Stax Records was the South’s answer to Motown and Atlantic, and the African-American response to the British Invasion and folk-rock. Founded in Memphis in 1957 by Jim Stewart and his sister, Estelle Axton, the company began as Satellite Records but changed its name in 1961. Jim and Estelle took the first two letters of their last names and combined them to form "Stax."
Looking back, the label’s history divides into three general periods—the "deep soul" years from 1961 to Otis Redding’s death in an air crash in 1967; the "fried funk" years from 1967 to the Wattstax concert in 1971; and the "mixed bag" years from 1972 to the label’s bankruptcy in 1975, when Stax recorded country, folk, sunshine pop and even rock in an attempt to raise cash and fend off failure. [Photo above of Estelle Axton and Jim Stewart]
Three recent box sets trace these three important periods in the label’s history:
Otis Redding: Live at the Whisky a Go Go, the Complete Recordings (Volt). This six-CD set was released in 2016, and the writer of the set’s liner notes, Lynell George, won a 2017 Grammy earlier this year. The box covers six performance sets over three nights at Los Angeles’s Whisky a Go Go in April 1966. The sound quality is fantastic, as is the backup band. The set vastly expands on the single album released by Atco in 1968, after Redding’s death. At the Whisky, Otis unleashed a new style of earthy, emotional soul on a highly receptive and largely white audience. Gone was the mannered supper-club slickness and poised polish of most mass-market soul up until this point. While James Brown had already revolutionized soul with tight funk and coiffed attitude, Redding whipped audiences into a frenzy with a growling, sweaty rural energy that still leaves the listener breathless. High point: Redding’s 10:08 cover of Brown’s Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, in which he masterfully outdoes Brown, if that’s even possible. Redding would become a national star after his appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival in ’67 and the release of Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay in 1968 after his passing. My only quibble is hearing many of the same songs across each Whisky set. Then again, each one has a slightly different hue. Go here.
Isaac Hayes: The Spirit of Memphis 1962-1976 (Stax). One of Stax’s most influential and successful artists was Isaac Hayes, who hasn’t really gotten his due yet. He was a songwriter, studio musician, producer, artist and a pioneer of longer-form soul. In this four-CD set, the box artfully provides a loving overview of an empowered soul visionary. Disc #1 features Hayes as a songwriter and producer on songs such as Sam and Dave’s Soul Man. Disc #2 covers his years as an artist on Stax’s Volt and Enterprise subsidiaries, a period that includes the Theme From Shaft. Disc #3 provides a taste of Hayes the cover artist. Disc #4 is a fascinating look at Hayes as orchestrator of long-form instrumental jams. Liner notes are by Robert Gordon, Mickey Gregory and Will Haygood. High points: (Disc #1) Billy Eckstine singing Stormy, Booker T. and the MG’s Boot Leg and the Charmels As Long As I’ve Got You; (Disc #2) Theme From "The Men," The Look of Love and Rolling Down a Mountainside; (Disc #3) I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself, Never Gonna Give You Up and If Loving You Is Wrong; (Disc #4) Ike’s Mood, Hung Up on My Baby and a 33:03 Do Your Thing. The set is certainly idiosyncratic, in that you’re getting a small sampling of Hayes based on the producer’s taste. But for those who may be unfamiliar with Hayes, it does the job. Go here.
Stax Singles Vol. 4: Rarities & Best of the Rest (Stax). Over the years, Concord has been releasing six-CD box sets of Stax’s singles output from 1968 to the label’s demise in 1975. The material that predates these boxes is owned by Atlantic, which purchased the distribution rights to the material in 1967 when Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton needed cash. The horrible financial impact of this deal became apparent to Stax only after Otis Redding’s death. With his passing, the distribution deal was severed, and Stax lost its best hope of generating revenue. Atlantic owned all of the back catalog and Al Bell, Stax’s new co-owner, had to develop an entirely new catalog of material with hopes that some of the singles would become big pop hits. Not enough did. In the third installment of Stax’s post-’67 catalog (Vol. 1 was put out by Atlantic years ago), we hear a wide range of rarities that chart an interesting history. In addition to a disc of early ’60s singles (I suppose through a deal with Rhino), much of the box is devoted to the 1967-’75 period. There’s funk, gospel-soul and many artists you probably never heard of or didn’t realize they recorded for the label. The list includes Billy Eckstine, Chico Hamilton, Delaney & Bonnie and a number of white groups and artists. High points: Ollie & the Nightingales’ Girl, You Have My Heart Singing, the Staple Singers’ Stay With Us, the Newcomers’ Mannish Boy, Hot Sauce’s Echoes From the Past, Jean Knight’s Pick Up the Pieces, Johnnie Taylor’s Stop Teasing Me and Issac Hayes’s Type Thing. The 76-page booklet features terrific notes by Rob Bowman, Bill Belmont, Alec Palao and Lee Hildebrand. Go here.
JazzWax clips: Here’s Otis Redding’s Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag…
Here’s Isaac Hayes’s Theme From "The Men"…
And here’s Ollie & the Nightingales’ Girl, You Have My Heart Singing…