Stax Records Celebrates 60 Years With New Stax Classics Series

There was a time when each record label had its own sound. Atlantic was responsible for the pioneering R&B of Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, while Motown turned an assembly-line mentality into a string of pop crossover hits. Yet, no label got closer to pure soul than Memphis’ Stax records. The label is celebrating its 60th anniversary with a string of cost-friendly compilations, which serve as great introductions to a wealth of phenomenal music.

Sam & Dave – Stax Classics (Stax/Rhino)

The Blues Brothers had this duo blasting on their car’s eight-track player throughout their film from 1980, and it’s no wonder. Sam & Dave’s blend of funky soul is so infectious, it makes you want to jump in the car and get into trouble. Stax Classics pulls together their finest material. “Soul Man” is their most famous track, yet the stomper “Hold On, I’m Comin’” and the grittier, Clavinet-led “I Thank You” are equally great. Quite revealing here is that Mr. Moore and Mr. Porter were just as adept at the tender ballad, made apparent with “When Something is Wrong With My Baby” and the pleading “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down.”

Those are the only two ballads of the 12 tracks – the remaining ten are all bound to get your booty shakin’. Their cover of Sam Cooke’s “Soothe Me” is included in its studio version (sounding better than it ever has). There’s a tension that starts “A Place Nobody Can Find” before it morphs into a groove – check out that loud snare! Of their lesser-known material, “Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody” should’ve been a bigger hit.

Carla Thomas – Stax Classics (Stax/Rhino)

Although not as well-known as some of her labelmates, Carla Thomas played a key role in the history of Stax Records. She and her father, DJ & entertainer Rufus Thomas, were responsible for the label’s first success, with their duet “Cause I Love You.” This exposure led to Carla being signed to Atlantic for several years (that’s why hits like “Gee Whiz” are omitted from this set).

This version of Stax Classic shows that Thomas was an incredibly versatile vocalist. Her delivery is seductive on her biggest Stax hit, “B-A-B-Y,” but she could spar with Otis Redding, sending out an array of put downs on their city-meets-country version of “Tramp,” (so overpowering was she, that Redding could only muster the “woman, you goofy” comeback).

“Pick Up the Pieces” could pass as a Supremes’ outtake, yet “No Time to Lose,” and the bass-led “Let Me Be Good to You” are unmistakably Stax soul. The inclusion of latter-day songs like “What Is Love” and “I Play For Keeps” are much closer to Philly soul, than the typical Memphis sound. But, both of these tracks show that Thomas was still capable of compelling vocals, even if her hits had dried up by that point.

Booker T & the MG’s – Stax Classics (Stax/Rhino)

They were the backing band that got to step into the spotlight – playing on hit singles from Stax artists like Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, and Otis Redding. Yet, Booker T & the MG’s would have success on their own, purely by accident. During a session for rockabilly artist Billy Lee Riley, the band began jamming on a blues-based groove. Stax producer Jim Stewart caught the magic on tape, named it “Green Onions” and released it as a single, which rocketed to the top of the charts. Stax Classics gathers together most of Booker T and Co’s finest material.

When you have a surprise hit, you try and repeat it, right? “Jellybread” was a carbon copy that didn’t fare nearly as well as it’s predecessor, while “Mo’ Onions” has a dirtier groove and some hair-raising soloing from Steve Cropper.

Although the band would never reach the dizzying heights of their debut single again, they did record s string of satisfying instrumental singles. “Time is Tight” is their second-most familiar track, powered by Booker T Jones’ swirling organ and the stinging guitar of Cropper. “Tic-Tac-Toe” settles into a funky groove, while Cropper’s guitar is particularly distorted on “Boot Leg.”

Another thing this collection shows is that the band were capable of stretching out from their blues motif. Both “Soul Dressing” and “Soul Limbo” have a Latin feel, while their cover of the Rascals’ tune, “Groovin,” manages to capture much of the breezy feel of the original. The inclusion of the album track “One Mint Julep,” which references the Stones’ “Satisfaction,” is a nice addition, while their final Stax single, “Melting Pot,” is phenomenal, and deserves more recognition.

Otis Redding – Stax Classics (Stax/Rhino)

Redding was Stax’s biggest star when he perished in a plane crash in 1967. He showed off a vulnerability that was seldom allowed in R&B vocalists of his day. Beginning with his first hit, “These Arms of Mine,” Redding issued a series of pleading ballads from “Pain in My Heart,” “Just One More Day,” “That’s How Strong My Love Is” and his finest slow offering, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.”

Although he wrote many of his songs (including the original version of “Respect,” which Aretha took to the top of the charts), Redding was also fine interpreter of other people’s music, transforming the Stones’ “Satisfaction” into a funky, horn-infused stomper. His greatest interpretation came in the form of “Try a Little Tenderness,” a 1932 ballad which Redding converted into a stone-cold classic; starting slow, then building to a furious finish.

The singer was poised for even bigger success, and had just laid to tape “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” when his plane went down. There’s plenty more great Otis Redding music to explore, but Stax Classics provides an introduction that leaves you craving more.

Isaac Hayes – Stax Classics (Stax/Concord)

No other artist had a longer career with the Stax label than Isaac Hayes. Starting in the early 1960’s as a staff songwriter, musician, and eventual producer, he was responsible for many of the biggest hits of the label, including co-writing Sam & Dave’s signature track “Soul Man.” By the late Sixties, Hayes stretched out and began releasing albums under his own name. His second such album, Hot Buttered Soul, became a runaway smash and helped put Stax back on the charts after having series financial problems the previous year.

Hayes’ most decorated song, “Theme From Shaft,” leads off this edition of Stax Classics. The wah wah-infused single topped the Billboard Pop charts, and took home the Oscar for Best Original Song in 1972. He also had a gift for covering material and making it his own. The Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” is turned into a slow jam, while Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love” gets treated to horns and strings.

Hayes had a penchant for stretching out his songs well beyond the typical three-minute pop song length, which can make for difficult listening for those first getting introduced to his music. That’s what makes this new collection, Stax Classics, a great addition to the Isaac Hayes catalog. It grabs many of his most well-known tracks, but presents them in their edited single versions, making them more palatable for the un-initiated Hayes listener.

7 1/2 minutes are chopped out of Hot Buttered Soul’s biggest song, “Walk on By,” yet it doesn’t take away from its impact. “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” is truncated by eleven minutes, removing some of the dialogue. The third track, “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic” is included here in its full, nine-minute length.

Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul is an essential part of any soul music fan’s collection, but Stax Classics is a good starting point into the deep funk of Isaac Hayes.

For further listening, there’s additional titles in this series from Albert King, The Staple Singers, The Dramatics, Johnnie Taylor and William Bell.  The Stax Classics series gives you a great starting point for some of the most passionate music ever created.    –Tony Peters