Stax’s Soul Explosion 50 Years Later
A deep dive into an indispensable compilation that redefined the Memphis label in ’69
Memphis banker and entrepreneur Jim Stewart launched Satellite Records in 1957; working out of Stewart’s garage, Satellite originally released country and rockabilly records, as per its owner’s tastes.
The independent label’s modest success prompted Stewart’s sister, Estelle Axton, to mortgage her home and invest $2,500 in the fledgling company, which later changed its name to Stax Records (the name ‘Stax’ being a combination of STewart and AXton). A move into the former Capitol Theatre in South Memphis included studio space with unique acoustics that lent an edge to the label’s future recordings. Within this new environment, the label changed its focus towards records by rhythm and blues artists, later dipping its toes into the blues, soul and gospel genres.
A national distribution deal with Atlantic Records followed in 1961, which led to a string of hit records that helped define soul and pop music for the 1960s and ‘70s (and beyond). Chart-toppers Booker T. & the M.G.’s (“Green Onions”) became the Stax Records house band, playing on hits by artists like Memphis music legend Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla; soul giants Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett; bluesman Albert King; and hit-making R&B singers like Eddie Floyd, Johnnie Taylor, William Bell, and Sam & Dave, among many others. Only Detroit’s Motown Records could rival Stax’s R&B chart success during the decade, and one could argue that the Memphis label had a deeper and more diverse roster of talent.
1968 proved to be a watershed year for Stax Records, however. The label lost its highest-profile artist with the tragic death of Otis Redding and members of his backing band the Bar-Kays in December 1967, and it was struggling in the aftermath of its disentanglement from Atlantic, which was then in the process of being acquired by Warner Brothers. As the label renegotiated its distribution deal, Stewart discovered a disastrous flaw in his original contract with Atlantic. As music historian James L. Dickerson wrote in his 1996 book Goin’ Back To Memphis, “Unknown to Jim, the original agreement had transferred ownership of the Stax master tapes to Atlantic. It was spelled out in the fine print, but Jim had not read the fine print…in reality, all that Stax owned was a name and future work recorded by its artists. Atlantic owned everything Stax had recorded to date.”
It was a major blow to the scrappy Southern soul imprint as they instantly lost their entire back catalog of music (and the income it provided). The April 4th, 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. a few blocks away from the label’s studio and offices nearly derailed their efforts entirely. Dickerson writes “Mobs of angry blacks roamed city streets, looting and setting fires. Memphis officials set a 7 P.M. curfew and called in National Guard troops. If there was ever a turning point in Memphis music, a point beyond which there was no return, it was the King assassination.” The unrest across the nation taxed even the strong bonds of Stax’s multi-racial staff of musicians and producers, but the label’s revered status in the community saved it from complete loss as much of its Memphis neighborhood was burned down around them.
Memphis writer and music historian Robert Gordon (no relation), in his excellent 2013 book Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion, wrote of the label that “the death of Otis and the Bar-Kays dimmed their soul. The pillaging by Atlantic tore at their self-respect. The assassination of Martin Luther King choked their heart. In a state of shock, Stax was a body growing cold.” Backed into a corner, Stewart made a deal to sell Stax Records to Gulf + Western, an industrial conglomerate that began life as a manufacturer of car parts but would expand to own a clothing company, a financial services company, and Madison Square Garden as well as Paramount Pictures and Dot Records.
With the sale to G+W, Stax co-owner Estelle Axton sold her share of the company and Stax marketing executive Al Bell was promoted to the position of Vice President. Bell concocted an ambitious plan to rebuild the label’s back catalog that would become known as the “Soul Explosion.” Under Bell’s guidance, Stax expanded its roster by signing new artists, and they would release a whopping 30 singles and 27 full-length albums over the course of eight months from late 1968 through May 1969. Quoted in Gordon’s Respect Yourself, Bell says “I wanted to get as many hit records as possible into the marketplace.” The gamble paid off, Bell recalling “with those 27 albums at one time, folk began to forget that we didn’t have a catalog.”
When the company approached its 1969 sales summit, which was themed “Getting It All Together,” they had a new track record of success to tout. Writes Gordon in Respect Yourself, “if the soul exploding sales conference had been a symphony, it would have been Beethoven’s Ninth. It was a huge and glorious effort, interweaving the grand themes of salesmanship, civic responsibility, and the recording arts. It employed live performances, recordings, speeches, and a high-tech multiscreen slide show presentation with synchronized music. The future of Stax was riding on the success of the event.” This future looked bright as sales in the wake of the “Soul Explosion” were the best that Stax had previously enjoyed.
Craft Recordings is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Stax’s “Soul Explosion” with a deluxe vinyl re-issue of the Soul Explosion album on May 31st, 2019. Back on vinyl for the first time since its original 1969 release, lacquers for the two-LP set were cut by Memphis-based engineer Jeff Powell at Take out Vinyl and the reissued album was pressed locally by Memphis Record Pressing. Soul Explosion will also be released digitally for the very first time in high-res formats. Additionally, Craft is commemorating June’s “Black Music Month” with exclusive digital-only releases of albums from the “Soul Explosion” and beyond, one album a day for 30 days as listed below, and including some of the biggest-hitters in the Stax Records universe.
