Stax Records is rightfully renowned for its catalogue of deep southern soul straight from the heart of Memphis. But, like its famous Detroit competitor Motown, the label founded by Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton released music in a variety of sounds and styles. The Complete Stax-Volt Singles 1959-1968 (released in 1991 and reissued by Rhino in 2016 was the first major archival box to begin to address the Stax legacy in record-by-record fashion. It was followed by The Complete Stax-Volt Soul Singles, Vol. 2: 1968-1971 (1993, reissued 2014) and The Complete Stax-Volt Soul Singles, Vol. 3: 1972-1975 (1994, reissued 2015), but all of those seminal volumes primarily concentrated on the A-sides that made Stax famous. A new addition to the series has happily aimed to change that.
The riveting 6-CD collection Stax Singles Volume 4: Rarities & The Best of the Rest (CR 00043), available now from Craft Recordings, features six discs that live up to its subtitle. For its first three discs, Stax historian Rob Bowman has curated a selection of the finest flipsides to bear the logos of Stax and sister imprints Volt, Truth, and Enterprise. Disc 4, produced by Bill Belmont, takes a deeper look at Enterprise, home to Isaac Hayes but also to a roster of pop, rock, and country artists. The fifth CD, helmed by Alec Palao, explores the progressive Hip and Ardent imprints, the latter of which introduced the world to Big Star. The sixth and final disc, curated by Lee Hildebrand, looks at the gospel recordings under the Stax umbrella via such imprints as Gospel Truth and Chalice. It all adds up to an exciting, alternate history of the venerable Stax label.
The first three discs offer a treasure trove of chronologically-assembled B-sides, originally released between 1960 and 1975, tracing the development of the Stax sound. These 75 tracks have been culled from more than 600, so while it’s nowhere near a complete overview of the “missing” flipsides, it’s a very representative collection from artists both familiar (Rufus Thomas, The Staple Singers, Sam and Dave, Booker T. and the MG’s, William Bell, Isaac Hayes, Major Lance) and less well-known (Eddie Kirk, The Astors, Lee Sain, Hot Sauce, Ruby Johnson, The Nightingales). CD 1 focuses on the Atlantic Records period through May 1968 in which the New York giant distributed Stax; CDs 2 and 3 pick up in June 1968 and go all the way to 1975.
Rufus Thomas, with and without his star-in-her-own-right daughter Carla, appears on eight tracks here, including “Deep Down Inside,” a duet with Carla that was the flip of Stax’s first regional hit “‘Cause I Love You.” Thomas’ blues-based style found a natural home in the early days of Stax. But the groove, as laid down by the Mar-Keys or Booker T. and the MG’s, would soon be king – leading to some of the most indelible R&B recordings ever. Their distinctive, taut, and brassy style wasn’t just limited to the A-sides, of course, which this set proves in abundance. The organic, smoldering Stax sound was often in stark contrast to the more polished productions of Motown, rooted in sophisticated pop songcraft. (Mable John was the rare Motown expatriate to come to Stax; she’s represented with four fine selections.) As Rufus Thomas, Eddie Floyd, or Booker T. and the MG’s develop and mature over these tracks, they’re changing along with the sound of music itself. (Note that there’s plenty of cross-pollination here, with Isaac Hayes and the M.G.’s Steve Cropper, among others, showing up as artists as well as songwriters and producers for other artists.)
There are numerous detours from the Stax “house style” which make this set even more of a compelling listen – whether the lightly Latin uptown-soul of The Canes (“I’ll Never Give Her Up”), the driving fusion of doo-wop harmony, pop and soul from Ollie and the Nightingales (“Girl You Have My Heart Singing”), the girl- group harmony of Jeanne and the Darlings (“Standing in the Need of Your Love”), or the Chicago or BS&T-worthy brass explosion of Art Jerry Miller’s “Grab a Handful.” Stax tried (largely in vain) to make hitmakers out of Hot Sauce, the Rhonda Washington-led vocal group; it’s clear from their four selections here that quality wasn’t the issue. Hot Sauce was a product of Stax’s association with Detroit-based producer Al Perkins, but while he was recording in the Motor City, he still captured the southern deep soul feeling associated with Stax.
A great many gems populate these discs, such as Delaney and Bonnie’s take on Steve Cropper and Eddie Floyd’s “We’ve Just Been Feeling Bad,” an attempt by the roots-rockers to fit into the Stax mold. Other standouts include Sam and Dave’s Porter/Hayes ballad “A Small Portion of Your Love,” Booker T.’s slinky, piano-driven “Over Easy” and tough, swaggering “Soul Clap ’69,” and the Bar-Kays’ amped-up cover of Sam and Dave’s “I Thank You.”
