While many bemoan corporations and the business aspects associated with music, at times rightfully so, there is some good that comes out of the nexus of art and commerce. In 2006, Concord Music Group bought Fantasy Records, which included the catalog of Stax Records, the legendary Memphis label that produced a great deal of outstanding soul and R&B music from 1959 to 1976. Concord is relaunching the Stax label and in celebration of Stax’s 50th anniversary, the first release is a two-CD set containing 50 songs from that celebrated catalog.
The set opens with “Gee Whiz (Look At His Eyes)” by Carla Thomas, one of the artists who helped catch the attention of Atlantic Records, which entered into a distribution deal with Stewart. It’s an R&B love song sounding like many other pop songs of the ‘60s with its strings and background singers. The following track is where the familiar sound of Memphis horns and electric organ fill the air. The near-instrumental “Last Night” is by The Mar-Keys, the first house band for the Stax Label. Three members, Booker T. Jones (organ, piano), Steve Cropper (guitar), and Donald "Duck" Dunn (bass), were also members of Stax house band Booker T. & the M.G.'s, who had a huge hit on their own instrumental, and arguably the best of all-time, “Green Onions.”
After The MGs get your heart pumping, prepare to have it broken by Otis Redding as he belts out “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now).” He also performs his hits “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” and “Respect,” although Aretha Franklin’s cover of the latter outperformed Otis’ version.
Soul men Sam & Dave check in with “You Don't Know Like I Know,” “Soul Man,” and “Hold On I'm Comin.” All three songs were written by David Porter and his partner Isaac Hayes, who worked at Stax as a session player. He came out of the studio and began releasing his own albums, featuring the Academy Award-winning “Theme From Shaft” and Burt Bacarach’s hit “Walk On By,” which Hayes weaved into a 12-minute epic; however, here we get the four-and-a-half minute radio edit version.
Aside from presenting well known artists and original versions of songs, such as Eddie Floyd’s “Knock On Wood,” Albert King’s “Born Under A Bad Sign,” and Linda Lyndell’s “What A Man,” the overriding theme of most of the tracks is love and all its variations, good and bad. For every “I Got A Sure Thing” by Ollie & The Nightingales that professes trust and faith, we get Johnnie Taylor warning about cheating on your woman in “Who’s Making Love.” Mable John lets her man know that he’s blown it in “Your Good Thing (Is About To End)” a great kiss-off song featuring the lyrics “I don't have to beg you to hold me/ Cause somebody else will/ You don't have to love me when I want it, no/ Cause somebody else will.” Yet, Taylor again provides practical advice for the men suggesting it’s “Cheaper To Keep Her.”
Of course it’s not just the fellas up to shenanigans as one of the females in Soul Children proclaims, rather surprisingly, that “I’ll Be The Other Woman.” This is followed by and responded to in Shirley Brown’s “Woman to Woman” as a wife calls and confronts Barbara, the other woman in her husband’s life, letting her know, “the man you love is mine/ from the tip of his head to the bottom of his feet.” It’s honest, raw, and brutal.
Stax 50th is fantastic collection of music and to paraphrase Carla Thomas, you’ll like what these songs do (to you). If these songs aren’t already in your collection, it’s a great place to start whether learning about soul music or converting your vinyl to CD. Consider it a must-have.