As someone who came to William Bell via William Broad, to Sam & Dave by way of ZZ Top, and Carla Thomas through a (most outstanding and life-changing) Rachel Sweet single, I have spent more than 35 of my years listening to select soul and R&B, with the disparate sounds of Northern Soul (still not sure what counts as N.S. and what doesn’t), southern soul, Memphis soul, Muscle Shoals, and 60s and 70s ‘urban’ music becoming a bit of an obsession the last decade. As a rhythm-less man from Alberta, I do spend most of my time writing about bluegrass, roots, and folks music, but this ‘other side’ of Americana is as natural to me as any dusty troubadour’s latest, metaphor-heavy anthem.
Celebrating 60 years, the reinvigorated Stax imprint is having select titles re-issued and repackaged this year. Some titles are being issued on vinyl (which I haven’t heard—except as noted, all impressions are based on provided downloads or streams) while a handful of single-artist compilations have also been released and are the focus of today’s writing. Regardless of format, there are several reasons to celebrate these releases.
The single-artist CD compilations are nicely but not lavishly packaged, and are accompanied by informative liner notes providing context, credits, and release and chart details. [Only The Dramatics physical CD release was received for review; presuming the rest of the releases follow similar packaging.] As hinted earlier, William Bell, Sam & Dave, and Carla Thomas have their Stax output distilled to 12-track sets. Additionally, Otis Redding, Booker T & the MGs, Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers, Johnnie Taylor, and Albert King, and The Dramatics are included in the initial slate of Stax Classics.
Depending on personal experience and preference, some of these artists are likely more familiar than others, and the Stax output of Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, and several others are readily encountered digitally, on various compilations, and within the used market. Others within this series will be more revelatory.
Personally, The Dramatics were a group I had little heard. While the others are staples (see what I did there!) on oldies radio as well as satellite outfits including SoulTown on Sirius/XM, I had not knowingly encountered The Dramatics previously; a couple songs revealed themselves as vaguely familiar upon listening. Recording for the Stax subsidiary Volt, included here is their initial single for the label, 1969’s “Your Love Was Strange” (which failed to chart) as well as later Billboard Top 10 hits “In the Rain” (#5 in 1972) and “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get” (#9, 1971.) By my count, and confirmed via Wikipedia, six of these songs hit the R&B Top 20 between 1971 and 1973.
Featuring Dennis Coffey’s signature guitar electricity, the group’s vocal manner is uniformly impressive across these dozen tracks. William Howard is a terrific lead vocalist, and Willie Ford gets real low in some spots. At times funky—”Gimme Some (Good Soul Music)” and “Get Up and Get Down”—and at other times lush and headin’ for the covers—”Thank You For Your Love” and” “Feel For You”—the group also sends messages with “Hey You! Get Off My Mountain” and “The Devil Is Dope.” How I went this long without “And I Panicked” is another indication that there are always new things to discover. Recommended if the Isley Brothers are your sort of thing.
If Carla Thomas had only recorded the Hayes/Porter classic “B-A-B-Y,” I do believe it would have been enough to set her in my sights given my affection for Rachel Sweet’s stunning and very different 1978 rendition. Thomas’s “B-A-B-Y” is about as perfect a three-minutes of breezy, pop-soul as has ever been committed to wax. While her biggest hit came in 1967 with Otis on “Tramp,” The Queen of Memphis Soul had considerable pop and R&B chart success with Stax and, with the exception of “Gee Whiz (Look In His Eyes)”, a solid overview of Thomas’s recorded output is distillated herein ranging from 1964’s “I Got No Time to Lose” through to 1969’s “I Love What You’re Doing to Me.” For me, I want more of Thomas and will stick to the albums, but for casual listeners this set will suffice.
The 54-minute Isaac Hayes Stax Classics album provides a concise peek into one of soul’s true innovators. The hits are included (“Theme from Shaft,” “Never Can Say Goodbye,” “Do Your Thing”), but I prefer the album versions of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” and “Walk On By” to the truncated renditions included. Positively, all 9-plus glorious minutes of “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic” are here. Any artist having had the lengthy not to mention influential and important a career as Hayes had cannot be expected to have the definitive contained within a single-disc set. Rather, this package is a mighty introduction for those just coming to Hayes.
The strongest representation of the blues presented in these Stax issues comes from Albert King, the man who popularized William Bell/Booker T. Jones’ “Born Under A Bad Sign,” and whose definitive versions of “Cross Cut Blues” and “The Sky Is Crying” either became (depending on perspective) overshadowed by Stevie Ray Vaughn’s emergence, or were brought to greater attention because of it. King’s most successful album for Stax may have been I’ll Play the Blues For You, but only two tracks from that release are included, “I’ll Play the Blues For You, Part 1” and “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home.” The seminal and readily available Born Under A Bad Sign album is well-represented. What we are presented with here is a nice little summation of King’s importance to both Stax specifically and the blues in general. Aficionados will already own the albums, but again—a solid introduction.
Johnnie Taylor could sing. Most known for his 1976 monster hit “Disco Lady,” as with all the artists contained within this Stax series, there is more to explore beyond the best known material. While Stax had gone bankrupt and missed out on “Disco Lady,” included on this set are the pop and R&B hits “Who’s Making Love,” “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone,” “Take Care of Your Homework,” and the very groovy, “Love Bones.” “Cheaper to Keep Her,” “I Believe In You (You Believe In Me)”, and “Steal Away” are additional songs that helped make Taylor one of Stax’ most important acts.
“I Forgot to Be You Lover.” “Born Under a Bad Sign.” “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” “A Tribute to a King.” Just four of the William Bell classics included on his Stax Classics album. A couple numbers with Judy Clay, including the funky “My Baby Specializes,” help shape this too brief examination of Bell. Bell didn’t have as broad-based chart impact some of the other artists included in this series did, although he had his successes, but I would argue that his music has aged the best. Every track here is essential. Then again, Bell is my favourite soul singer. With his current resurgence, thanks to the Grammy-winning This Is Where I Live, I need the full albums—you may be satisfied with this wonderful wee set.
With crystal clear sound, the Stax Classics albums appear to be selling for $7 or $8 in the US (double that plus in Canada) and are available digitally for either $5.99 or $9.99 on iTunes Canada. Well worth the investment, I believe. All are highly recommended as introductions to the label and the artists, and provide excellent but limited overviews of the highlighted artists.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald