Dusted Features


today features
reviews charts
labels writers
info donate

Search by Artist

Sign up here to receive weekly updates from Dusted

email address

Recent Reviews

Dusted Features

Dusted's Nate Knaebel looks at the Stax 50th anniversary celebration boxset.


Stax 50th, the 50-song, 2-disc anniversary box-set released early in 2007, brings up some interesting things to consider in terms of how the Stax legacy is received today. Certainly Stax is one of the more legendary record labels in American pop music history; nonetheless, I’d argue that the Stax story places a distant third to Motown and Sun in the popular imagination. It’s founding has never been cast as the same primordial eruption that Sun is still thought of some many years on, nor is it viewed as a stroke of alchemic genius, artfully bringing together a shrewd commercial acumen with an almost mechanized sense of artistic expression, a la Tamla/Motown. And as far as financial success stories, Stax is more of a cautionary tale, as the label lost the original masters to many of its biggest hits, over-stepped it’s limits to compensate, and went bankrupt in 1976. The label’s history is also much more than a scrappy DIY love affair with black music - let’s not forget that by the end of it all, Stax was involved in the movie business, was releasing Richard Pryor albums, and distributing Big Star records.

Far more important than any other aspect of the Stax legend, and the reason for why this collection is so wonderful, however, is the music. Stax had some duds - it’s hard to find a label as prolific that didn’t - but no other independent label of the time was able to release such truly organic sounding music while maintaining a trademark sound that was also commercially successful. The finest Stax records had rock oomph, church pulpit grit, chitlin-circuit grooves, and a tremendous pop sensibility; they remain to this day the definitive examples of classic American soul music. Feel free to crate dig all you want, but you needn’t stray too far from Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, William Bell, and the like in order to hear the truth.

It goes without saying that the massive Stax singles box-sets that appeared in the mid ‘90s are far more comprehensive than this fairly straightforward double-disc package. Yet a thoughtful sampling of the label is also worth having, and a more concise history than this of a label as towering as Stax would be hard to come by. Label founders Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton didn’t hit upon their winning formula straight out of the gate, and thankfully Stax 50th skips the growing pains and begins with Carla Thomas’s classic “Gee Whiz (Look At His Eyes),” by all accounts the single that got the label rolling. The set, like the label, never looks back, running through stone cold classics from all of the heavyweights - Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Booker T. & the MGs, Eddie Floyd, Rufus Thomas — as well as slightly lesser-known yet still fantastic sides from the Mad Lads, Mabel John (who is, incidentally, responsible for some of Motown’s earliest sides), and Ollie & the Nightingales to name just few.

By the time disc one closes with the Carla Thomas track “I Like What You’re Doing to Me,” the listener has effectively been presented with the blueprint for not only Southern soul, but nearly all subsequent R&B until at least the arrival of Sly Stone and Funkadelic on the one hand and Philly International on the other. If one needs evidence, consider the labels and studios (Goldwax, Hi, American, to name a few), that sprung up in Memphis with quality variations on the Stax sound, and the fact that Atlantic Records (Stax’s distributor) subcontracted the recording and producing of some of their stars (Wilson Pickett being perhaps the biggest) to Stax’s in-house studios. While Stax 50th makes little attempt to uncover any truly lost gems, and therefore might prove a tad pedestrian to a studied listener, the fact that almost all of the tracks on disc one are familiar actually works in the collection’s favor. Lining up the hits top to bottom speaks not only to how successful a label Stax was commercially, but also just how revelatory popular music could be in the mid-to-late 1960s. “Hold On, I’m Comin’” was an R&B No. 1 in 1966, and it’s hard to imagine an era in which those opening horn licks and Sam & Dave’s impassioned plea won’t sound immense and immediate. If The Numero Group never started digging deep, and the only memories of soul music we were ever provided came from disc one of this collection, we’d all be doing just fine.

Of course Stax had to evolve like any other label, and disc two aptly covers that development. By the dawn of the ‘70s Otis Redding had passed, and a series of bad business decisions, shady contracts, and a parting of ways with Atlantic resulted in an entirely new roster of artists. The Soul Children, the Staple Singers, the Emotions, Mel & Tim, and a completely reimagined, acid-tinged Bar-Kays were the new thing: the Stax-O-Wax had been replaced by the finger snap. Of course, some of the old guard were still around and producing vintage material. Disc two boasts Booker T. & MGs’ classic “Time is Tight”; label elder statesmen Rufus Thomas’s “Do the Funky Chicken”; and three Isaac Hayes tracks, “Walk on By,” “Never Can Say Goodbye,” and (natch) “Theme from Shaft.” There’s no disputing the intensity of Charlie Pitts’s wah-wah riff that introduces the legendary black P.I., but “Theme from Shaft” is still the collections most uninspired choice, especially considering some of the other work Hayes was doing in the ’70s. While Hayes’ near 20-minute version of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” might not be a prudent choice for a two-disc set, it’s arguably the best thing to come out on Stax in the ‘70s, and it’s a shame that even in a truncated form it’s not here.

While it’s unfair to say that Stax simply wasn’t as great of a label during the second half of its existence, and thus by default the second disc here simply wouldn’t be as great as the first, there is some truth to the statement. It’s absurd to argue the quality of the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff,” Little Milton’s “That’s What Love Will Make You Do,” among others, yet by the ‘70s it was as if Stax was looking to other labels and locales for the shape of soul to come, rather than setting the standard. With the label encouraging artists to use other studios to record, Stax was literally moving elsewhere to remain relevant, an idea that culminated in new label co-owner Al Bell’s legendary “black Woodstock” festival, the 1972 Watts/Stax concert in Los Angeles (sadly, Stax 50th contains no live cuts from the performance). Stax had grown up and left Memphis, and a mere four years later, it would all be over.

The Stax name has actually returned (Concord Records purchased the entire back catalog and reestablished the label in 2006), and is part of the reason for the Stax 50th set. While it’s mildly inspiring to consider the possibility of music this powerful being made once again under its original masthead, one can’t help but assume that the finger snap will be a logo only and not the inevitable physical reaction to the new Stax grooves (Angie Stone? Possibly. Soulive? Not so much.) The other fear is that the new fangled Stax might somehow damage the legacy of the label. That’s nonsense, though, as there’s an indestructible quality to these songs, and removed from the oldies radio format in which they’ve been forced to reside for decades, they simply overflow with power and energy. Stax 50th seizes “Soul Man” from the clutches of a well-intended yet ultimately damaging Blues Brothers, and walks it back down that mythical dusty road where it belongs; “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” can be reimagined as the utopian cry for peace that it was always intended to be; and “Do the Funky Chicken”? Well, damn, you heard the man. All this and more from a fairly simple two-disc box-set with a fake brick design and a hologram company logo. Impressive.

By Nate Knaebel

Read More

View all articles by Nate Knaebel

©2002-2011 Dusted Magazine. All Rights Reserved.