The best of…Stax

This year the mythical soul label Stax celebrates 60 years since its foundation in Memphis, Tennessee in 1957. Here Piers Barber runs down his favourite tracks, ranging from oddities to million sellers, that best epitomise the authentic and infectious Stax sound.

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I first caught the Stax bug during a visit to Memphis in 2015. It’s impossible to escape music in the city’s downtown area, with Elvis’ comforting drawls and searing blues guitars blasting out of every bar and home. Stax, though, characteristically lingers just outisde of the mainstream. Its fantastic museum, located in the original premises of its studio, is a short taxi ride from the city’s tourist centre, yet hosts a wonderfully rich and comprehensive homage to the influential label. After later hearing The Staple Singers‘s magnificent ‘I’ll Take You There’ blasted out of speakers in a public square, I was hooked.

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The Stax sound is gritty, rich and authentically Southern, covering the entire spectrum of soul and R&B as well as gospel, funk, blues and jazz (it was originally formed as a country label). It’s swing and loose touch is most commonly contrasted to the highly methodical, algorithmic precision of Motown; it’s famous finger-clicking logo a nod to the infectious groove and rhythm which characterise its releases.

This year, parent label Concord is marking Stax’s sixtieth anniversary with events including a BBC Prom and a series of re-releases from some of its most famous artists, including Otis Redding, Booker T. and the M.G.s and Isaac Hayes. Here are the Music Factory’s picks, some of which feature less prominently on the greatest hits compilations, which help shed further light on the label’s extensive back catalogue. Go and investigate!

‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ – The Mad Lads

Described by Frank Sinatra as “the greatest torch song ever written”, ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ was originally recorded by Johnny Rivers and most famously covered by Isaac Hayes’ in a luscious extended version on the iconic Hot Buttered Soul album. Yet it’s this simple and innocent cover, recorded by Stax foursome the Mad Lads, which truly captures the song’s tenderness and fragility.

‘Bring It On Home To Me’ – Eddie Floyd

Eddie Floyd’s Sam Cooke cover forms a compelling tale of rejection, with the track’s first half featuring the voice of a protagonist desperate to stay cool, measured and polite in the face of a former lover (‘If you ever change your mind,/ About leaving, leaving me behind’). It’s the song’s final 30 seconds which truly endure in the memory, though, as the narrator loses his control and the first half’s clipped sax and organ stabs descend into a desperate yet euphoric plea for forgiveness. It’s one of the most deceptively effective break-up songs.

‘Little Bluebird’ – Little Milton

Although most famously the purveyor of a distinctive soul sound, Stax was also home to some of the era’s richest blues recordings, not least Little Milton’s evocative ‘Little Bluebird’. Stax artist Johnnie Taylor also recorded his own polished version, but it’s Milton’s raw delivery, accompanied by his crying guitar and wonderful ad libs (“Have mercy!” he mutters after a particularly emotive stab of horns), which make this the standout cut.

‘Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get’ – The Dramatics

The Dramatics were recently featured in Kathryn Bigelow’s harrowing Detroit, a film on the 1967 Algiers Motel incident which prompted founding member Larry Reed to leave the band. His group, though, soon went from strength to strength, with top 10 hit ‘Whatcha See is Whatcha Get’ the ultimate example of how their sweet vocal harmonising combined with infectious, gritty rhythms.

‘After Laughter (Comes Tears)’ – Wendy Rene

Wendy Rene’s brief Stax career all but drew to a close after she made the last-minute decision to miss a flight which ultimately crashed and killed Otis Redding, the first true Stax icon, as well as six others in December 1967. In ‘After Laughter’, Rene’s remarkable voice is mixed down low in a mysterious, almost reggae-sounding cautioning on the painful pitfalls of love. The track was revived in the 1990s when it was sampled on the Wu Tang Clan’s ‘Tearz’.

‘If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)’ – The Staple Singers

Chicago’s Staple Singers were a family gospel group who went secular, composing what is said to be Martin Luther King Jr.’s favourite song ‘Why Am I Treated So Bad’ in 1966. They later became Stax royalty following their smash-hit ‘I’ll Take You There’, released four year’s after MLK’s assassination in the label’s home city of Memphis. ‘If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)’ is delivered in a similar vein, with a rock-solid groove accompanied by timeless sentiments of equality (“No hatred,/ Will be tolerated”).

‘Who Is She (And What Is She To You)’ – The Soul Children

An infectious rarity which features on oddities compiliation Stax of Funk, ‘Who Is She’ is a Bill Withers composition to which the Soul Children added their own bass-y, delectable swing. This lengthy version also includes amusing extended spoken interlude between the group’s two female vocalists. Unfortunately, this one never saw an official release.

‘Get Out Of My Life’ – The Mad Lads

Enriched by the emphatic work of a glorious horn section, this Mad Lads track is a brave yet trembling attempt at defiance in the face of a failed relationship. The song’s basic couplets (‘Get off my ladder, woman,/ I got to climb up to the top’; ‘Get out my eyes teardrops,/ I got to see my way around’) are wonderfully impactful in their simplicity. Its almost hip hop-style beat has since been sampled by the likes of Biz Markie, Rakim and Pete Rock.

Honourable mentions:

  • ‘Peace Be Still’ – The Emotions
  • ‘Hold On! I’m Comin’ – Sam & Dave
  • ‘After Laughter (Comes Tears)’ – Wendy Rene
  • ‘Woman To Woman’ – Shirley Brown
  • ‘I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down’ – Sam & Dave
  • ‘Who’s Making Love’ – Johnnie Taylor
  • ‘In the Midnight Hour’ – Wilson Pickett
  • ‘I’ll Be The Other Woman’ – The Soul Children
  • ‘Private Number’ – William Bell and Judy Clay
  • ‘That’s How Strong My Love Is’ – Otis Redding
  • ‘Laundromat Blues’ – Albert King
  • ‘Eloise (Hang On In There)’ – William Bell
  • ‘Son of Shaft’ – The Bar-Kays
  • ‘Mr Big Stuff’ – Jean Knight
  • ‘What A Man’ – Linda Lyndell
  • ‘I Never Found a Girl’ – Eddie Floyd
  • ‘Moonlight Lovin’ (Menage A Trois)’ – Isaac Hayes

Listen to these tracks in a Spotify playlist: https://open.spotify.com/user/piersbarber/playlist/0CblgzOEevHubUfQLvsgpG 

Read more: The story of Wattstax 1972

Follow Piers and the Music Factory on Twitter @piersbarber18 and @MusicFactoryNo1.

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