Soul Serenade: Stax “Soul Explosion”

Stax Soul ExplosionIt’s a well-known story at this point. In 1968, Stax Records co-founder Jim Stewart decided to put an end to the distribution deal that his company had with Atlantic Records. Warner Bros.- Seven Arts had acquired Atlantic the previous year and Stewart had insisted on a “key man” clause in his deal with Atlantic which was triggered when his key man, Jerry Wexler, left Atlantic. The contract called for a renegotiation or outright termination of the distribution deal if Wexler left. Stewart hoped for renegotiation but he considered the offers he got from Warner-Seven Arts to be insulting and he decided to terminate the contract.

As part of the termination, Stewart asked for the Stax master recordings to be returned to him. Unfortunately, Stewart had failed to read the contract carefully before he signed it. The contract said that if the deal between Stax and Atlantic was terminated, the master recordings would belong to Atlantic. That meant all of the masters, every recording that Stax had sent to Atlantic for distribution from 1960 -1967. Stewart felt betrayed and Wexler caught a lot of the blame. In his defense, the legendary A&R man claimed that he hadn’t read the contract carefully either. The end result was that the only music that Stax still owned was music that the company had not released. Even Sam & Dave, who had so many hits for Stax, turned out to be merely on loan from Atlantic and had to return there. They never had another hit. To add crushing insult to crushing injury, the biggest Stax star of them all, Otis Redding, was killed in a plane crash on December 10, 1967, along with all but two members of the Bar-Kays. A few months later Dr. King was murdered in Memphis and things went from very bad to much worse.

Stewart sold his shares in Stax to Paramount Pictures in May 1968, although he remained with the company for a while in a diminished capacity. Al Bell was named Vice-President of Stax and became more active as Stewart retreated. Bell had the unenviable task of keeping a record company with no catalog on its feet. He did what anyone in his position would do. He called for a “Soul Explosion.” It began with the first Stax hit since the split with Atlantic, Johnnie Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love.” Next, Bell presided over the unprecedented release of 27 albums and 30 singles in a short period of time. Suddenly, Stax was back on the musical map led by the songwriter/producer turned hitmaker Isaac Hayes, the gospel to R&B shift of the Staple Singers, and Stax veteran Rufus Thomas. Others who assisted in the label’s resurrection included Eddie Floyd, Carla Thomas, the Mad Lads, Albert King, the newly re-formed Bar-Kays, and Ollie & the Nightingales.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stax resurgence Craft Recordings has embarked on an ambitious reissue program that includes the digital release of 30 Stax albums from the era, one a day for the month of June. In addition to the artists mentioned there are albums from the Soul Children, David Porter, the Dramatics, Estelle, Myrna, and Sylvia (from the Sweet Inspirations) and others. The company has also curated a Soul Explosion playlist for the streaming platforms. Perhaps the crown jewel of the Stax reissue program is the two-disc Soul Explosion album which has been newly remastered and released on vinyl for the first time since 1969. Here’s the Soul Explosion tracklist:

LP 1 — Side 1
Johnnie Taylor “Who’s Making Love”
Jimmy Hughes “Like Everything About You”
Booker T. & The MG’s “Hang ’Em High”
Carla Thomas “Where Do I Go”
Eddie Floyd “I’ve Never Found A Girl (To Love Me Like You Do)”
Southwest F.O.B. “Smell Of Incense”
Albert King “Cold Feet

LP 1 — Side 2
Booker T. & The MG’s “Soul Limbo”
The Mad Lads “So Nice”
Eddie Floyd “Bring It On Home To Me”
William Bell & Judy Clay “Private Number”
The Staple Singers “Long Walk To D.C.”
Ollie & The Nightingales “I’ve Got A Sure Thing”
The Bar-Kays “Copy Kat”

LP 2 — Side 1
Booker T. & The MG’s “Soul Clap ‘69”
The Staple Singers “Hear My Call”
Johnnie Taylor “Save Your Love For Me”
Jimmy Hughes “Peeped Around Yonder’s Bend”
Carla Thomas “Book Of Love”
The Mad Lads “These Old Memories”
Southwest F.O.B. “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”

