This is Soul Music With the Rough Edges Still in Tact

Various Artists – Soulsville USA – A Celebration of Stax (Craft Recordings/Concord)

No record label embodied soul quite like Memphis’ Stax Records. The legendary company has been enjoying a year-long salute of its 60th anniversary, helping shed light on the fantastic music it helped create. Although the label has been compiled many times, Soulsville USA – A Celebration of Stax stakes its claim as the best collection ever assembled, touching on many of their greatest triumphs, with some surprises thrown in as well.

Beginning with their very first release, “Fool in Love” by the Veltones, the 3-disc set grabs 60 tracks from its 15-year existence, highlighting major figures like Otis Redding, and Booker T & the MG’s, alongside lesser-known groups like the Mad Lads and the Astors.

Unlike Motown, which created a sanitized version of R&B for the masses, Stax was unapologetic – there was nothing watered down about their music. Take for instance “Candy” by the Astors. In the hands of another label, this would’ve been slicked up with horns and orchestra (and probably been a bigger hit). Here, one of the prominent instruments is a distorted electric guitar. Stax also helped invent funk with records like “You Don’t Know Like I Know” by Sam & Dave, while still being capable of the doo wop throwback of “Don’t Have to Shop Around” by the Mad Lads.

While in no way a complete collection, Soulsville USA does do a great job of summing up some of its legendary artists. Their biggest success, Otis Redding, is represented by four songs – “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “Try a Little Tenderness,” “Tramp” (a duet with Carla Thomas), and the posthumous, trailblazing “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay.” There’s certainly more great Otis music, but this a great primer.

This set also helps give you a deeper appreciation for less familiar artists, like Eddie Floyd, who turns in the definitive version of “Knock on Wood,” the funky stomper “Big Bird,” and most impressive, the smooth soul of “I’ve Never Found a Girl (To Love Me Like You Do).”

The late Sixties and early Seventies were both expansive and turbulent, and Stax became the voice of Black America. Isaac Hayes’ triumphant album Hot Buttered Soul is represented by a truncated version of “Walk on By” in all it’s psychedelic soul goodness, while the Staple Singers preached equality and accountability with songs like “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There.”

The blistering blues of Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign” and the phunked up bassline of “Whatcha See is Whatcha Get” from the Dramatics, are just two more examples of Stax’s brilliance.

If there’s one unifying factor here, it’s that everything is real – this is soul music with the rough edges still in tact. But, as a result, this music grooves like no other.

60 tracks for 60 years – Soulsville USA is one of the finest collections of soul music ever assembled. —Tony Peters