do to Me,” yet another Carla Thomas composition. Some tracks are as relevant today as the day they were recorded, like the plea for peace, “Coming Together,” by Homer Banks, or Mack Rice’s “Three Meals a Day,” where he chronicles the plight of a soldier coming home, post war.  Banks’ “Grandpa’s Will” is a good lesson on the greed of a family.  There’s still room for plenty of fun too, as in Bettye Crutcher’s “The Yard Man.”    

The entire set is housed in a hardbound book, featuring an essay from Pawelski, chronicling her detective work, plus background on many of the songwriters featured on the set.

I can’t remember a collection that featured this much unheard music, but was of such high quality.  Written in Their Soul unleashes 146 songs, bound to be instant soul classics.  If you love soul music, you have got to hear this set.  —Tony Peters