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: Danny White, “Can’t Do Nothing Without You”

Danny WhiteFor every musician who becomes a household name, there are hundreds, probably even thousands who toil in clubs for many years, getting a whiff of success every now and then but never quite climbing that ladder to the top rung. At some point they must realize that they are never going to get there and yet, they toil on, maybe because they love music or maybe because it’s the only thing they know.

Danny White was born and raised in New Orleans. After serving in the Army in California he returned to the Crescent City and began his music career with a band called the Cavaliers who played at clubs like the Golden Cadillac and the Sho Bar. It was there that White was spotted by the legendary Huey “Piano” Smith who helped White get a deal with Ace Records. White recorded several singles for the label but none of them got much attention. During this time White also made a quickly forgotten single for Dot Records.

White didn’t give up, however, and before long he met a woman named Connie LaRocca who had started a label called Frisco. LaRocca’s A&R man was Al Reed and Reed had written a song called “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.” White went into the studio with another legendary New Orleans musician, producer Wardell Quezergue, to record Reed’s song. The resulting single was a hit throughout the Gulf Coast and even though White tried hard to replicate the success of the single with tracks like “Loan Me a Handkerchief” and “Love is a Way of Life” he never seemed to be able to match that first Frisco single.

Danny White - "Can't Do Nothing Without You"At that point, looking for something to spur White’s career, LaRocca thought that the answer might be found in Memphis. It was there that White hooked up with the dynamic production team of Isaac Hayes and David Porter to record a gem of a ballad called “Can’t Do Nothing Without You.” Sadly, the single didn’t score and neither did a follow-up called “Note on the Table.” When Frisco shut down, White stayed in Memphis and signed with Stax so that he could continue to work with Hayes and Porter. The team recorded another powerful single, “Keep My Woman Home” b/w “I’m Dedicating My Life.” Among the backing musicians was guitarist Steve Cropper but large scale success continued to be elusive.

White’s moved on to record with producer Bowlegs Miller and their collaborations featured the Hi Records rhythm section as well as the Memphis Horns. Singles from that period included “Cracked Up Over You,” Don Bryant’s “You Can’t Keep A Good Man Down,” and “Taking Inventory,” which was written by Eddie Floyd.

The provenance of the next White recordings remains unclear. The productions are credited to the New Orleans team of Marshall Seahorn and Allen Toussaint but it’s quite possible that tracks like “Natural Soul Brother” and “One Way Love Affair” were leftovers from the Bowlegs Miller sessions since the sound of those records is quite similar.

Despite the renown of the producers that White worked with and the quality of those recordings, White never quite managed to break through. He finished his recording career with a single for Kashe Records, “King For a Day,” b/w “Never Like This.” White was done as a performer by the end of the 1960s although he stayed in the game by becoming the manager of the Meters at the start of their career. But by the early 1970s, White quit the music business altogether and moved to Washington, D.C. He died in 1996 and although he never became a household name many of his recordings are treasured by soul music aficionados.

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: The Falcons, “I Found A Love”

Soul Serenade - The FalconsThe Falcons were a vocal group whose membership at one time or another included such luminaries as Eddie Floyd, Wilson Pickett, Sir Mack Rice, and Joe Stubbs. They formed in Detroit when Floyd and Bob Manardo, who worked together in a jewelry store, decided to put together a group. Manardo brought in his friend Tom Shetler, and Floyd enlisted Arnett Robinson. Eventually bass singer Willie Schofield was added to the lineup.

The year was 1955, and the Falcons were one of the first integrated groups. They played a lot of clubs around Detroit, but would also venture off to the east coast on occasion. In 1956 Mercury Records was holding auditions. Thinking that the auditions were in Chicago, the Falcons headed there only to learn on their arrival that the auditions were being conducted in New York … (more)

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

Remember Jones Soul Revue & Dance Party

Remember Jones