Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” the first Stax single of 1968, should have been a new beginning for the artist and label. Instead, the posthumous release ushered in a tumultuous year for the Memphis institution. The death of Redding and members of The Bar-Kays on December 10, 1967 was a tremendous loss for Stax and popular culture, but no one could have predicted the upheaval that would affect Stax and the city of Memphis in the following twelve months. That time has just been chronicled in a new box set from Craft Recordings. The 5-CD anthology Stax ’68: A Memphis Story presents every A- and B-side released by the label in 1968, providing these songs as the soundtrack to a tale of a city at battle for its own soul.
The story of Memphis, Tennessee mirrored the story of the unrest then raging across America. Already beset by racism and corruption, Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr.’s horrific assassination on April 4 at the Lorraine Motel split Memphis apart at the seams – and led the city to turn, in part, to Stax for healing, and to try to curtail the violence enveloping the city. Stax had long been an oasis of racial harmony, with black and white artists and personnel working side by side; that spirit also pervaded the label’s music. Steve Cropper is even quoted in Steve Greenberg’s essay as recalling that the bridge of “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” was inspired by the sunshine pop sounds of The Association, one of the bands with whom Redding had shared the stage at Monterey Pop. After the death of Dr. King, boiling tensions in the city reached the insular world of Stax. The African-American Al Bell, who owned a ten percent stake in the label and would later own the shares of Caucasian founders Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton as well, began to rethink (while not altogether abandoning) his commitment to fostering a diverse roster at Stax, instead nudging the label in the direction of black empowerment. The struggle for civil rights would not come easy, but Stax would be at the forefront.
Stax brought one major change upon itself in 1968. Jim Stewart had signed a contract in 1965 stating that if Jerry Wexler were to cease being an owner of Atlantic Records, Stewart could terminate their distribution deal with Atlantic. Sensing unlimited possibilities for the label’s future in not just R&B but pop, rock and beyond, Stewart took a roll of the dice by announcing his intention to terminate the contract upon Atlantic’s sale to Warner Bros. in late 1967. He was confident that Warner Bros./Atlantic would then buy Stax. After making overtures, WB came back with a small offer. Why? Stewart had failed to realize that terminating the deal would necessitate turning over all masters dating back to 1960 to WB, and also that label superstars Sam and Dave would be staying with Atlantic, as they had merely been on loan to Stax. (Their “I Thank You,” a top ten Pop hit, followed “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” as Stax’s second single of 1968 and was released on the same date, January 8.) Hence, Stax owned very little of value to WB. A frustrated Stewart resolved to start anew with Stax, find a new buyer, and build a new catalogue from the ground up. 23 days after the Atlantic deal ended on May 6, 1968, Stax was purchased by Gulf and Western’s Paramount Pictures.
Stax ’68 collects all of the remarkable music being made against this backdrop by Stax and its subsidiary imprints including Volt (founded 1961) and the Enterprise, Hip, and Arch labels. (There’s also one single here from Magic Touch, which moved from Atco to Stax to Chess.) Ironically, three of the first six post-Atlantic singles were by white artists: Linda Lyndell, Delaney and Bonnie, and Johnny Daye. Lyndell, reportedly run out of Memphis by both black and white anger directed at her, finally had her day in the sun when the sassy “What a Man” was sampled by Salt-N-Pepa featuring En Vogue in 1994. Yet the song, and Lyndell’s treatment, ended Stax’s efforts to have hits with white R&B artists. It’s too bad, for her sides here are uniformly stellar including the Motown-inspired “Bring Your Love Back to Me.” When tensions in the city reached a boiling point, numerous Stax artists spurred to action, whether singer John Gary Williams of The Mad Lads who was charged with the rifle sniping of a policeman (the policeman was shot in the leg) or Isaac Hayes, who joined The Black Knights group to, in his words, “tug at the apron strings of consciousness in this city.” Still other artists mourned Dr. King in song, including William Bell (“A Tribute to a King”) and the newly-signed Staple Singers (“Long Walk to D.C.,” about King’s 1963 march). Most poignant was Shirley Walton’s “Send Peace and Harmony Home.” Walton was in the studio recording the song when word arrived that Dr. King had been killed, turning the reflection intended as a gift to him into a eulogy.
Familiar voices are featured throughout the box set, including Bell, Redding, Sam and Dave, Johnnie Taylor (who skyrocketed the new Stax to elusive pop success with “Who’s Making Love”), Eddie Floyd, Albert King, Rufus Thomas, and Carla Thomas. But the biggest surprises come from the lesser-known artists as Stax (at least temporarily) broadened its musical horizons beyond southern soul and R&B. The organ-drenched, blue-eyed garage pop of The Memphis Nomads sat alongside Redding and Sam and Dave’s January releases. March saw a lone single from Derek Martin produced by, of all people, Teddy Randazzo of “Hurt So Bad” and “Goin’ Out of My Head” fame. Randazzo helmed the funky “Soul Power” b/w “Sly Girl,” with its riff purloined from the Four Tops’ “It’s the Same Old Song.”
