When Stax Records severed its distribution deal with Atlantic in 1968, it was time to rebuild from the ground up. The entire back catalogue went to Atlantic, as did Sam and Dave’s contract. Gone was the “Stax o’wax” label logo; in its place was a new, finger-snapping Stax. The stewards of the Stax legacy at Concord Music Group have recently launched a series branded as Stax Remasters, and the three latest additions to the reissue program have arrived from Rufus Thomas, Shirley Brown and The Dramatics. Do the Funky Chicken, Woman to Woman and Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get, respectively, are an impressively eclectic trio. Though these albums largely lack the instantly recognizable southern soul sound that resides within the grooves of many of those Atlantic-distributed 1960s hits, they make a case for the potency of the label’s sometimes-rocky rebirth.
Sticking to the tried and true paid off for the self-proclaimed “world’s oldest teenager,” Rufus Thomas. (Rufus gave Dick Clark a run for his money!) Thomas struggled to find his place in the new Stax line-up despite having given the label its very first hit song in 1960 with “Cause I Love You.” His hit streak had continued in the early part of the decade with a number of related songs: “The Dog,” then “Walking the Dog,” then “Can Your Monkey Do the Dog,” and finally (inevitably?) “Somebody Stole My Dog.” So although 1968’s “Funky Mississippi” failed to hit, Thomas followed it with “Funky Way” before hitting on a Chicago dance craze that inspired the funky mother of them all: “Do The Funky Chicken.” Rufus clucked his way through the song: “this is the kind of stuff that makes you feel like you want to do something nasty…like waste some chicken gravy on your white shirt right down front!” Who could resist? So the Do the Funky Chicken album was born (Stax STX-33177-02, 2011).
Joining the titular chicken were ten further slices of rollicking, good-time funk that, in Rufus’ parlance, will make you want to get up and do something unnecessary…! His original liner notes (reprinted on the back cover of the CD booklet) give insight into the man: “I sing, do a step or two, and I’m a comedian. You ought to see me. I’m the most beautiful person you’ll ever see in your life.” He brings that joie de vivre to Louis Jordan’s “Let the Good Times Roll.” He revisits “Bear Cat,” an answer record to the original Big Mama Thornton “Hound Dog,” and purrs and growls his way through the song: “You ain’t nothin’ but a bear cat, scoopin’ round my door!” The most unusual track is the epic “Sixty Minute Man,” turning the Billy Ward and the Dominoes original inside out. Thomas shouts, chants and scats around the exultant cry of “I feel my body!” on this tour de force cut. He follows Frank Sinatra (!) as one of the few pop artists to take a shot at “Old MacDonald,” and extends it to two parts! It’s impossibly drawn out (“Ee I ee I oh-oh-oh…oh yeah!”) but really cooks! Though Thomas wrote most of his own material, his covers – “Old MacDonald” perhaps notwithstanding! – were well-chosen, by the likes of Dallas Frazier and Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
The new remaster is rounded out by both sides of four singles including “Funky Mississippi” and “Funky Way,” both from 1968. (Alas, later tracks “Do the Funky Penguin,” “The Funky Robot” and “The Funky Bird” didn’t make the cut!) On “Boogie Ain’t Nuttin’ (But Gettin’ Down),” a two-part single from 1974, Thomas name-checks contemporaries like Eddie Kendricks and Kool and the Gang and even shows them a thing or two!
The most compelling of the three titles is The Dramatics’ Whatcha See is Whatcha Get (Stax STX-33176-02, 2011). This release actually offers two titles on one disc, presenting the whole of the 1972 Whatcha See album and its 1973 follow-up, A Dramatic Experience. Both albums are largely the work of writer and producer Tony Hester, whose personal demons kept him from reaching the heights of a Thom Bell. Yet with arranger Johnny Allen, Hester crafted some spellbinding soul for the Detroit vocal group. The first album kicks off with the infectious “Get Up and Get Down,” with a lush bed of strings and a powerful horn part, although the brass isn’t down and dirty as on many previous Stax productions. Whatcha See offers sweet soul, but it’s not necessarily “soft,” alternating luscious harmonies with impassioned vocal cries on tracks like the dramatic “Thankful for Your Love.” The five-man vocal interplay is frequently reminiscent of Motown’s Temptations, with each part executed to perfection from bass (Willie Ford) to falsetto (Ron Banks). Banks’ falsetto crooning on “Thankful” and the song’s thick, orchestrated sound wouldn’t have been out of place in Philadelphia; other songs clearly influenced by the sound of The City of Brotherly Love include “Fall in Love, Lady Love” and “Now You Got Me Loving You,” with its understated horns, swelling strings and insistent groove. Of course, the song “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get” remains the group’s calling card, and its fuzz guitar riff combined with the vaguely Latin feel still makes for an irresistible listen. “Hot Pants in the Summertime” (“You sure look good in your hot pants!”) is not quite as timeless.
