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: 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 Ru-Jac Records Story

Winfield ParkerOn February 2, Omnivore Recordings will release the third and fourth discs in their splendid compilation series The Ru-Jac Records story. Ru-Jac was a Baltimore-based soul and R&B label founded by Rufus Mitchell and Jack Bennett (hence the label name) that began operations in 1963 and continued into the 1970s. The label featured better-known artists like Winfield Parker and Gene & Eddie (Omnivore has already released CDs devoted to the work of these artists) along with many lesser but should have been better-known artists.

Cheryl Pawelski

Cheryl Pawelski

Cheryl Pawelski is a co-founder of Omnivore. Her music business career has been focused on preserving, curating and championing historic music and has included stints at Rhino Entertainment, Concord Music Group, and Capitol-EMI Records. Her many accomplishments include supervision and production of reissues and box sets by artists like Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin & King Curtis, Otis Redding, John Coltrane, the Staple Singers, and many more. Cheryl has also served as a Governor and Trustee of the Recording Academy and she is currently on the Board of Directors of the Blues Foundation.

Recently, I discussed The Ru-Jac Records Story releases with Cheryl who co-produced the Ru-Jac reissue series with Kevin Coombe.

Kevin Coombe has provided extensive liner notes for each of the four volumes. Together they lay out the history of Ru-Jac Records. What is the cliff notes version?

The Baltimore soul/R&B label Ru-Jac Records was founded in 1963 by local promoter Rufus Mitchell and investor partner Jack Bennett (their names forming the Ru-Jac label name). The label primarily released regional soul/R&B singles from 1963 until the mid-1970s, when Mitchell stepped away to focus on another business venture. A few tracks had been licensed throughout the years, but until now, there have been no comprehensive collections of the Ru-Jac label.

How did Omnivore come to acquire the rights to the Ru-Jac catalog?

A music attorney friend of mine had deep ties to the Ru-Jac catalog. While there had been offers in the past to purchase the catalog, he and the owners had rejected those. We’d worked together before and he thought we’d be a good home. Turns out, I think he was right! We’re so grateful to be the caretaker of this music. It’s a great responsibility and a great joy. There are so many terrific songs.

Omnivore previously released discs focused on Ru-Jac artists Winfield Parker and Gene & Eddie. What was the thinking in regard to releasing these discs before the multi-artist compilations?

They were the biggest artists on the label and the most recorded. We thought it’d be great to get those out first before diving into the overall story which naturally took longer. There were lots of tapes and acetates to transfer and try to identify, nothing being marked well, of course. So while we were sorting and figuring out as much as we could of the material emanating from the sources, we thought it’d be best to re-introduce Ru-Jac with Winfield Parker (a consulting producer on the whole reissue program) and Gene & Eddie with Sir Joe first.

While you were preparing these compilations was there one artist you were previously unfamiliar with who impressed you, or maybe one you hadn’t heard for awhile who surprised you?

There were many. The Teardrops Band featuring Marie Allen just shreds. I love the Mask-Man and the Cap-Tans tracks. There are so many great tracks, some by completely unknown, unnamed artists. Notable to me are Celestine, Brenda Jones, The Jolly Jax, Rita Doryse, Kitty Lane, Leon Gibson, Dynamic Corvettes, so many – just jump in a let it rip, these are fun!

The Ru-Jac Records Story Vol. Four

The liner notes include capsule biographies of the Ru-Jac artists. Is there one great Ru-Jac story, in the notes or not, that you love?

The thing that struck me the most (and to be certain, I don’t love it), and it’s still, sadly, so relevant today is the origin story. Rufus Mitchell, the owner of the label, was a promoter who was booking the segregated beach stages on the east coast. This label has the same sad story that Stax does, not as politically developed musically, and certainly lacking the bigger audience that hits afforded Stax, but the music came from the same place, the African American community. I find it intolerably sad and infuriating, the racial divides that existed then and persist and are being stoked now. It makes want to protect and preserve this music even more. Because of the cultural/political origins of Ru-Jac, I feel besides the super fun nature of the music, we also have a responsibility to tell the story of the artists and people involved and hand the stories and the music down, and not let it be lost to history.

Can we look forward to more Ru-Jac music from Omnivore?

This is pretty much it. It was a singles-only label, so we’ve restored what we could from what we have. If more tapes materialize, for sure, I’d love to do a volume five of odds and sods that might be found in the future, but right now, this is pretty much it. We are working on a collection of demos by Arthur Conley. He was the singer on the Ru-Jac Harold Holt single, but I found all these demos in the Ru-Jac tapes and despite their audio compromises, the songs are simply beautiful. Some are just solo piano demos with him singing, some have a little combo. Later he cut some of the songs he was writing during this time for Jotis, Fame, and Atco, but there are a bunch of previously unknown compositions. If the songs weren’t so cool, we wouldn’t bother because the audio quality may not be brought up to our usual standards. We’re working on it now, but frankly, I can’t get some of the tunes out of my head. That tells me a whole lot. These are intimate and magical little performances in a very workmanlike setting. In one, a phone rings in the middle of the song, a few he announces who he is and the song title at the beginning. It’s fly on the wall stuff and while listening your imagination gets enough clues to paint the scene. I hope folks like them as much as I do.

Provide a brief history of Omnivore. Where did you come from? How long has the label been around? What is your mission as a company? In terms of soul and R&B, what have you done so far and what can fans look forward to?

Omnivore is a label, publisher, licensing and consulting group of industry veterans that came together eight years ago to form a company primarily focused on the preservation and release of older recordings. Focusing as much as possible on great or important recordings that were never previously issued or those left behind or overlooked as the business and configurations rapidly changed over the course of the last 50 years. We’re not interested in genres, we interested in great music. As far as soul/R&B, in the past, we’ve released albums by Arthur Alexander, The Blind Boys Of Alabama, The Bo-Keys, Darondo, Carl Hall, MC Lyte, Bobby Patterson and Bobby Rush. We also just produced a Nina Simone release for BMG that will be released in early February. Looking forward, you never know, we’ll be as surprised as the fans are – that’s all part of the fun.

Soul Serenade: Luther Ingram, “(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want To Be Right”

Soul Serenade - Luther IngramThanksgiving has come and gone. I hope it was a good one for you. Can it be that we’re already into December? As the singer/songwriter Eric Anderson once said, time runs like a freight train. Before we know it, we’ll be into 2016, and hopefully a fresh start after a not so great year for this country, and the world in general.

Luther Ingram was one of those guys who was just not going to take no for an answer. He didn’t care what the world thought. He knew what was in his heart though, and he was going to follow his heart despite the fact that it seemed to be leading him to a dark place. As the old saying goes, the heart knows what it wants … (more)