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: Aretha Franklin, “I Say A Little Prayer”

Aretha Franklin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m back. I was happy to have a couple of weeks to recharge my batteries in terms of writing this column but enough is enough. I had many ideas that I wanted to write about while I was on my short sabbatical but then Aretha Franklin passed on and I knew that there could only be one subject for my first column back … the Queen of Soul.

I’ve written about Aretha before in this column, three times in regard to her own records and many more times in passing while writing about another artist. There’s virtually nothing that I can add to the extensive coverage that we’ve all been following since Aretha died. We’ve heard all about her childhood from her birth in Memphis to her family’s move to Buffalo when she was two to her permanent relocation to Detroit. We know that Aretha was the daughter of the prominent minister C.L. Franklin, that he separated from his wife when Aretha was six-years-old, and that her mother died four years later.

It wasn’t long after her mother’s death that Aretha began to sing in her father’s New Bethel Baptist Church. The first hymn she sang, at age 12, was “Jesus, Be a Fence Around Me.” Her reputation as a gospel singer continued to grow until Aretha reached the age of 16. At that point, she began to contemplate a move to secular music with encouragement from Sam Cooke who had followed the same path.

There were several offers from record labels and eventually Aretha signed with Columbia Records and released her first secular album in 1961. She made some fine albums for Columbia but the truth is that the label failed to take advantage of her strengths and when her contract expired in 1966, Aretha moved on to Atlantic Records. One day at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals in January 1967 was all it took to cement her place in history. The song that was recorded in Muscle Shoals, “”I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” was Aretha’s first Top 10 hit and was followed up by her take on Otis Redding’s “Respect” which took her to the top of the charts and became her signature song. “Respect” was followed by “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Chain of Fools.” Not a bad run, right? And it was far from over.

Aretha Franklin

There were more hits, many more hits over the years. While Aretha had her greatest string of hits in the 1960s, she was still creating hits into the 1980s and beyond. Her classics for Atlantic and Arista are too numerous to mention and besides, you know them all. So I’ll focus on one hit in particular, Aretha’s take on the Burt Bacharach and Hal David song “I Say a Little Prayer.”

The song was originally written by Bacharach and David for Dionne Warwick with whom they had so many hits. Her version was another in that run, reaching #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 at the end of 1967. Despite the success, Bacharach himself was never happy with the finished record, feeling that it was too rushed.

The following year, Aretha and her background vocalists, the Sweet Inspirations, were rehearsing songs for the upcoming Aretha Now album and they began singing “I Say a Little Prayer” just for fun. It wasn’t long before they realized that their version, markedly different from Warwick’s, had potential. In July 1968, “I Say a Little Prayer” was released as the B-side of “The House That Jack Built” but before long it was getting airplay on its own. By October 1968 the B-side was a Top 10 hit on the pop and R&B charts. It was Aretha’s ninth consecutive Top 10 hit for Atlantic and it would be her last for the label.

Aretha Franklin’s music was important to generation after generation. Even more important was her commitment to civil rights and women’s rights. “Respect” and “Natural Woman” became anthems for those causes and she provided her time and money for the struggle from behind the scenes and on stage at various benefits over the years.

It’s hard to imagine a world without Aretha Franklin. She was one of those rare artists who remained our hearts and in our ears for decades. Even after all of this time, no one changes the channel when “Respect” comes on the radio. We’re more likely to start singing along at the top of our lungs with huge smiles on our faces. The Queen is gone but in truth, she will never really be gone at all. Long live the Queen.