Looking back at the legendary Memphis soul label’s mini-explosion
Second only to Detroit’s Motown Records in dominating the American R&B music charts throughout the decade of the 1960s, the Memphis-based Stax Records label enjoyed an impressive string of hits from artists like Otis Redding, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Albert King, Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla, Sam & Dave, and many others.
By the end of the decade, however, catastrophe had hit the esteemed label; after losing its highest-profile artist with Redding’s tragic death, along with members of his backing band the Bar-Kays, the label also lost its distribution deal with Atlantic Records as well as control of its irreplaceable back catalog of music.
As Memphis music historian Stanley Booth wrote in his 1991 book Rythm Oil [sic], “it was if Stax had such good luck in the beginning that when, at the end, the bad luck came it was annihilating.” Stax owners Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton made a deal to sell the label to Gulf & Western, a manufacturing conglomerate that was originally a manufacturer of car parts but would later go on a shopping spree, buying Madison Square Garden, Paramount Pictures, and Dot Records. Promoted to the position of Vice President, Stax marketing executive Al Bell launched an ambitious effort to rebuild the label’s catalog that would become known as Stax’s “Soul Explosion.”
Under Bell’s guidance, Stax expanded its roster by signing new artists, subsequently releasing an impressive 30 singles and 27 full-length albums over the course of eight months from late 1968 through May 1969. Craft Recordings has been celebrating the 50th anniversary of Stax’s “Soul Explosion” all this year, making dozens of long out-of-print Stax label albums available digitally and reissuing the original Soul Explosion sampler album as a deluxe two-disc vinyl set in May 2019. Continuing the festivities, Craft is reissuing a handful of classic titles from the vault over the waning months of 2019, beginning on November 1st with the long-overdue reappearance of albums by Delaney & Bonnie, Booker T. & The M.G.’s, and the Bar-Kays. Each album will be released on 180-gram vinyl, cut from the original analog tapes by Jeff Powell at Take Out Vinyl and manufactured, appropriately enough, by Memphis Record Pressing.
AUDIO: Delaney & Bonnie Home (full album)
Home was the 1969 debut by the talented duo of Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett. The white Southern rockers were an atypical signing by the noted soul label, but both artists had untouchable musical credentials – Delaney had moved from his native Mississippi to Los Angeles when he was 20 years old, earning a well-deserved reputation as a session guitarist and playing alongside Leon Russell as part of the house band for the popular TV show Shindig!. Bonnie was an accomplished singer as a teenager, performing with legendary blues guitarist Albert King and as part of Ike & Tina Turner’s Ikettes. Produced by Stax stalwarts Don Nix and Donald “Duck” Dunn, Home did little, commercially, when it was released as part of the onslaught of material pushed out by the label as part of its “Soul Explosion.”
Still, the album’s groundbreaking mix of rock ‘n’ soul would provide a foundation for the duo’s later work, their blend of country, blues, and soul influencing the entire Americana music genre. There’s a lot to like about Home, beginning with the album-opening “It’s Been A Long Time Coming,” which places Delaney’s gritty, soulful voice against Bonnie’s soaring tones for a stunning duet. With Wayne Jackson’s Memphis Horns providing the brass and 3/4s of the M.G.’s providing the rhythmic soundtrack, the song doesn’t sound that far afield from the Stax standard. The Steve Cropper and Eddie Floyd-penned “We Can Love” should have been a hit single, the song reveling in a Sam Cooke groove and an Aretha vibe.
While both Delaney & Bonnie would become known as accomplished songwriters in their own right, Home is heavy with the Stax factory sound, offering up tunes written or co-written by Cropper, Booker T. Jones, Isaac Hayes, and Eddie Floyd. The Hayes/David Porter song “My Baby Specializes” is an infectious, upbeat soul-pop gem while Bonnie’s “Hard To Say Goodbye” is a gorgeous slice of 1960s “sunshine pop.” The band’s take on “Piece of My Heart” varies wildly from Big Brother & the Holding Company’s Janis-fueled raver, pulling just as hard on the emotions albeit with greater heart and soul. Home failed to chart, and Stax dropped Delaney & Bonnie from their roster, but the album did attract the notice of people like Eric Clapton, George Harrison, and Dave Mason, all of whom would help the duo write their next chapter.
