There are a handful of record labels who are regarded as groundbreaking in the music world – Sun Records, Motown, more recently Sub Pop, and of course Stax.
Originally christened Satellite Records when formed in 1957 by Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton, the founders changed the name to Stax Records in 1961. The label released a varied style of records from blues, funk, gospel, and jazz, but it was the labels soul catalog, which put them on the map. Stax Records became synonymous with Southern and Memphis soul music. The label bucked the trend and ignored the racism of the 1960s by having a racially integrated staff, including one of the greatest house bands, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, and artist roster.
In honor of Stax’ 60th anniversary, their parent company, Concord Music Group along with Rhino Entertainment are reissuing some of Stax finest artists with new hits compilations, vinyl LPs, digital hi-resolution remasters and deluxe boxed sets.
~ Troy Michael
Booker T. & The MG’s
As the house band at legendary Stax Records, Booker T. & The MG’s were gods in the world of rock and R&B throughout the 1960s. Just about anyone who put out an album from that decade with an organ and funk flavor owes at least a little, and in many cases a lot, to this foursome who helped forge southern soul and the Memphis sound.
IN honor of Stax 60th anniversary, Rhino Records is putting out this 12-song collection.
While many may not recognize these instrumental songs by title alone, just seconds into “Green Onions” (which hit number 3 in 1962) or “Time is Tight,” you can’t help holding back the flood of memories associated with these songs. Many of these Booker T. tracks have served as background to a slew of movies, television shows and have been covered by everyone from the Ventures and the Clash to the Blues Brothers and Count Basie.
This set includes a dozen tracks, so not exactly a definitive collection for a band which has put out 14 studio albums, but still a fantastic introduction to Booker T. & The MG’s and their wildly influential music.
~ John B. Moore
Otis Redding was only able to release six studio albums in his short life before he died in yet another tragic plane crash (not the first and certainly not the last extraordinarily-gifted musicians to die in this manner). But considering he was only 26 when he died, we should consider ourselves lucky that he was so prolific during his tenue at the Memphis-based Stax, which put out his debut in 1962. There is a dozen of his better-known songs on this ‘Stax Classics’ release and there is not a single weak moment to be found.
Whether Redding is taking on one of his own songs like “These Arms of Mine,” “(Sitting On) The Dock of the Bay,” “I’ve Been Loving You,” (or a handful of other gems) or covering and completely making his own someone else’s work, like The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” Redding has a way of squeezing every bit of emotion out of those three-minutes. There was never anything lazy or relaxed about his singing. As evidence by the dozen near-perfect tracks here, Redding may not have been around long, but he left a legacy that will last for generations.
~ John B. Moore
Sam & Dave
One of the artists featured is Sam & Dave, who were a soul/R&B duo featuring Sam Moore and Dave Prater. The singers came to Stax in late 1965 and released three albums — ‘Hold On, I’m Comin” (1966); ‘Double Dynamite’ (1966), ‘Soul Men’ (1967) — on the label before it was bought out by Atlantic Records.
During that time, Sam & Dave scored one of R&B’s most popular songs in music history with “Soul Man.” But the Southern Soul hit makers weren’t even close to becoming a one-hit wonder. Sam & Dave were a major fixture on the R&B and pop charts with other classics including “I Thank You,” “When Something is Wrong with My Baby,” “You Don’t Know Like I Know.” These hit singles along with lesser known songs like “You Got Me Hummin,’” “A Place Nobody Can Find,” and “I Take What I Want” are all here, a dozen in all.
The tenor and baritone combination of Sam & Dave is a thing of beauty. The duo along with Booker T. & the MG’s — Booker T. Jones (keyboards), Steve Cropper (guitar), Donald “Duck” Dunn (bass), Al Jackson Jr. (drums), Isaac Hayes (organ), and the Mar-Key Horns – Charles “Packy” Axton (tenor saxophone), Don Nix (saxophone), Wayne Jackson and (trombone, trumpet) — take you on a journey of R&B, soul, gospel, funk, and blues, and it is all so much fun. It is easy to understand why Sam & Dave are members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Grammy Hall of Fame, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, and are Grammy Award and multiple gold record award-winning artists.
~ Troy Michael
The Staple Singers
Although the family name is Staples (with an S), the legendary music group was known as the Staple Singers (with no S). And did they ever make an impact with their music during the 1970s on Stax Records.