LP 2 — Side 2
The Bar-Kays “Hot Hips”
Ollie & The Nightingales “Heartache Mountain”
Johnnie Taylor “Twenty Years From Today”
Eddie Floyd “It’s Wrong To Be Loving You”
Judy Clay “It’s Me”
Booker T. & The MG’s “Booker’s Theme”
Albert King “Left Hand Woman (Get Right With Me)”

Stax was back in business, for the time being. In 1972 the label flexed its powerful muscles by presenting Wattstax, a major concert in Los Angeles. Over 100,000 people attended and the concert was filmed for motion picture release. Bell and Stewart had purchased their company back from Paramount but things began to sour under Bell’s leadership. Bell made a distribution deal with Clive Davis at CBS but when Davis was fired by the company there was no one left at CBS who cared about Stax. Despite the lack of interest, CBS would not let Stax out of the contract fearing that Stax would make a better deal with a CBS competitor. Without anyone to push their product, Stax was on the brink of bankruptcy. In order to avoid that prospect loans were made by Union Planters Bank in Memphis and Stewart even mortgaged his home to keep his company from dying. It wasn’t to be though. The bank got scared and called in the loans. Stewart lost everything. There was more than a little racism involved in the bank’s decision, according to Bell. Apparently, white power structures and successful black companies were not going to be able to co-exist in Memphis. Stax filed for bankruptcy on December 19, 1975, and was shuttered by a judge a few weeks later.

For more information on the Stax reissues please visit the label’s website.

Soul Serenade: Rufus Thomas, “Walking the Dog”

Rufus Thomas“His music … brought a great deal of joy to the world, but his personality brought even more, conveying a message of grit, determination, indomitability, above all a bottomless appreciation for the human comedy that left little room for the drab or the dreary in his presence.” — Peter Guralnick

As Dr. King once famously said, longevity has its place. And when it comes to a career in music, longevity is something that’s widely sought after but all to seldom experienced. We often celebrate the singular achievement of the one-hit-wonders but there are some artists who have had the opposite experience. Rufus Thomas was one of those artists, with a career that spanned 75 years.

Thomas was Memphis, through and through. He was born there in 1917 and at the age of six, he was already performing in a school theatrical production. He played a frog. By the time he reached his teens, Thomas was touring around the South as part of a troupe called the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels, performing as a comedian and tap dancer. When he came home to Memphis he would emcee vaudeville and talent shows at the Palace Theater on Beale Street. The talent show winners included the likes of B.B. King, Bobby Bland, and Johnny Ace.

At the age of 23, Thomas married Cornelia Lorene Wilson in a ceremony officiated by the Reverend C.L. Franklin, father of Aretha Franklin. He didn’t rely on income from his show business pursuits and took a day job at a textile bleaching plant. It was a job that Thomas worked for 20 years. He never stopped performing, however, and by the time he was in his 20s, Thomas was writing and singing his own songs. After making his professional singing debut at the Beale Street Elks Club, Thomas became a regular at the Memphis clubs including Currie’s Club Tropicana.

Thomas was 33 years old when he signed his first record deal with the tiny Dallas-based Star Talent label. There he recorded his first 78 r.p.m. single, “I’ll Be a Good Boy” b/w “I’m So Worried.” Although Thomas claimed to not be looking to get rich with the single he had to have been disappointed by the decidedly lackluster sales. “The record sold five copies and I bought four of them,” he once told the Dallas Observer. The record did succeed in garnering a positive review from the influential Billboard Magazine though. Thomas also recorded with Bobby Plater’s Orchestra for Bullet Records in Nashville but he was billed as “Mr. Swing” on those records and it was only years later that they were credited to Thomas.