AUDIO: The Bar-Kays Gotta Groove (full album)
Another 1969 Stax release, the Bar-Kays’ Gotta Groove, was a comeback effort by a band recovering from tragedy. The band members had all been successful session musicians at Stax, as well as Otis Redding’s touring band, when the late 1967 plane crash that killed the soul giant also took four members of the Bar-Kays. Surviving members Ben Cauley (trumpet) and James Alexander (bass guitar) regrouped, enlisted new musicians, and rebuilt the band, revealing their new line-up with the release of Gotta Groove. While not hitting quite as hard as their 1967 Stax debut, Soul Finger, the new version of the Bar-Kays managed to find the funk won a new level. In his definitive book on the label, Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion, music historian Robert Gordon (no relation) writes of the band, “ambitiously funky, they merged the traditional Stax instrumental with screaming rock and roll guitar.”
Inspired in part by Sly & the Family Stone, the album-opening “Don’t Stop Dancing (To the Music), Part 1” is a joyful fusion of funk ‘n’ soul with blasting horns, a busy instrumental mix, and an overall raucous party vibe. They slow it down a bit for a reverent instrumental cover of Marvin Gaye’s “If This World Were Mine,” which displays the band’s musical chops, but the party cranks up again with the rowdy, mostly-instrumental jam “Funky Thang.” The second part of “Don’t Stop Dancing” neatly eclipses the first with raging horn-play, locomotive rhythms, and stinging guitar courtesy of the talented Michael Toles. Drummer Willie Hall – later of the M.G.’s and later still a member of the Blues Brothers with Steve Cropper – provided the band with a rock-solid groove. This version of the Bar-Kays would back up Isaac Hayes on his landmark Hot Buttered Soul LP and, as members came and went, would venture further into funk and disco throughout the mid-to-late ‘70s.
Meanwhile, members of Booker T. & the M.G.’s were chafing under Stax’s new ownership and management. Bandleader and keyboardist Booker T. Jones had moved to California in 1969 and quickly found session work, playing on Stephen Stills’ solo debut, and moving into production, working with singer Bill Withers on his Grammy™ Award-winning debut Just As I Am. M.G.’s guitarist Steve Cropper opened his own studio in Memphis and moved further into production himself, working with artists as diverse and John Prine, Tower of Power, and the Jeff Beck Group. In Respect Yourself, Gordon writes “the band didn’t break up, and in fact they would continue to record for the label, but the departure of these two players shook the company’s foundation.” With the creative core of Booker T. & the M.G.’s alienated from Stax, the band’s Melting Pot album, released in 1971, was recorded in New York City rather than Memphis.
AUDIO: Booker T. & The MG’s Melting Pot (full album)
Clocking in at a mere eight songs and running roughly 40 minutes, Melting Pot lives up to title, the album featuring a fusion of sounds befitting Jones’ expanding artistic vision, offering longer original songs with lengthy instrumental jams. It would also prove to be the band’s most successful commercial effort since 1967’s Hip Hug-Her LP, peaking at #43 on the Billboard charts and yielding a hit with an edited version of the eight-minute title track, which features plenty of Cropper’s precise fretwork, Jones’ keyboard flourishes, and one of the best rhythm sections in history. “Back Home” mixes Southern rock and soul with gospel fervor, while the down ‘n’ dirty swamp-rock of “Chicken Pox” is brimming over with imaginative keyboards and greasy guitar picking.
Running nearly nine minutes, “Kinda Like Easy” is a sequel, of sorts, to the band’s biggest hit “Green Onions,” the song mining a similar rhythmic canvas atop which Jones layers keyboard riffs and Dunn’s bass lines echo with malice. Although they were never in question, “L.A. Jazz Song” puts the band’s impressive musical chops on full display, with stylistic flourishes peppered throughout the song’s solid groove, while “Sunny Monday” offers up a different facet of the band’s talents altogether, with Spanish guitar licks and an overall California vibe infusing the strident instrumental with an undeniable energy. Although it would be the last Booker T. & the M.G.’s album for Stax Records, Melting Pot received overwhelming critical acclaim. Reviewing the album for Rolling Stone magazine, Bob Palmer writes “altogether, as an album, it works really well, with the group’s customary taste and precision balanced against a new looseness and a return to earlier, funky playing patterns.”
