Stax 50: A 50th Anniversary Celebration
While it's true that this double-disc, 50-track mid-centennial anniversary celebration of the birth of Stax Records -- a label synonymous with Southern soul -- will not rival the three box sets issuing the company's complete singles, it's a killer document. Concord Records purchased the Stax catalog (which occurred when the company purchased Fantasy Records) and continues its solid program of bringing the label's shelf in fine style into the 21st century with this cool little set. Packaged in a small bookcase box with the Stax logo in live "wiggle card" mode (the fingers "snap" when you move it back and forth), it all begins with Carla Thomas' 1961 single "Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes)," and moves through the rest of that year, 1962, and 1963, which saw the success of the Mar-Keys' "Last Night," William Bell's "You Don't Miss Your Water," and Booker T. & the MG's "Green Onions." 1964 is completely skipped over since no singles charted in the pop or R&B charts in that year before Otis Redding entered the picture with "Respect" in 1965.
Along the way are the established and well-known acts like Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd, the Bar-Kays, Albert King's groundbreaking blues "Born Under a Bad Sign" in 1967, all the way through to Johnnie Taylor's number one R&B chart hit "Who's Makin' Love" (it hit number five on the pop charts). Thomas and Bell follow and round out the set, but the Taylor cut is a milestone. Along the way it becomes obvious what a powerhouse -- on disc one alone -- Stax was. From 1965 through 1968 they placed 21 singles in the Top 50. Among these were a number one -- Otis Redding's "(Sittin On) The Dock of the Bay" -- and a number two, Sam & Dave's "Soul Man." Many of the rest, like the Bar-Kays' "Soul Finger" and others topped the R&B charts. One of the more remarkable aspects of the Stax label is that unlike the Northern soul labels like Motown, Stax didn't use strings on its records until 1968. The first charting side that did use them was Ollie & the Nightingales' "I Got a Sure Thing." There are other semi-obscurities here (at least to the more casual observer) as well the Mad Lads' "I Want Someone" and Linda Lyndell's awesome "What a Man" from 1968.
Disc two begins in 1969 with Booker T. & the MG's "Time Is Tight," which possessed that same funky groove that had made their other records hits, but the B-3 drift was different, airier, spookier. It was the soul charge led by Donald "Duck" Dunn , Steve Cropper, and Al Jackson, Jr. that kept the soul groove intact. It's such a strange tune because it has such a soundtrack feel to it, it's amazing it hit number six on the Billboard pop chart and seven on the R&B chart. The sound of Stax was changing and becoming one that was taking in the expanding realities of the soul world as evidenced by the Emotions' beautiful "So I Can Love You," with extensive horns layered in the background as the women's voices float over the B-3. The Southern grit is here, it's just framed more elaborately. But none of this prepares listeners for Isaac Hayes' read of the Bacharach/David nugget "Walk on By," which was then-current in popular cultural memory as Dionne Warwick's hit song. But Hayes completely reworked the single version with dramatic strings and fuzz-wah guitar in the intro. Rufus Thomas, a mainstay on the label, had his own hit with the back to the James Brown funky soul groove "Do the Funky Chicken" in 1970. Other cuts on this volume worth noting -- though there isn't a weak one in the batch -- are Jean Knight's "Mr. Big Stuff," a number two pop hit -- and Johnnie Taylor's "Jody's Got Your Girl and Gone," which hit the top spot on the R&B list and number 28 on the pop chart. Hayes was big during the years 1969-1972 placing all three of his singles, as he was also concentrating on albums and the Shaft soundtrack with "Never Can Say Goodbye," and the "Theme from Shaft" reaching the Top 40. The Staple Singers scored with "Respect Yourself" in 1971, which was a big year for the label in general as they placed seven tunes in the Top 100 of the pop charts and the Top 40 in R&B. 1972 was the same, with no less than seven more hits entering the Top 100 pop and Top 20 R&B. These include a hit by bluesman Little Milton in "That's What Love Will Make You Do," the Dramatics number five smash "In the Rain," and the Staple Singers' "chart-topper "I'll Take You There." Disc two ends with the 1974 single "Woman to Woman" by Shirley Brown; it reached the top spot on the R&B chart but only hit number 29 in pop.
The sequencing, while chronological, is wonderfully split between the harder, grittier soul sound of Stax through the mid-'60s, and the larger productions being put in place. The sound of Stax was changing, but its essential groove never did. The textures might have been a bit sweeter, but they still reached deep into gospel, R&B, and hard-edged Southern soul for their inspiration. This is a terrific introduction for the novice -- the sonic reproduction is terrific -- and it's a killer singles soundtrack for the aficionado. It's also the grooviest party soundtrack around.