The next stop for Thomas as a singer was at Sam Phillip’s Sun Studios where he recorded several sides for Chess Records. When none of them managed to find success, Thomas took his ebullient personality to radio station WDIA where he became a DJ. His afternoon radio show was called Hoot and Holler and his presentation of blues and R&B appealed to both black and white listeners. The radio career brought Thomas the kind of fame that he had failed to achieve as a singer but the audience that he built at WDIA allowed him to take another crack at music. In 1953, at the urging of Phillips, Thomas recorded “Bear Cat” as an answer record to Big Mama Thornton’s hit “Hound Dog.” The record reached #3 on the R&B chart making it Sun Records’ first national hit. Don Robey, the publisher of “Hound Dog,” didn’t like the record a bit and launched a copyright infringement suit that almost put Sun out of business before Elvis even showed up there.

But Phillips was famously looking for a white singer who could sound like a black singer and after he signed Presley he began releasing his black artists, including Thomas. His next single was for Meteor Records in 1956 but “I’m Steady Holdin’ On” failed to chart despite the playing of Lewie Steinberg who went on to be a co-founder of Booker T & the MGs.

By 1960, Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton had started the Satellite Records label and it was there that Thomas first recorded with daughter Carla. “Cause I Love You” was successful enough regionally to allow Stewart to sign a distribution deal with Atlantic Records, a deal that proved lucrative for both parties until it was a near-disaster for one. But that’s a story for another time. In 1963, Thomas had a hit for Stax (as it had been by then renamed) called “The Dog” but it was the follow-up that would prove to be Thomas’ greatest success. “Walking the Dog,” a song written by Thomas, was released the same year and rose to the Top 10 on both the R&B and pop charts. The song was covered by the Rolling Stones a few months later on their debut album and over the years it has seen covers by Aerosmith, John Cale, Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, the Kingsmen, the Sonics, Jackie Shane, and Ratt.

The success of “Walking the Dog” finally gave Thomas the chance to give up the job at the textile plant and focus on his music career. He continued the canine theme on Stax singles like “Can Your Monkey Do the Dog,” and “Somebody Stole My Dog” but perhaps his greatest contribution was as a mentor to the young artists that Stax was signing. There was a dry spell during which Thomas didn’t have much in the way of hits but the spell was broken in 1970 with his recording of “Do the Funky Chicken” which hit the Top 10 on the R&B chart and reached #28 on the pop chart. Al Bell, President of Stax at the time, produced the record along with Tom Nixon, and the Bar-Kays served as the backing band. Thomas would keep working with Bell and Nixon and that same year the team collaborated for Thomas’ first and only trip to the top of the R&B chart with “Do the Push and Pull.” A year later, “The Breakdown” was another hit for Thomas, making it to the #2 spot on the R&B chart and #31 pop.

After a few more minor hits for Thomas, who appeared at the legendary Wattstax concert, Stax went under in 1976. Thomas kept on touring the world. He called himself “the world’s oldest teenager” and “the funkiest man alive” and was known for energetic dances moves that were unexpected from a man in his 50s and for his flamboyant stage clothes. Thomas continued to be a presence on radio and television he also appeared in several movies including Mystery Train, Cookie’s Fortune, and the D.A. Pennebaker documentary Only the Strong Survive. He also continued his recording career, releasing music on labels like Alligator and Ecko.

In 1992, Thomas received a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, When he reached the age of 80 in 1997, the City of Memphis renamed a street near the old Palace Theater Rufus Thomas Boulevard. That same year, Thomas received a lifetime achievement award from ASCAP and four years later he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. In 2000, Thomas’ wife Lorene passed away and he followed her a year later. They are buried next to each other in Memphis.

Soul Serenade: Stax ’68 – A Memphis Story

Stax '68Stax Records was in a bad place as 1968 began. Otis Redding, the label’s biggest star, had been killed in a plane crash in a Wisconsin lake on December 10, 1967, just as he was poised on the brink of superstardom. Also killed in the crash were four members of Redding’s backing band, the Bar-Kays.

Also at the end of 1967, Atlantic Records was sold to Warner Brothers. Atlantic had been distributing Stax records since 1965 under the terms of a deal struck between Stax co-founder Jim Stewart and Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler. Unfortunately, Stewart didn’t read the small print and when he exercised his right to terminate the contract because his key-man Wexler was no longer at Atlantic, Stewart learned that the agreement that he had signed gave ownership of all the Stax masters to Atlantic. Stax was left with no product to sell. Zero, zip, nada. But something worse, something that transcended the business crisis at Stax was about to happen in the label’s hometown of Memphis.

