If you like good music, that sweet soul music, turn your spotlight on The Complete Stax/Volt Singles: 1959-1968. Spread over nine CDs, The Complete Stax/Volt is a warts-and-all tour of soul’s Southern capital, the label that brought us the sensual poetry of Otis Redding’s love ballads, the gospel-bred frenzy of Sam & Dave, the black rock & roll of Booker T. and the MGs, and the protofunk of the Bar-Kays’ ”Soul Finger.”
In the best of these earthy, churchy records, spiritual soul-searching is equated with sex. If that sounds like a good definition of what the rock & rollers of the ’60s were after, you’re not the first to make the connection. The Rolling Stones built ”(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” on the Stax/Volt model, using electric guitar to imitate the riffing horns of their Memphis models.
Stax/Volt suited rockers better than the other leading black pop style of the day, Motown, because it was Motown’s polar opposite. It was raw and rugged rather than slick and smooth, crafted by individualists rather than production teams, made to meet the needs and desires of the black community; it spread to the pop audience not by design, as Motown’s did, but by accident.
Or so it seems. The Complete Stax/Volt refutes the idea of Stax as an isolated little toiler purer than its big-city cousins. Wading through the derivative harmony groups and mediocre rock bands that dominate the first four volumes shows that Stax spent its early years (up to 1964) emulating more successful Northern counterparts — not only Motown but black-based blues and R&B labels like Vee-Jay and Chess.
The payoff on these first volumes comes with the early tracks by Otis Redding, the MGs, and, sometimes, Rufus Thomas, early Stax’s most distinctively Southern performers. Thomas derived his act from Deep South medicine shows; Redding sounded as straight out of the Georgia woods as Carla Thomas (Rufus’ daughter and Stax’s leading female singer) claimed he was in their duet hit ”Tramp”; the MGs were the first urban soul band, a racially integrated combo that would have been unthinkable in the North, where there was far less direct contact between black and white.
Early Stax made good records with other performers, but it made consistently great ones only when these men strutted their stuff, and above all, when Otis Redding stepped to the microphone. Otis wrote classic songs, had a genuine poetic gift, and was equally comfortable shouting or crooning. If Redding’s range and timbre weren’t spectacular, his sense of phrasing and timing remains unrivaled. His special magic, which shows even on his first Stax record, 1962’s ”These Arms of Mine,” was turning a vocal digression — for example, that track’s hummed and groaned ”Come on, come on, baby” — into the focal point of a song, a feat not for amateurs.
Redding galvanized the Stax house band. Built around Booker T. and the MGs, keyboardist-arranger Isaac Hayes (long before he became a baaad movie actor), and the Mar-Key horns, the group’s core was its powerful, subtle rhythm section: fluid bassist Donald ”Duck” Dunn and immortal drummer Al Jackson. Jackson, who drove Memphis hits from early Otis to late Al Green, lagged impossibly far behind the beat to create the deepest imaginable pocket for the singer and lead instrumentalists. Fine as they always meshed, Jackson and his mates came together with a special purity of spirit and feeling whenever they played behind Otis, as they rose to the special challenge of playing with him.
By 1965, Stax’s major talents had forged an inimitable sound, a process aided by the emergence of Hayes and David Porter as a songwriting and production team to rival Motown’s Holland-Dozier-Holland. The cherry on top was the arrival of Sam & Dave.
Working with Hayes and Porter, Sam Moore and Dave Prater crafted the best soul duets ever made, beginning with ”Hold On! I’m Comin’,” which features perhaps the definitive Stax horn arrangement, and continuing through such classics as ”When Something Is Wrong With My Baby,” ”Soul Man,” and ”Wrap It Up.” The ultimate tribute is that we know so many of their hits as hits by other artists — the Blues Brothers (with ”Soul Man”), the Fabulous Thunderbirds (”Wrap It Up”), Bonnie Raitt (”I Thank You”). Yet nobody’s ever come close to matching the originals: Moore — whose shouting and testifying baritone, pushed to its upper limits, led the duo — is among the greatest singers in rock and soul.
After Sam & Dave, a host of soul talent — including Albert King, Eddie Floyd, and Johnnie Taylor — flowed into the label’s studios the way rockabillies had poured into Sam Phillips’ crosstown Sun studio a decade earlier. On The Complete Stax/Volt, this story plays itself out on volumes five through nine, a flood of heart-stopping R&B without a single bad track — not one.
Still — while I’m glad to have discovered such gems as Ruby Johnson’s scorched-lung 1966 rendition of ”I’ll Run Your Hurt Away,” how many people really want to hear every Stax single ever made? The Otis Redding Story, a three-CD compilation, and the double-disc Sam & Dave set, An Anthology of Sam & Dave: The Stax Years 1965-1968, from WEA Canada are more essential purchases. Besides, The Complete Stax/Volt Singles: 1959-1968 isn’t truly the complete Stax story: We never hear the post-’68 extensions of the Memphis sound that Isaac Hayes, in particular, extrapolated on albums like 1969’s ”Hot Buttered Soul” and 1971’s ”Shaft.” The omission symbolizes the historic distortion from which soul artists in general, and Stax/Volt performers in particular, have suffered: Soul historians, including those who assembled this set, treat soul as if it just fell apart and disappeared one day, when in fact it transmuted into the rhythm-music future in which we now live, into musical styles ranging from white rock to rap, and from funk to new jack swing.
Such injustice takes nothing away from Stax’s artistry, but it helps explain why so few are aware of this magnificent music. Now that the quality of singing has undeniably deteriorated, and our best balladeers are stuck with formulaic songs and subordinated to increasingly inflexible beats, Stax/Volt remains glorious for the supremacy of its singers and the astonishingly resilient rhythms that drove them. The Complete Stax/Volt is overkill. But it brings to Stax/Volt’s artists some long-overdue r-e-s-p-e-c-t. B+
THE BEST HISTORY OF R&B ON DISC
Motown and Stax/Volt were not the only significant centers of soul music in the ’60s, any more than Chess and Atlantic were the exclusive proprietors of great ’50s R&B. In fact, one of the glories of R&B and soul was that they were so decentralized it was hard to be sure where the next great record was coming from. To this day, sorting out the great stuff is a full-time job.
One place the great stuff can be found is on Time-Life’s Rhythm & Blues; this is the best and most thorough history ever compiled. Where else are you going to find a set covering 1968 that features Cliff Nobles and Co.’s joyous instrumental ”The Horse,” or a ’66-hits package with Darrell Banks’ stupendous Detroit-Memphis ”Open the Door to Your Heart”? The Temptations, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, the Supremes, and James Brown are all here too.
The series includes six volumes so far: 1956, 1959, 1963, 1966, 1968, and a whole set devoted to Ray Charles. The sound quality is superb, and so is the annotation. Because it covers the basics so well, the series is an ideal introduction for new soul fiends. Each volume so far is A-level work.
The Complete Stax/Volt Singles: 1959-1968