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Music Review: Various Artists – Stax Does The Beatles

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Many Beatles tribute albums have saturated the market, but how many compilations can boast Isaac “Shaft” Hayes performing a 12-minute version of The Beatles’ “Something?”  That single is just one example from Stax Does The Beatles, a compilation featuring famous and little-known Stax artists.

The Memphis label, whose roster included Otis Redding, Booker T & The MGs, The Bar Kays, and Hayes, integrated rock with a distinctly southern soul style, producing a more raw sound than the more polished Motown recordings.  In the late 60s and early 70s, many Stax artists declared themselves Beatles fans, going so far as to record covers for various albums.  This new CD collects the best of these songs, some of which have never been previously released.

Highlights include an alternate take of Otis Redding’s “Day Tripper,” where he gives the song a James Brown-like makeover.  David Porter, Hayes’ songwriting partner, had a lower-profile solo career, but scores with a horn-driven, danceable cover of “Help.”  Steve Cropper, lead guitarist for Booker T & The MGs, performs a version of “With A Little Help from My Friends” that resembles Joe Cocker fused with Jimi Hendrix. 

Carla Thomas infuses “Yesterday” with bluesy emotion that stresses the deep regret expressed in the lyrics.  Booker T & the MGs recorded an entire Beatles tribute album, McLemore Avenue, and several of those cuts are represented here.  They lend a decidedly rock and slightly funkadelic edge to “Eleanor Rigby,” while the organ lends additional soul to “Lady Madonna.” 

Other songs illustrate The Beatles’ soul influences.  The Mar-Keys’ “Let It Be” turns the song into a church revival, featuring the organ and a killer saxophone solo.  John Gary Williams turns the technically non-Beatle “My Sweet Lord” into a gospel workout, a slower version of Billy Preston’s cover.  Perhaps the most logical cover is Booker T & the MG’s “Got to Get You into My Life,” a song that even Paul McCartney asserted was a homage to Motown. 

I must admit I’m biased toward the Bar-Kays, one of my all-time favorite Stax artists.  Best known for “Soul Finger” and 80s songs such as “Freak Show on the Dance Floor,” they show impressive range on Stax Does The Beatles, with their funky take on “Hey Jude” (mostly instrumental except for the “na na” chorus toward the end) and an organ-dominated version of “Yesterday.” 

Then, of course, there is the aforementioned 12-minute version of “Something.”  While Hayes lends surprisingly restrained, tender vocals to the song, the loud background singers and over-arrangement tend to overshadow his voice.  Even though Hayes cut infamously long tracks, this version could have been trimmed by at least six minutes.  Reggie Milner’s odd cover of “And I Love Her” changes the tempo entirely, robbing it of its gentle, rumba-like sound. 

As a longtime Beatles enthusiast, I have collected numerous Beatles cover songs.  Stax Does The Beatles, however, is one of the best compilations I’ve heard.  Unlike some artists who copy the original songs note for note, Stax artists put their unique soulful spin on these classics, lending new perspectives on songs we’ve heard for decades.  The CD’s digital remastering makes these songs sound like they were recorded (pardon the pun) yesterday. 

For the hard-core Beatles fan, Stax Does The Beatles is an essential addition to one’s collection.  However, this CD should garner a larger audience, as it demonstrates the vital connection between rock and rhythm and blues.  It also gives relatively obscure artists, such as Cropper and Williams, their just due.  While the prospect of Mr. Hot Buttered Soul covering “Yesterday” may initially attract your interest, the rawness and earnest soulfulness of the other artists will keep you listening.

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About Kit O'Toole

  • A collection like this, with creative interpretations of Beatles songs (and the one George Harrison cover Kit noted) is especially satisfying after enduring two shows’ worth of vanilla, homogenized Beatles covers on “American Idol”.