Everyone at Stax was shocked by Redding’s death but the label was not unprepared to continue without him. Redding’s contract with the label was about to expire and Stewart fully expected that Redding would sign with one of the many major labels that were chasing him. But first, there was one more single, recorded a few weeks before Redding’s death, to be released.

“(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” was a song that Redding had written in the summer of 1967 while he was relaxing on a houseboat in Sausalito, California shortly after he had blown away a mostly white rock audience at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival. He worked on the song with producer Steve Cropper but it still felt somehow unfinished. After Redding’s death, Cropper came up with the idea of adding the sound of seagulls and breaking waves to the record and the rest is history.

“(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” was released on a new Stax imprint called Enterprise on January 8, 1968, and it streaked to the top of the R&B chart while making it to the #2 spot of the pop chart. Released the same day was Sam & Dave’s follow-up to their 1967 smash “Soul Man.” “I Thank You” proved to be another Top 10 R&B and pop hit for the duo. Despite the dark times, Stax had somehow risen from the ashes and under the leadership of label VP Al Bell, and there were some big plans for 1968.

Eddie FloydStax still had an impressive roster of artists. In addition to Sam & Dave (it would soon be discovered that they were actually signed to Atlantic and had only been on loan to Stax), the list included stalwarts like William Bell, Eddie Floyd, Booker T and the MGs, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Johnnie Taylor, and Albert King among many others. Somehow, despite everything that had happened, things were looking up at Stax. They might not have any of their old catalog to sell but they had plenty of artists to create new product. Then Dr. King was shot to death in Memphis on April 4. Things got tense across the nation but nowhere more so than in Memphis where the smoke from fires began to fill the sky.

Stax had always worn the diversity of its artist roster and staff as a badge of honor while acknowledging that the harmony that existed inside the Stax building didn’t necessarily translate to the outside world. The assassination of Dr. King brought the outside world closer to Stax. Eventually, the fires were banked but the tension remained on the streets of Memphis. The white musicians at Stax were so concerned about the threats they were receiving that they had to be escorted to their cars by the black musicians.

Bell made the critical mistake of hiring a tough guy from New York named Johnny Baylor to ensure the safety of Stax employees. The move worked in the short term but it would eventually bring the label to its knees several years later. Making matters worse was the dawning realization that the racial strife that had been kept outside of its doors had found its way into Stax.

Stax was in no position to wait though. There had to be new product if the label was going to continue to exist. And it was the artists who had been at Stax from its earliest days that delivered the hits.

“We were determined,” Stewart said. “The company really came together. It was do or die.”

It began with Booker T and the MGs and their hit “Soul Limbo” which was released in late May. Stax changed its label from the classic blue stack of records design to the yellow finger-snapping label and designated “Soul Limbo” as Stax 0001. The label was clearly indicating its desire to start afresh. The record went Top 10 on the R&B chart and Top 20 on the pop chart. Then William Bell and Judy Clay scored with “Private Number.”

Stax had a setback when Linda Lyndell’s “What a Man” was rejected by R&B radio demonstrating that racial tension remained high in the South and white soul singers were not welcome on black radio. As a result, Stax gave up trying to have hits by white R&B artists for quite a while.

“I worked my buttocks off to break that record,” Bell said. “Then I started hearing back. ‘That’s a white girl! Isn’t that a white girl?’ We never said to anyone she was white. Radio and retail were both saying it to us. It broke my heart. Momentum just kept decreasing from that point on.”

Johnnie Taylor got the label back on track with his smash “Who’s Making Love,” a song that had been previously rejected by six producers at Stax. Booker T and the MGs scored again with the theme song from the Clint Eastwood film “Hang ‘Em High” and the gold rush was on at Stax. Bell signed the legendary Staple Singers. The Soul Children were brought in to try to fill the void of Sam & Dave’s departure to Atlantic.