The Soul Explosion album was conceived as a sampler of the label’s best and brightest talents. Among the album’s 28 tracks are previous hits like Johnnie Taylor’s funky “Who’s Making Love” which, upon its 1968 release, became the label’s best-selling single to date. Soul crooner Jimmy Hughes’ “Like Everything About You” features lush strings backing his smooth-as-silk vocals while Stax mainstays Booker T. & the M.G.’s deliver electrifying instrumental performances with “Hang ‘Em High” and “Soul Limbo.” The ‘First Lady of Stax,’ Carla Thomas is represented by “Where Do I Go,” a classic song from the rock opera Hair. Legendary bluesman Albert King’s “Cold Feet” is a sort of talking blues with his trademark stinging guitar.
Eddie Floyd’s cover of Sam Cooke’s classic “Bring It On Home To Me” is driven by the Memphis horns and a powerful vocal performance while the Staple Singers, featuring Mavis Staples, successfully made the jump from gospel to soul music with songs like “Long Walk To D.C.” which features great vocal harmonies and socially-conscious lyrics delivered with the fervor of a tent revival. One of the few outliers on Soul Explosion is “Smell of Incense” by late ‘60s Dallas rockers Southwest F.O.B. The psych-tinged ‘sunshine pop’ track was a regional hit in the South and a minor hit nationwide and is notable mostly for two of its band members, who would go on to enjoy significant chart success in the ‘70s as “England Dan and John Ford Coley.”
The second disc of Soul Explosion features rare tracks and obscurities, some of which were never released elsewhere. The Bar-Kays’ “Hot Hips” is a raucous, horn-driven raver that includes far-seeing elements of funk and soul music to come. Soulman Eddie Floyd’s “It’s Wrong To Be Loving You” offers a swinging, horn-drenched performance with his vocals nearly lost in the mix. Ollie & the Nightingales are the true find for this writer as a soul music fan, the former gospel outfit’s “Heartache Mountain” fueled by a passionate, emotional vocal performance by front man Ollie Hoskins. A rowdy Southwest F.O.B. cover of the Joe Zawinul instrumental “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” – with which the Buckinghams scored a Top 10 hit in 1967 after adding lyrics – was unreleased at the time but would have made a monster single for AM radio with its rock/soul hybrid sound recalling Memphis’s the Box Tops.
As an economic and artistic gambit, Al Bell’s “Soul Explosion” paid off nicely, setting the label on firm financial footing and leading to Stax’s Vice President expanding his vision for the future. Entering the new decade, Stax got into comedy with artists like Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, and Moms Mabley and ventured further into the world of rock, releasing albums by artists like Big Star and British prog-rockers Skin Alley. This would all culminate in the August 1972 Wattstax concert, which became known as the “Black Woodstock.” Hosted by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the concert featured artists like Isaac Hayes, Albert King, Eddie Floyd, Carla Thomas, the Soul Children, and the Staple Singers performing in front of an estimated 100,000 people, the show resulting in the acclaimed 1973 Wattstax concert film and soundtrack album.
Aside from the aforementioned tracks, Stax’s Soul Explosion offers solid performances from artists like the Mad Lads, William Bell, and Judy Clay, the album providing a fine introduction to both where the label had been and to where it would be travelling musically, paying homage to Stax’s storied history as well as showcasing its musical reinvention at the dawn of a new decade. Accompanied by the digital reissues of a wealth of albums from the label’s back catalog for “Black Music Month,” one could say that Stax is experiencing a brand-new “Soul Explosion” some 50 years since the label’s original big bang. For fans of R&B and soul music, it also means a whole lot of great music just waiting to be rediscovered.
Black Music Month Stax Digital Releases:
Booker T. & the M.G.s – Soul Limbo (06/01/19)
Various Artists – Boy Meets Girl (06/02/19)
Johnnie Taylor – Rare Stamps (06/03/19)
Soul Children – Soul Children (06/04/19)
Carla Thomas – Memphis Queen (06/05/19)
Ollie & the Nightingales – Ollie & the Nightingales (06/06/19)
Johnnie Taylor – The Johnnie Taylor Philosophy Continues (06/07/19)
The Mar-Keys – Damifiknow (06/08/19)
J.J. Barnes & Steve Mancha – Rare Stamps (06/09/19)
The Mad Lads – The Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad Lads (06/10/19)
The Goodees – Candy Coated Goodees (06/11/19)
The Knowbody Else – The Knowbody Else (06/12/19)
Eddie Floyd – California Girl (06/13/19)
Rufus Thomas – Crown Prince of Dance (06/14/19)
Mel & Tim – Starting All Over Again (06/15/19)
William Bell – Phases of Reality (06/16/19)
The Sweet Inspirations – Estelle, Myrna & Sylvia (06/17/19)
The Dramatics – A Dramatic Experience (06/18/19)
John KaSandra – Color Me Human (06/19/19)
The Bar-Kays – Do You See What I See? (06/20/19)
David Porter – Victim Of The Joke? An Opera (06/21/19)
The Rance Allen Group – A Soulful Experience (06/22/19)
The Temprees – Love Maze (06/23/19)
Frederick Knight – I’ve Been Lonely For So Long (06/24/19)
Barbara Lewis – The Many Grooves of… (06/25/19)
Little Milton – Waiting For Little Milton (06/26/19)
Inez Foxx – At Memphis (06/27/19)
Melvin Van Peebles – Don’t Play Us Cheap (06/28/19)
Kim Weston – Kim Kim Kim (06/29/19)
Various Artists – Wattstax (06/30/19)
VIDEO: Stax Soul Explosion (Album)
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