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.