Stalwarts like Johnnie Taylor, William Bell, and Eddie Floyd continued to positively impact the bottom line. Delaney & Bonnie were doing their blue-eyed soul thing for the label too. But there were lesser known artists like the Charmells, Jeanne and the Darlings, the Mad Lads, Bobby Whitlock, the Epsilons, the Aardvarks, Jimmy Hughes, and Fresh Air doing their best to add to the Stax legacy.

A new five-disc set called Stax ’68 – A Memphis Story from Stax/Craft Recordings compiles every single released by Stax in the unforgettable year of 1968. There are 120 songs in all by the artists mentioned here and many others. The set was produced by Joe McEwen and the package includes a booklet with a powerful essay by Andria Lisle and Robert Gordon and another by Steve Greenberg. There are a host of great photos and the discs themselves are housed in sleeves that replicate Stax album covers.

You might think that you already own all of this music but you probably don’t. I base that on the fact that some of the artists represented are either unknown to me or forgotten in the mists of time. The other thing is that the set, with its accompanying essays, puts this music in the context of its times, and does so brilliantly. If you are a fan of Stax or soul music in general Stax ’68 is indispensable.

Soul Serenade: Stax Singles, Vol. 4: Rarities & The Best Of The Rest

Stax Singles, Vol. 4In 1991, Atlantic Records released the landmark box set The Complete Stax/Volt Singles 1959-1968. The care that was taken with the release marked a new level of respect for the music of the legendary Stax Records label and soul music in general. The collection was reissued by Rhino Records two years ago. In 1993, a resuscitated Stax Records released two more volumes of Stax recordings covering the years 1968-1975. The two volumes were reissued by Concord Music in 2015 and it was reasonable to think the maybe all of the greatness had been drained from the Stax vaults but that was not the case.

Craft Recordings, a division of Concord, has released Stax Singles, Vol. 4: Rarities and the Best of the Rest. Stax was, of course, best known for classic soul music but the new six-CD collection finds Stax branching out into other genres with music that was originally released by Stax subsidiary rock labels like Ardent and Hip, gospel labels like Chalice and Gospel Truth, and a country label, Enterprise. There are also early instrumental and blues tracks that appeared on Satellite Records, a precursor to Stax.

The collection digs deeper into the Stax archives than any of the previous compilations and comes up with long-forgotten B-sides and other rarities. Classic Stax soul is well represented on the first three discs but the set uses the other three discs to profile Stax’ attempts to diversify its sound over the years 1960-1975. Make no mistake, well-known Stax artists like the Staple Singers, the Bar-Kays, and Johnnie Taylor are represented here but there are also tracks from rock legends Big Star and Don Nix and gospel from the Dixie Nightingales and the Jubilee Hummingbirds.

An 80-page booklet accompanies the collection and includes essays by noted writers like Rob Bowman who covers the soul music discs.

“Stax’s B-sides are, by and large, better than most companies’ A-sides,” Bowman said.

Stax Singles, Vol. 4 was co-produced by Bill Belmont who spoke about the impetus behind the project.

“Over the years, within the collector-fan circuit, and in reissues and collections of vintage Stax material worldwide, some ‘B’ sides have attained a status comparable to the promoted work. Stax’s ‘other side’ has never been presented on its own — thus here, the “other” imprints are all gathered under the Stax umbrella; part of the all-encompassing rubric ‘where everything is everything.’”

Stax Singles, Vol. 4 marks the conclusion of a massive 60th anniversary of Stax Records reissue campaign by Craft Recordings and Rhino Entertainment who jointly control the Stax catalog. Over a two-year period, there have been 15 vinyl reissues by artists like Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, and Isaac Hayes, whose reissues were covered in last week’s column. There have also been CD releases including the Stax Classics series that highlighted some of the labels biggest stars and a three-disc compilation called Soulsville U.S.A.

