When it comes to Stax Records' 60th anniversary celebration, why should CDs have all the fun? The vinyl release of The Stax Vinyl 7s Box from Concord and UMC (STX 00252) brings fourteen rare tracks from across the Stax family of labels to seven 45 RPM singles, all emblazoned with the familiar yellow, finger-snapping logo. Compiler Richard Searling's raison d'etre is a simple one, as he sets forth in the liner notes: "I've selected the content based on my experience of featuring these songs in clubs, on the radio, or just being amazed by how hard to locate many of them are. Although several have been previously available on sevens, it's great to finally see them released on the authentic Stax imprint." Searling has done a commendable job of selecting rare tracks that showcase the broad spectrum of soul music released by Stax during its 1960s and 1970s heyday, from artists both expected and lesser-known, and from locations beyond the label's Memphis home base.
Northern soul favorites Darrell Banks and J.J. Barnes occupy the first disc of this set. The former's "I'm the One Who Loves You" has its Detroit pedigree all over it, with producer Don Davis embellishing Banks' pleading vocal with rich, Motown-esque strings and a stomping backbeat. It was one of just four Volt singles released by Banks, all of which can be heard on the 2013 Ace Records collection named for the song. Barnes was another Motor City veteran, this time of Ric-Tic Records. "Sweet Sherry" was co-written by Davis and likewise has an instantly recognizable Detroit groove, complete with honking sax break.
R&B has always been a powerful force to express social conscience. In that category, Searling has included singer-songwriter John Gary Williams' impassioned observation that "The Whole Damn World is Going Crazy," and indeed, Williams' sentiment every bit as relevant now as upon its initial release in 1974. In the same vein is its flipside, Lou Bond's "Why Must Our Eyes Always Be Turned Backwards." Bond even quotes "America the Beautiful" in his ironically smooth, midtempo song to underscore its pleas for peace and tolerance. Bond's self-titled album (also from 1974) for Stax's We Produce imprint was released on CD in 2010 by Light in the Attic, and remains worth seeking out as powerful, soulful commentary on the era.
Sweet soul is served up by The Montclairs via Stax's Arch imprint. Phil Perry leads the group and co-wrote "Hey You! Don't Fight It," with all the marks of classic Chicago-style soul. Barbara Lewis of "Hello Stranger" and "Baby I'm Yours" fame came to the Enterprise imprint from Stax's old distributor, Atlantic, in 1970. "The Stars," arranged by Motown veteran Mike Terry and recorded in Chicago with engineer Russ Terrana and producer Ollie McLaughlin, is big, bright, infectious soul.
Only a small number of Stax's most famous headliners appear here. Carla Thomas, daughter of the label's Rufus Thomas and a hitmaker in her own right, is heard on the rhythmic "I'll Never Stop Loving You." The 1969 gem has been paired with the brassy "One More Chance" from Margie Joseph, the chanteuse who began her career at Stax/Volt but had greater success on Atlantic and Cotillion with producers including Lamont Dozier and Johnny Bristol. Johnnie Taylor's 1970 A-side "Friday Night" is a frenetic reading, produced by Don Davis, of Richard "Popcorn" Wylie and Tony Hester's dancer. It's backed with a song from another Stax A-lister: the one and only William Bell. The soul survivor's upbeat, string-laden "Happy" was co-written and produced by the label's headliner and house bandleader, Booker T. Jones.
One of the rarest cuts here hailed from Muscle Shoals, Alabama and FAME Studios: Paul Thompson's ebullient ode to a "Special Kind of Woman," co-produced by Barry Beckett - a B-side which only appeared on stock copies of Thompson's lone Volt single. Here, it's been joined by "You're My Only Temptation" from soul diva-turned-Broadway-star Roz Ryan. The seemingly-ubiquitous Don Davis produced this track penned by "Popcorn" Wylie and Tony Hester. Ryan's big, expressive pipes were backed by sweet male harmonies for a Detroit-meets-Chicago sound. Also under-the-radar is Charlene (Southern) and The Soul Serenaders' funky "Can You Win," which has also commanded top dollar on the secondhand market. It closes out the seventh and final record of this set with Joni Wilson's "(Let Hurt Put You in the) Loser's Seat," which played on the tagline "Let Hertz Put You in the Driver's Seat," as heard on numerous advertisements of the day. The tune was written by George Clinton as "All Your Goodies are Gone" for his group then known as The Parliaments, and Wilson gives the lithe, sleek melody a scorching vocal delivery.
Each one of the seven 45s (all in the British style, meaning that an adapter isn't necessary to play them, as with U.S. singles) bears the famous Stax label and is housed in a purple sleeve. Searling provides liner notes about each track in a six-panel fold-out insert. While all fourteen tracks would comfortably fit on one CD, the sturdy and attractively-packaged Stax Vinyl 7s Box is clearly aimed at collectors and vinyl connoisseurs who have always yearned to spin these hard-to-find (and harder to pay for) treasures. These rare soul platters have never looked, or sounded, so good.