On December 1st, 2019 Craft Recordings delivered another “soul aftershock” with reissues of David Porter’s Victim of the Joke?…An Opera and Johnnie Taylor’s Who’s Making Love albums, both appearing on vinyl again for the first time since their original release. The third solo album by the acclaimed Stax producer, songwriter, and singer – the co-writer of hits like “Soul Man” and “Hold On, I’m Comin’” – Porter delivered an ambitious concept LP in Victim of the Joke? Mixing original songs with a couple of covers, between-song spoken-word pieces tell the story of a love affair gone wrong. Concept LPs were unusual at this time, with even rock musicians not fully exploring the form until the early ‘70s, which firmly places Porter in the artistic vanguard. As creative as the effort may be, Victim of the Joke? may be the lone dud of Stax’s “Soul Explosion.” Porter is backed on the musical segments of the album by members of the M.G.’s and the Bar-Kays, along with the ever-present Memphis Horns, presenting a measly eight overly-saccharine soul-pop tunes that are bothered by the spoken-word interludes.
AUDIO: David Porter Victim of the Joke?…An Opera
Porter is a wonderful songwriter but a middling vocalist, not on par with his songwriting partner Isaac Hayes or even lesser-known Stax talents like William Bell. The spoken-word interludes break the flow of the music, and display the same sort of self-absorbed vanity that infected so many rock ‘n’ roll concept albums of the following decade. Still, Porter’s blustery cover of the Beatles’ “Help!” should have been released as a single (soul re-makes of Lennon / McCarthy songs being de rigueur at the time), the song bristling with energy and imagination. “Pretty Inside” is an entertaining effort, showcasing Porter’s most engaging vocals and blending backing vocals, lovely instrumentation, and a melodic hook that could have spun AM radio gold. The result, however, is an uneven album with stark highs and lows, making Victim of the Joke? more of a historical curiosity than a bona fide classic.
AUDIO: Johnnie Taylor Who’s Making Love… (full album)
Singer Johnnie Taylor’s sophomore album, 1968’s Who’s Making Love, was the most successful of Stax’s “Soul Explosion” releases. The title track became a monster hit, selling better than a million 45s and peaking at #5 on the pop charts. Taylor was backed on the album by the usual suspects – Booker T. & the M.G.’s with Isaac Hayes on keyboards, and the Memphis Horns – and the entire Stax creative team pitched in to deliver a slate of bluesy R&B songs. Working with Detroit producer Don Davis, Taylor would enjoy eleven R&B chart hits in a row. Robert Gordon, in Respect Yourself, writes “Johnnie Taylor became a bona fide R&B triumph, steadily selling hundreds of thousands of records, generating considerable cash flow for the company.”
Undeniably, Who’s Making Love is a near-perfect slab of urbane soul, the album-opening title track establishing an ear-grabbing groove from the jump, Taylor doing his best Sam & Dave impression with nimble vocal gymnastics, an infectious melodic hook, engaging horns, and lyrics that border on the bawdy. You couldn’t have designed a bigger AM radio hit if you tried, and the Blues Brothers would later score a Top 40 hit themselves with the song in 1980. Much of the rest of Who’s Making Love lacks the enormous spark of the lead-off single, but is an entertaining mix of old-school R&B and modern soul.
That’s not to say that Who’s Making Love doesn’t veer away from the Stax formula now and again. The muted tones and sweeping grandeur of “Hold On This Time” could have easily passed for a Motown production, and the song deserved a better fate than the B-side of “Take Care of Your Homework.” A co-write between producer Davis and the Stax gang, “Take Care of Your Homework” is an enthusiastic up-tempo number with a groove similar to the album’s title track, a feat that scored Taylor a Top 20 hit. Much better, however, is the ballad “Poor Make Believer,” which showcases the depth of Taylor’s emotional vocals. Taylor is at his best when the song requires his gospel-flavored vocals, resembling those of the late Sam Cooke, whose chair Johnnie filled in the Soul Stirrers a decade previous.
Taylor’s Who’s Making Love provided the biggest bang of Stax’s “Soul Explosion,” establishing the singer’s career for decades to come, and re-establishing Stax Records at the forefront of African-American musical trends. The label would enjoy future successes with artists like Isaac Hayes, Little Milton, the Staple Singers, the Bar-Kays, and the Soul Children, culminating in the 1972 Wattstax event known as the “Black Woodstock.” While the “Soul Explosion” didn’t result in as many classic hits as Stax’s mid-‘60s halcyon days, it proved to be an invaluable bridge spanning the decades and cementing the Memphis label’s enormous legacy, which endures to this day.
AUDIO: Stax Soul Explosion YouTube mix