Soul Serenade: The Holy Trinity of Soul (Isaac Hayes Vinyl Reissues)

Isaac Hayes - Black MosesIsaac Hayes began his career as a session musician. He was called on to sub for Booker T. Jones when Jones was at school, studying for his music degree at Indiana University. There were occasions, however, when both keyboard players appeared on the same record. Obviously, Hayes’ talent as a keyboard player was acknowledged by Stax management but I wonder if anyone knew at the time that one day he would be the savior, at least temporarily, of the company that he was playing occasional piano for.
For Hayes, there was a step in between his role as a session keyboard player and his ascent to the heights as a solo star. Before he made his own records he wrote hit songs for other artists, notably Sam & Dave. Teaming with David Porter, the pair penned smashes like “You Don’t Know Like I Know,” “Soul Man,” “When Something Is Wrong with My Baby,” and “Hold On, I’m Comin’.” Hayes and Porter also produced records by Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, and other Stax artists.

By 1969, Otis Redding, the biggest star on the Stax roster, had been killed in a plane crash. Shortly after that, the label lost all of its master recordings when Atlantic was sold to Warner Bros.-Seven Arts and the distribution contract between Stax and Atlantic was terminated. According to the terms of that contract, if that contract was terminated the Stax master recordings would belong to Atlantic, now part of Warner Bros. Stax was left with nothing to sell and needed fresh product immediately.

Isaac Hayes - Hot Buttered Soul

Al Bell was an executive vice president at Stax at the time but in reality, he was running the show by then. He issued a call for a mind-boggling 27 new albums to be released by the label in 1969. The most successful of these new albums was Hot Buttered Soul, the second solo album (the first one hadn’t gotten much attention) by Isaac Hayes. Hot Buttered Soul featured a stunning cover photo and extended versions of songs like Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Walk on By” (12:03) and Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (18:42). The album topped the R&B chart and rose to #8 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Hayes’ success continued with subsequent album releases The Isaac Hayes Movement (#1 R&B, #1 Jazz, #8 pop) and …To Be Continued (#1 R&B, #1 Jazz, #11 pop). In 1971 Hayes wrote music for the blaxploitation film Shaft. If anything, his wah-wah (played by the late Skip Pitts) driven title song surpassed the film itself in terms of success. The single was #1 for two weeks on the Billboard pop chart. The other two vocal tracks on the album, “Soulsville” and “Do Your Thing” also became hit singles. “Theme from Shaft” won Hayes an Oscar for Best Original Song. He was also nominated by the Academy that year for Best Original Dramatic Score.

Hayes wasn’t done by a long shot, however. Later in 1971, he released a double album called Black Moses. The big hit single from that album was the Hayes take on the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye.” The album also included unique Hayes versions of Bacharach-David songs “(They Long to Be) Close to You” which had been a hit for the Carpenters, and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” originally a hit for Dionne Warwick. The Friends of Distinction (“Going in Circles”) and Johnny Taylor (“Part Time Love”) were also covered. Hayes considered Black Moses to be his most personal album.

The three Hayes albums, Hot Buttered Soul, Shaft, and Black Moses, became known in some quarters as the “Holy Trinity of Soul.” It has been a long time since any of the three have been available on vinyl. A few weeks ago Craft Recordings released remastered (from the original analog tapes) versions of all three of the classic albums on 180-gram vinyl. The producers have faithfully reproduced the covers and all of the original artwork for the albums and the Black Moses album even includes the cross-shaped fold out that became legendary.

Purchase links:

Hot Buttered Soul

Shaft

Black Moses

The videos below feature remastering engineer Dave Cooley discussing his work on the project and Isaac Hayes III and Cooley discussing the legacy of Isaac Hayes.

Soul Serenade: Carla Thomas, “B-A-B-Y”

Stax ClassicsCarla Thomas was the first star in the Stax Records galaxy. I’ve written about her before, so today just a little about her hit single “B-A-B-Y.” The song was written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter and released on the label in August 1966. The record ran up the R&B chart to #3 and had Pop success at #14. “B-A-B-Y” was the leadoff track on Thomas’ album Carla, itself a #7 R&B hit.

While it’s appropriate to begin the column with the first Stax artist to make an impact on the charts, the real focus this week is on the label’s 60th anniversary and a new set of budget-friendly compilations from Rhino Entertainment highlighting the work of a number of Stax stars. In addition to Thomas, there are new compilations for Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and Booker T & the MGs.

