Originally Memphis-based, Stax Records played an essential role in popular music—it introduced Southern soul to the masses, creating classics that still resound today. Less polished and more bluesy than Motown, the label and its subsidiary Volt label produced such stars as Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, the Staple Singers, and Isaac Hayes.
Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, the label (now part of Concord Records) has released a compilation which celebrates these artists and more: Stax Number Ones. While some tracks are instantly familiar, others are seldom heard on the radio, making the CD a valuable addition to any soul collection.
The album begins with the instrumental "Green Onions" by Stax house band Booker T & the MGs, with its appealing bass line and organ solo. Sam and Dave display their showmanship on the classics "Soul Man" and "Hold On I'm Coming," proving why they were among Stax's most popular acts. While the song has been played a great deal, listen closely to "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay and learn why Redding remains one of the best soul vocalists of all time. His voice sounds world-wearied—when he sings, "I have nothing to live for/Look like nothing's gonna come my way," the listener can sense his aimlessness. His gentle crooning on the phrase "watching the tide roll away" emulates the sound of the rolling waves. Give this song another hearing to fully appreciate Redding's considerable skill.
Another act that shines on this compilation is the Staple Singers, who deftly combined gospel and R&B into an irresistible mixture. "I'll Take You There" perfectly encapsulates the Stax sound, with its warmth and lead singer Mavis' improvisations. Call and response with the band, urging each other on, is a staple of Stax, which gave the songs a charm and spontaneity lacking in other recordings. Also included is "If You're Ready (Come with Me)," which echoes "I'll Take You There" in beat and vocal performance.
Other treasures included on this collection are Hayes' funky "(Theme From) Shaft" and Eddie Floyd's magnificent "Knock on Wood," which still exceeds Aimee Stewart's disco-infused version. Listen to the gritty original and you'll never hear the song the same way again. Funk innovator Rufus "Walking the Dog" Thomas charms with "(Do The) Push and Pull," while the Dramatics prove that Stax could produce romantic ballads with "In the Rain."
Besides the Staple Singers, women are represented with Jean Knight's sassy "Mr. Big Stuff" and Shirley Brown's "Woman to Woman." Brown sings with conviction, telling the story of confronting her lover's secret girlfriend. While this theme rings through many songs, Brown's soulful and sincere delivery saves the track from clichés.
An interesting fact emerging from the CD is the popularity of Johnnie Taylor. After signing with Stax in 1966, he scored a dozen Top Ten R&B hits, before moving to Columbia and recording his best known hit, "Disco Lady" (see Soul Track's Taylor biography, provided by Stax). Stax Number Ones contains three Taylor tracks: the funky "Who's Making Love," the horn-punctuated "Jody's Got Your Girl and Gone," and the mellow "I Believe in You (You Believe in Me)."
Stax Number Ones provides an overview of Stax's signature sound, but should entice music fans to further explore the record label's extensive catalog. Check out Stax's 50th Anniversary Celebration box set, as well as The Complete Stax-Volt Singles, to learn more about the label's brand of Southern soul.