Carla Thomas’ “Hi-De-Ho (That Old Sweet Roll)” (produced by Chips Moman) and Isaac Hayes and David Porter’s “Baby I’m-a Want You” are rare covers here from writers not typically associated with Stax – in these cases, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, and David Gates, respectively. Like Chips Moman, Van McCoy was tapped for production work outside the Stax “system.” He helmed “Let Love Fill Your Heart” from the single-named Ilana in 1971, a pleading slice of orchestrated R&B.
Disc Four of the box set is dedicated to the Enterprise label. While best known today for Isaac Hayes’ groundbreaking string of LPs, the imprint was conceived as an all-encompassing one. Indeed, Enterprise took in jazz, country, and rock artists, as well as singer-songwriters and the tried-and-true R&B. The 22 tracks here offer a cross-section of the label’s finest, and rarest, work beginning with “The Ballad of Otis B. Watson” in a lavishly-orchestrated version from Memphis talent Sid Selvidge. It was written and produced by Don Nix of the Mar-Keys, who was responsible for a number of Enterprise recordings heard here – including Dallas County’s impassioned soul ballad “Love’s Not Hard to Find” and the deep-voiced Casper Peters’ lovely ode to “April.” Nix also is featured here as a solo artist on Enterprise with two choice 1973 cuts: the bluesy “Black Cat Moan” and breezy, AM radio-friendly “She’s a Friend of Mine.”
Detroit’s Ollie McLaughlin played a pivotal role at Enterprise, too. His productions were stylistically diverse as he sought to expand Enterprise’s reach. Clark Sullivan’s catchy slice of bubblegum pop, “Reaching for a Rainbow,” was written by future “Rhinestone Cowboy” tunesmith Larry Weiss. “Why Did It Take You So Long,” a bouncy pop offering clearly inspired by Burt Bacharach and ideally suited for B.J. Thomas, was recorded by both its co-writer Chuck Boris and “Hello, Stranger” singer Barbara Lewis. (Both renditions of this completely delightful song are included here, back-to-back.)
On the rock spectrum, Finley Brown’s “Gypsy” explodes with scorching guitar. The Caboose’s “Black Hands, White Cotton” and River City Street Band’s “Some Other Man” are strong pop-rockers worthy of another listen, with the latter in a Blood, Sweat & Tears style. Larry Raspberry of The Gentrys cut the rousing “Rock ‘n’ Roll Warning” with his band The Highsteppers.
Enterprise also welcomed Billy Eckstine to its roster after the veteran vocalist had finished his tenure at Motown. His resonant baritone is heard here on two tracks, both from the pens of Isaac Hayes and David Porter: a classy, uptown reworking of “I Wanna Be Your Baby” (first recorded by Sharon Tandy) and a torrid reading of the Sam and Dave classic “When Something is Wrong with My Baby.” Drummer-bandleader Chico Hamilton was among Enterprise’s other jazz artists, as heard here on “Conquistadores ’74,” a remake of his classic Latin-inflected tune featuring the members of Little Feat!
O.B. McClinton may have been Enterprise’s most notable artist in the country vein; he appears with “Slip Away” and a twangy, top 40 Country revival of Wilson Pickett’s Philly-bred “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You.” With the signing of superstar producer Larry Butler to Enterprise in 1974, the label (in its final days) focused even more on country, via singles like the weepy “The Way I’m Needing You,” recorded by both Cliff Cochran (in a rendition produced by his famed cousin Hank) and Karen Casey (co-produced by none other than Stax mainstay Donald “Duck” Dunn). Butler himself helmed “Let’s Get Together” as sung in sultry style by Connie Eaton. (The track is likely erroneously credited to songwriter Chet Powers, but it’s not his famous song as recorded by The Youngbloods.)
The fifth disc of Stax Singles is dedicated to the short-lived Hip and Ardent labels dedicated, respectively, to pop and rock. Hip issued around three dozen 45s, while Ardent (a revival of a non-Stax label originally active between 1960 and 1966) only eked out releases from four artists during its 1972-1974 rebirth, three of which are featured here.
Hip might have been designed as a pop label, but there were various strains of that catch-all genre on display. The British Invasion-flavored “Stop – Quit It” and “It’s Mighty Clear” from Memphis band The Poor Little Rich Kids can stand proudly alongside the best of other American bands influenced by the sounds of Great Britain, such as The Beau Brummels. The high-octane “Day In and Out,” by The Waters (not the soulful family singing group, but a Kentucky trio), also owes a debt to the Brit sound.