Read more about A Dramatic Experience, plus Shirley Brown's Woman to Woman, after the jump!
For A Dramatic Experience, Hester crafted a semi-concept album about the evils of drug abuse, ironic considering that he battled drug addiction while crafting these songs. (Hester’s life ended tragically, with the producer shot and killed on the streets of his home, Detroit, at the age of 34.) The sound of hellfire and demonic cackling mark “The Devil is Dope,” the album’s opening salvo, while a leering Lucifer even appeared on the original album cover, unfortunately not reprinted within the booklet here. Though the vocals and orchestrations are compelling, the material is heavy-handed. The devil reappears on “Jim, What’s Wrong with Him?” as well as “Beware of the Man,” a dark spin on “The Candy Man”: “He’ll turn you on and he’ll freak you out/He’ll get you hooked and turn your mind inside out!” A Dramatic Experience offers many lighter moments, too, though, among them the smooth “You Could Become the Very Heart of Me” and “Beautiful People,” with the falsetto lead a ringer for The Stylistics’ Russell Thompkins, Jr. The album’s centerpiece is undoubtedly the thunderous “Hey You! Get Off My Mountain,” which charted a respectable No. 43. No further bonus tracks have been added to these two albums.
It’s fitting that the final title discussed here is 1974’s Woman to Woman (Stax STX-33177-02, 2011) from Shirley Brown. The title track was the final hit for Stax, with Brown speaking to “Barbara” in a lengthy, memorable opening rap: “Hello, may I speak to Barbara? Barbara, this is Shirley. You might not know who I am, but the reason I am calling you is because I was going through my old man’s pockets this morning, and I just happened to find your name and number…” The song struck such a universal chord that it even crossed over to the country market via a cover by Barbara Mandrell; it seems a spiritual cousin to “Jolene,” in which Dolly Parton implores the seductress Jolene, “Please don’t take him just because you can!”
Woman to Woman offers plenty more. The smoldering “It Ain’t No Fun,” the album’s second single, references the first with another rap and is in the Aretha Franklin mold. There’s a simmering groove on “Long as You Love Me” and “I Need You Tonight,” the latter of which also indulges Brown’s Aretha-style pyrotechnics. Her cover of Jerry Ragovoy and George David Weiss’ “Stay With Me, Baby” doesn’t put Lorraine Ellison’s famous original out of your mind, but it gives Brown a chance to wail from the heart. It’s one of many stellar vocals, and all are supported by the core house band (including Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass and album producer Al Jackson, Jr. on drums). The Memphis Horns join on “Stay With Me Baby” and two other selections, as well. Brown shares a gospel background with Franklin, and she was sometimes compared to the Queen of Soul. You can decide for yourself whether those comparisons are fair, thanks to three of the five bonus tracks which have been appended. Brown takes on “Ain’t No Way,” “Respect” and “Rock Steady” in three performances making their U.S. CD debut here. She’s alternately sensitive and fiery on the Carolyn Franklin-written “Ain’t No Way” and brings credibility to a lightly disco-fied, funky “Respect,” devoid of the background vocalists that make such an impression on Franklin’s familiar record. A fourth bonus track is a previously-unissued version of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” in a lengthy 7+ minute treatment. It again begins with a rap, goes into a smooth, slow and soulful version of the Stevie Wonder song, and at about five minutes, revives the song’s classic Motown groove. This track is one of the many keepers on Woman to Woman! (Sadly, the otherwise terrific booklet offers little information on the origins of these tracks.)
Stax historian Rob Bowman has contributed new liner notes for Do the Funky chicken and Whatcha See is Whatcha Get, while Gail Mitchell and Lee Hildebrand have taken on Woman to Woman. The booklets are well-designed, with the artistic style extending to the label artwork itself. Joe Tarantino has remastered each title under the supervision of producers Chris Clough and Nick Phillips. The Stax Remasters series could well be a model format: affordably priced as well as comprehensive in both audio content and annotation. As for the prospect of further gold being mined from the Stax vaults? It makes me want to waste some chicken gravy on my white shirt, right down front!