In addition to “B-A-B-Y”, the Thomas collection includes hits like “I Like What You’re Doing (To Me),” “Cause I Love You,” and “Tramp,” her 1966 smash with Redding. The Redding collection includes classics like “Try a Little Tenderness,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now),” “Respect,” and his posthumous smash “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”

“Hold On! I’m a Comin’,” “You Don’t Know Like I Know,” and the #1 1967 smash “Soul Man” are included on the Sam & Dave compilation, and the Booker T and the MGs disc offers up “Hip Hug-Her,” “Time is Tight,” and the #1 hit “Green Onions” among other classics.

The best news of all is that each of these Stax Classics, as the series is known, can be had for less than seven dollars at Amazon, and you can download the MP3s for less than $10. And the release of these collections is hardly the end of the 60th-anniversary celebration. On June 23 there will be 180-gram vinyl releases that include the Booker T album Green Onions, Rufus Thomas’ Walking the Dog, Soul Men by Sam & Dave, the Otis Redding – Carla Thomas classic King & Queen.

There will be additional vinyl reissues from Redding, Thomas, Sam & Dave, Booker T and the Megs, and Albert King on July 7.

Stax Records: A Short History

As 1968 began, things at Stax Records were uncertain to say the least. The label had been born in 1957 as Satellite Records, the brainchild of founder Jim Stewart, who was joined a year later by his sister Estelle Axton. Initially Satellite artists recorded in Stewart’s garage in Memphis. The records were mostly country, rockabilly, or pop because that’s what Stewart liked.

In 1959, Satellite Records moved to Brunswick, Tennessee, and Stewart was introduced to Chips Moman, who in turn introduced Stewart to the world of Rhythm & Blues. Before long, Satellite had it’s first R&B release, the Veltones “Fool in Love.” The record was picked up for national distribution by Mercury Records, but Satellite remained primarily in the country and pop music business.

Moman convinced Stewart to move the company back to Memphis. There Stewart found the former Capitol Theater at 926 East McLemore Avenue and moved his company into it lock, stock, and barrel. The first artists to record there were Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla. Their record, “Cause I Love You,” became a hit and was picked up for national distribution by Atlantic Records.

That was the beginning of a distribution deal between Satellite and Atlantic that gave the New York company distribution rights to all of Satellite’s releases. Maybe it was the Rufus & Carla hit, maybe it was the move back to South Memphis, or maybe it was the influence of Atlantic Records, but from that point on, Satellite (and later Stax and Volt) became a label known for R&B and southern soul music.

In 1961, Carla Thomas released “Gee Whiz” on Satellite. It was clear that the record was going to be a hit, so Atlantic reissued it on their own label, and it became a national smash. Thomas would continue to record at the Satellite facility in Memphis, but her records were released on Atlantic from that point on.

In that same year, the Royal Spades showed up at Satellite. They changed their named to the Mar-Keys, and released a single called “Last Night” that raced to the #3 spot on the pop chart. It was the first single that Satellite distributed nationally, without help from Atlantic or any other label. That’s when another company called Satellite Records found out about the Memphis label, and insisted that Stewart and Axton change the name of their company. In September, 1961 they did, combining the first two letters of each of their last names to form Stax Records.

Beginning in ’62, Stax became a juggernaut, recording hit after hit in the old movie theater. A house band that included guitarist and Stax A&R director Steve Cropper, bassist Lewie Steinberg, drummer Curtis Green, horn players Floyd Newman, Gene ‘Bowlegs’ Miller, and Gilbert Caple, joined later by keyboard player Booker T. Jones and bass player Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn, played on most of the early Stax hits.

Many local musicians wanted to be part of the action at Stax. Among them was Isaac Hayes, and he auditioned for a gig there in 1962. Unfortunately he didn’t get the job. Two years later however he was firmly ensconced with the Stax house band, along with his songwriting partner David Porter. Cropper, Dunn, Jones, Hayes, Porter, and drummer Al Jackson, Jr. became known as the Big Six, and between them they produced nearly everything that came out of Stax through 1969.

Otis Redding

Otis Redding released his first Stax single in 1962. “These Arms of Mine” turned into a big hit for Redding, and it was the beginning of his legendary career at the label. Although the label featured many other hit makers, it was Redding who became the rock on which the label’s success was built.