The names of many familiar Stax artists and producers dotted the credits of Hip’s releases. Isaac Hayes and David Porter wrote and produced the sweet girl group sound of The Goodees’ “For a Little While,” as well as producing “Groovy Day” from The Kangaroos. The latter quintet was backed on the sing-along number by The Staple Singers!
The Goodees (previously anthologized by Ace) are heard on a few tracks here, including the cult favorite death disc “Condition Red” (with more than a nod to The Shangri-Las) and the Penn/Oldham “Goodies.” If Isaac Hayes’ wish to turn the Memphis gals into “the white Supremes” never panned out, they nonetheless left behind a small but vibrant discography.
Don Nix and Duck Dunn helmed the rip-roaring “And I Love You” from Bobby Whitlock, future member of Derek and the Dominos. Among Nix’s other tracks here is “Miss Rita Famous” from the group Paris Pilot. Paris Pilot’s singer David Mayo moved onto a collective called Village Sound, purveyors of such bubblegum-flavored fare as “Hey Jack (Don’t Hijack My Plane).” Steve Cropper brought the full-on, swaggering Memphis Sound with “Family Portrait” from artist Billy Lee Riley, who also delivered the down-and-dirty jam called “Show Me Your Soul.”
What was the most bizarre item on Hip? It would have to be The Honey Jug’s freaked-out, Vanilla-Fudge-on-even-more-acid version of The Yardbirds “For Your Love” (produced by Jim Dickinson at Ardent), which has to be heard to be believed. Hip also flirted with psychedelia on Southwest F.O.B.’s cover of the West Coast Experimental Pop Art Band’s “Smell of Incense” (a minor pop hit) and The Knowbody Else’s “Someone Something.” Two members of Southwest F.O.B. went on to find greater fame as seventies soft rockers England Dan and John Ford Coley, while The Knowbody Else reinvented themselves to great success as Black Oak Arkansas!
Jim Dickinson, of course, went on to produce the most famous artists on the Ardent label: the cult heroes of Big Star. The original single versions of “In the Street,” “September Gurls,” and “O My Soul” can all be heard here. Two other Ardent artists, both produced by Terry Manning, are featured. Ardent had great hopes for the Oklahoma four-piece known as Cargoe, and it’s easy to see why when revisiting the crunchy pop-rock of “Feel Alright” and the attractive balladry of “I Love You Anyway.” The Hot Dogs, founded by Greg Reding of Village Sound, are on offer with two tracks including a rock reworking of Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line.” (The only missing Ardent artist is Brian Alexander Robertson, who released a lone 1973 single.)
The spiritual side of Stax is explored on the sixth and final disc of this collection. Chalice Records, formed in 1965, only yielded eight singles before it folded two years later. But in 1972, Al Bell launched Gospel Truth to pick up where Chalice had left off. Like its predecessor, it lasted for just a couple of years. But both imprints left behind numerous choice cuts, 22 of which can be found here (including a couple of ringers from the Stax and Volt labels proper). All of the artists from the Chalice roster are here – The Dixie Nightingales, The Stars of Virginia, The Pattersonaires, and The Jubilee Hummingbirds -with stirring gospel tracks that hardly nodded to pop or soul. All were in the conventional quartet mode other than The Pattersonaires.
Some of the artists on Chalice, however, had a different concept of gospel. Some of the most fascinating tracks on this disc are their transformations of soul songs into the genre. “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You” became “Don’t Let the Devil Fool You” as sung by Rev. W. Bernard Avant Jr. and the St. James Gospel Choir. The Rance Allen Group debuted with “Just My Salvation,” a religious-minded rewrite of The Temptations’ romantic “Just My Imagination.” Though that single isn’t here, its follow-up is: Archie Bell and the Drells’ Gamble and Huff-penned “There’s Gonna Be a Showdown” with new lyrics tailored to the Christian audience.
Stax Singles Volume 4: Rarities & The Best of the Rest, produced by Mason Williams and Bill Belmont, is a collector’s dream from start to finish. If it’s still a crime that the Stax family of labels has never had a comprehensive singles series in the style of The Complete Motown Singles (with every A- and B-side from every imprint collected in chronological order), these box sets are impressive in their breadth and presentation. This set, in a small, compact disc-sized box with a lift-off lid, includes a 78-page booklet filled with thorough essays from Bill Belmont, Rob Bowman, Alec Palao, and Lee Hildebrand. Everything has been attractively designed by Rachel Gutek, and all of the impossibly rare singles have been beautifully remastered by Joe Tarantino. Memphis soul may have been the lifeblood of Stax, but this set shows the label’s diversity in full. It’s an essential addition to any library of not only R&B, but of American popular song.