Led by Roebuck “Pops” Staples, the Staple Singers featured his children Cleotha, Pervis, and Mavis. When Pervis was drafted into the Army, Yvonne stepped in to take his place and the Staple Singers didn’t miss a beat. The Chicago-based band blurred the genres of gospel, soul, folk, and R&B, which caught the attention of many labels (United Records; Vee-Jay Records; Checker Records; Riverside Records; and Epic Records), which would release their singles in the early 1960s. Many of those songs found the top of the charts including hit singles “I’ll Take You There,” “Respect Yourself,” “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me),” all three, of which are here on this ‘Stax Classics’ anniversary edition.
The Staple Singers came to Stax in 1968 with their album ‘Soul Folk In Action’ then ‘We’ll Get Over’ the following year. Those albums were produced by Stax house band member and guitar legend Steve Cropper. After Cropper left Stax in 1971, Al Bell took over producing the Staple Singers and took their sound to a new level with elements of funk and soul for ‘The Staple Swingers’ and ‘Be Altitude: Respect Yours)’ releases. Both albums were released in 1971 and recorded at the iconic Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and Memphis’ Ardent Studios.
Of course, the most recognizable singles are easy to spot but it’s the lesser hits which showcase the genre-bending of this talented family. The blues backbeat and gospel singing on “Long Walk To D.C.” is rich and the civil rights topic is timely; “Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom Boom),” the group’s first chart hit with Stax is groovalicious; their cover of the Band’s “The Weight” is glorious; the funky beat, poppy guitar and Hammond B3 on “City In The Sky” is a wicked combination; and the album closer, the live version of “Oh La De Da” is filled with infectious rhythms and danceable beats.
The embodiment of the Staple Singers career is incredibly important to music and without their short-lived time at Stax, they arguably wouldn’t be as respected. Cropper, Bell and the entire Stax family took the Staple Singers to a new level before the label folded in the mid-1970s.
Most of the Staples are gone now, but this ‘Stax Classics’ collection makes it feel like they are still alive and knocking their fans dead night after night.
~ Troy Michael
Born in Crawfordsville, Arkansas and growing up in West Memphis, Arkansas, Johnnie Taylor cut his teeth on gospel tunes until he got the call to replace Sam Cooke in the Soul Stirrers, in 1957. When Cooke started his own SART Records, he brought in Taylor as one of his artists on the roster. However, when Cooke was suddenly killed in 1964, SAR folded and Taylor moved on to Cooke’s former label Stax Records in 1966.
Taking on the moniker “The Philosopher of Soul,” Stax is honoring Taylor on their anniversary with this 12-song collection kicking off with his gold-selling single “Who’s Making Love.” The funk-tastic jam is followed by “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone,” with its soul groove and cheating ways storytelling. The song was a top 25 hit on Billboard’s Hot 100 Chart, as was “I Believe in You (You Believe in Me).” Taylor shows his brokenhearted blues side on the emotional “Somebody’s Sleeping In My Bed,” where he takes blame for his lover’s infidelities. One of Taylor’s biggest hits of the 1960s was the downtrodden blues number “I’ve Got to Love Somebody’s Baby,” which hit No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and No. 1 on the R&B chart in 1968.
Thanks in part to Taylor’s ability to transcend genres of blues, R&B, soul, gospel, and pop he along with a couple other artists were the ones who kept Stax relevant and on the charts after their main artist Sam Cooke died. Johnnie Taylor sold millions of singles and might not be as popular as Cooke or his peer Booker T. Jones or Isaac Hayes, but he is equally as important to the history of Stax.
~ Troy Michael
The daughter of singer Rufus Thomas (who also worked at the Palace Theater on Beale Street), Carla got her start at the age of 10 singing with Teen Town Singers. While still in high school Carla recorded the duet with her father “‘Cause I Love You,” which was released by then Satellite Records. The single, written and recorded at the Thomas home, became a hit around the Memphis area after it was released in October 1960. The track garnered the attention of Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, who would give the single national distribution. This paved the way for Carla’s singing career.
While attending Tennessee A&I University in Nashville, Thomas signed to Stax and recorded more singles which found the charts and an appearance on “American Bandstand” making her one of the early artists to put Stax Records on the map.
Influenced not only by her father, but Jackie Wilson and Brenda Lee, Thomas’ sweet soul voice is experienced beyond her years. As a teen and young adult, Thomas’ songwriting is very mature dealing with puppy love (“What Is Love?”), real love (“Let Me Be Good To You”) and breakups (“I Play For Keeps”).
Known as “Queen of Memphis Sound,” Carla Thomas’ music had bigger production with strings, keyboards, and horns, but it fit her songwriting style and voice, oh that voice was stunning and an integral part to Stax Records.
~ Troy Michael