In 1965 Stewart signed a formal distribution deal with Atlantic, but in one of the great tragedies in music business history, he failed to read it first. It didn’t matter in the beginning. The two labels collaborated on a huge number of hits over the next few years, including records by Redding, Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave, Booker T. & the MGs, Eddie Floyd, the Bar-Kays, and Albert King. Atlantic sent Wilson Pickett and Don Covay down to record at Stax, and released those records on their own label. It seemed like everything that Stax touched was gold in those days.

Then things changed. In 1967, Atlantic Records was sold to Warner Brothers – Seven Arts. Stewart hoped that his label would be part of the sale, but received what he deemed an insulting offer for his company. One thing that Stewart had insisted on in his deal with Atlantic was a “key man clause.” The key man designated at Atlantic was Jerry Wexler and the clause said that if Wexler left Atlantic, or his stock in the company was sold, the deal between Stax and Atlantic could be renegotiated, or terminated.

Stewart wanted the Stax masters back from Atlantic but then he got a letter from Atlantic’s lawyers informed him that according the the 1965 agreement that Stewart hadn’t read, Atlantic had all rights to the Stax recordings they had distributed between 1960-1967. To this day those recordings are still owned by Atlantic’s parent company. Stewart terminated the deal with Atlantic. Suddenly, shockingly, Stax was without a catalog. Stewart had been royally screwed. He always blamed Wexler for the betrayal, and it was a dirty deal, but he should have taken the time to read the contract. Such dirty deals have been the sine qua non of the record business from its beginnings.

As if that blow wasn’t strong enough, Stax was about to take a hit from which it almost didn’t recover. On December 10, 1967, Otis Redding’s plane went down in Wisconsin, killing him and all but two members of the Bar-Kays. A few months later Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered at the Lorraine Motel, a place where Stax staffers often met. It all proved too much for Stewart, who became less active in his company, ceding a lot of his responsibilities to Al Bell, who became a co-owner of Stax. Bell and Estelle Axton didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things however, and eventually Stewart was forced to choose between Bell and his sister. He chose Bell, and asked Axton to leave the company.

Bell shepherded a recovery that surprised a lot of people in the music business. Since the company no longer had a catalog, Bell initiated a program to release as many albums as possible in as short a time as possible. The company released an astonishing 27 albums and 30 singles in mid-1969 alone.

Isaac Hayes

The album that stood out in the surge of activity at Stax was Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul, which sold three million copies. Hayes’ first solo album hadn’t been successful, and if not for the fact that Bell was determined to rebuild the Stax catalog quickly, Hayes might not have had another chance as a solo artist. He demanded complete creative control, and Bell gave it to him.

Hot Buttered Soul only has four songs, but two of them, covers of Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” and Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Walk On By,” clock in at over 12 minutes. The album was recorded at Ardent Studios (when the Stax facility was overbooked, as it must have been during the surge of recording, Stax artists were sent to Ardent) in Memphis, and at Tera Shirma Studios in Detroit. It was released on September 23, 1969 on the Stax imprint Enterprise.

The album version of “Walk On By” was over 12 minutes long. In order to make it palatable as as single, and get the single some airplay, the record was edited down to less than five minutes. While the single was not as successful as the album that spawned it, “Walk On By” did manage to make it to #30 on the pop chart.

By 1971 Stax was well on its way to become the diversified music company that Bell envisioned. But while there were a number of hits during this period, it merely forestalled the inevitable. Financial impropriety, music business excess, and a bad distribution deal with CBS had the company teetering by 1975. On December 19 of that year the company declared bankruptcy, and a few weeks later a judge ordered the company’s doors closed. Bell was eventually indicted for bank fraud, but he was acquitted.

The Stax name and assets have been sold several times since then. Fantasy Records controlled the company for many years before being purchased by the Concord Music Group in 2004. In 2006 Concord announced that the Stax label would be reactivated for the release of new music. Among Concord’s first signings was Isaac Hayes.

Ken Shane is the New Music Editor at Popdose

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