Stax ’68 – A Tale of Triumph Over Tragedy (review)

Various Artists – Stax ’68: A Memphis Story (Boxset) (Stax)

To say that 1968 was a bad year for Stax Records might be the understatement of the year.  The label, known for releasing it’s own brand of southern soul, was still reeling from the loss of their biggest and brightest star, Otis Redding, killed in a plane crash the previous month.  Then, in April, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in the same Memphis hotel used by many Stax artists for meetings.  Finally, the company was informed mid-year that, in signing a distribution deal with the much-bigger Atlantic Records, they basically forfeited the rights to their entire back catalog of songs and many of their artists.

There’s more than enough excuses in the previous paragraph to close up shop.  Yet, Stax Records carried on.  Stax ’68: A Memphis Story is a five-disc boxset that delves deep into that fateful year 50 years ago, containing every A and B-side of each single the label released in 1968, along with a booklet, detailing the chaos that was going on, inside and outside the walls of this pioneering record label.  The set opens with the iconic “(Sitting on) The Dock of the Bay” from Redding, a somber reminder of what could have been. Led by an acoustic guitar and light piano, it was not only an atypical performance for the usually overtly-passionate Redding, it broke the mold of what soul music was expected to be.  It immediately became a smash hit, eventually hitting #1 and becoming Redding’s biggest hit.  Released the very same day was the one-two punch of “I Thank You” / “Wrap It Up,” from Sam & Dave.  This phenomenal, two-sided hit single put the duo back in the Top Ten on the Pop charts and started Stax’s year off on a positive note.

Unfortunately, that would be the last Sam & Dave single on Stax, as Atlantic Records would claim they now owned the rights to the group and the label’s entire back catalog, due to a clause hidden deep in a legal document the two labels signed.  Yet, Sam & Dave never achieved major success again at Atlantic (that’s called KARMA y’all!).

Other highlights of the early part of 1968 is the pounding rock/soul of Eddie Floyd’s “Big Bird” (how was this not a huge hit?), the smooth soul of “Every Man Oughta Have a Woman” from William Bell, and the percolating rhythms of “Soul-Limbo” from Booker T & the MG’s.  Some of the surprise, lesser-known material include the country-soul of Delaney & Bonnie’s “It’s Been a Long Time,” and the deep funk of the original “What a Man” by Linda Lyndell (later covered by Salt N’ Pepa in the 1990’s).

With all the tumult going on around their studios, Stax released singles that spoke to the need for change, like “Long Walk to D.C.,” the spine-chilling, debut Stax release from the Staple Singers, and “Send Peace and Harmony,” an all-too-late cry for togetherness by Shirley Walton.  We also get to witness the first, tentative steps of Isaac Hayes and his mostly-instrumental (except for his moaning) “Precious, Precious.”  Who’d guess that he’d become one of the biggest R&B stars of the 1970’s, helping put Stax Records back on the map.

As Stax struggled to remain relevant, and bring in revenue, they signed distribution deals with smaller labels – some that weren’t even soul-based.  So you get the garage-rock psychedelia of the Aardvarks’ “Subconscious Train of The Mind,” which has some pretty cool fuzz-tone guitar, and the bubblegum pop of “Lollipop Lady” by the Del-Rays – definitely light-years away from their familiar R&B.  Other gems include the soulful reading of the Righteous Brothers’ hit by the Charmels (here, titled simply “Lovin’ Feeling”), and the girl group throwback “Condition Red” by the Goodees, the Doo Wop stylings of the Mad Lad’s “So Nice,” and rockabilly pioneer Billy Lee Riley’s swamp soul, “Family Portrait.”  Blues legend Albert King turns in some fine tracks, including “Blues Power.”

While there’s plenty of big names, like Booker T, Rufus Thomas and Johnnie Taylor, the ones that really stand out to me are the singles by Eddie Floyd and William Bell  – these are some of the finest soul records ever recorded.

134 songs in all, there’s a great mix of known and unknown spread throughout this great collection.

But, the music is only half the story.  Memphis was ground zero for the civil rights movement, and the city was a pressure cooker of tension.  The accompanying essays go in-depth behind the many struggles the people of the city were dealing with.  Everything came to a head in early 1968 as the sanitation workers went on strike, pitting the blacks against a racist, white mayor.  Things went from bad to worse with the killing of Martin Luther King.  The mayor actually invited some of the Stax staff to his office to help quell the chaos.

Honestly, for as many kudos that Jerry Wexler gets for his role in the history of soul music, his treatment of Stax Records goes down as a despicable act, and a black eye for his legacy.  The fact that Stax managed to persevere is testament to their determination to succeed, no matter what.  The following year would see the label flood the market with 30 LP’s released on the same day, in attempt to create an instant back catalog.  Of those albums, one just happened to be Hot Buttered Soul by Isaac Hayes, one of the greatest soul albums of all time.

Stax ’68: A Memphis Story acts as both a history lesson, and a great collection of that unique brand of gritty R&B that only Stax Records could deliver.    —Tony Peters