Strings began creeping into the Stax sound, on tracks from Ollie and the Nightingales (“I Got a Sure Thing”), Johnny Daye (the pleading ballad “Stay Baby Stay”), and the duo of William Bell and Judy Clay (the immortal “Private Number”). But if lush arrangements smoothed out the Stax sound on certain tracks, others looked to rock. The brassy “Big Bird” is a stunning soul nugget from Eddie Floyd and producer/co-writer/multi-instrumentalist Booker T. Jones that inexplicably failed to chart. Ending the era of the “house sound” for Stax (which had been driven by Isaac Hayes, David Porter, and Booker T. and The MG’s), Al Bell and co. began to farm out sessions to Muscle Shoals, Chicago, and nearby Ardent Studios. More outside material was also considered; witness Carla Thomas’ fine, funked-up treatment of the Hair showtune “Where Do I Go,” or four-piece girl group The Charmells’ take on “(You’ve Lost That) Lovin’ Feeling.” New imprints were created even before the end of the Atlantic deal.
The pop-oriented Hip imprint had been introduced in 1966. Its first release of 1968 was by the five-piece band The Kangaroos: a Porter and Hayes-produced 45 of the timely sing-along “Groovy Day” (backed by The Staple Singers!) b/w Mark Lindsay’s “Every Man Needs a Woman.” Enterprise was launched by Shirley Walton (“I Was Born to Love You”) and followed by Isaac Hayes’ piano-led instrumental “Precious, Precious” (which, within its jazz framework, showcased his affinity for Burt Bacharach; think “Walk On By” here) b/w Count Basie’s “Going to Chicago Blues.” Even more atypical was the next release. Trumpeter Eddie Henderson’s quartet tackled the Academy Award-nominated film tune “Georgy Girl,” hardly typical Stax fare. St. Louis’ Arch label was distributed by Stax for a handful of singles, too, including The Delrays’ rocking cover of Bacharach and David’s “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me” and the psychedelic garage rock of The Aardvarks.
Booker T.’s “Soul-Limbo” inaugurated the new Stax label as Stax 0001 on May 31; it opens Disc Three of this set. The Soul Children were Hayes and Porter’s bid to continue their hitmaking streak with Sam and Dave, this time with a two-male, two-female quartet; their September ’68 debut single (“Give ‘Em Love” b/w “Move Over”) was clearly in the hard-hitting S&D mold in case there was any question. That month, alternately, saw Southwest F.O.B. emerge on Hip. The band included the future England Dan and John Ford Coley in its roster. Their debut “Smell of Incense” and “Green Skies” makes for a catchy, psych-pop treat. Hip veered to bubblegum with The Pop Corn Generation’s goofy “Kitchy Kitchy Koo” b/w “Shake It” (in the Kasenetz-Katz style), and the California sound with Bobby Whitlock. Who would have imagined that Derek and The Dominos’ future co-founder recorded a sunshine pop single co-written by Leon Russell? Enter “Raspberry Rug,” with its jaunty melody, quirkily psychedelic lyric, and brightly boisterous horn chart. The B-side was more straightforward blue-eyed soul, Don Nix’s “And I Love You.”
Whitlock was in the orbit of the newly-signed husband-and-wife duo Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett. D&B brought their own rootsy sensibility while still staying within the Stax bag, as evidenced by their first single produced by Donald “Duck” Dunn of The M.G.’s and Don Nix. Steve Cropper and Eddie Floyd’s slow-burning “We’ve Just Been Feeling Bad” could be found on the flip of the soulful original “It’s Been a Long Time Coming.”
Girl group The Goodees (previously anthologized by Ace Records) are heard on a few tracks here, including the cult favorite death disc “Condition Red” (with more than a nod to The Shangri-Las), Isaac Hayes’ sultry “Didn’t Know Love Was So Good,” and the Dan Penn/Spooner Oldham-penned “Goodies.” If Hayes’ wish to turn the Memphis gals into “the white Supremes” never panned out, they nonetheless left behind a small but vibrant discography.
Rockabilly hero Billy Lee Riley, a Memphis veteran who had recorded for Sun Records in the 1950s, reappeared on the Hip label with two sides produced by Steve Cropper including “Family Portrait” and the appropriately-titled “Going Back to Memphis.” Riley also produced a pair of twangy sides here from Daaron Lee including a country-fied take on Johnnie Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love” and a cover of Lee Hazlewood’s “Long Black Train.”
Stax looked all the way to Philadelphia for one single by The Epsilons. The group featured Bobby Martin, Gene McFadden, John Whitehead, and Lloyd Parks of Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes; Martin’s unmistakable and lush arrangement style (as well as the playing of the future MFSB) is immediately evident on the ballad “The Echo” and the uptempo instrumental “Really Rockin'” (which recalls Cliff Nobles and Co.’s “The Horse”). Louisiana-born Mable John came to Stax by way of Detroit and Motown Records, where she was the first female signed to Berry Gordy’s label. She soars on tracks including the Ashford/Simpson-written “Running Out.”
The vibrant and varied sounds of Stax ’68 don’t always reflect the turmoil behind the scenes of their creation, but they do reinforce Memphis’ diversity and, indeed, resilience. The music is put into sharp perspective with two essays in the attractive 60-page book designed by Rachel Gutek. Andria Lisle and Robert Gordon paint a harrowing, gripping portrait of the civil rights struggles that threatened to engulf Memphis, while Steve Greenberg more specifically looks at Stax 1968: The Three Shocks and Their Aftermath. He’s, of course, referring to the death of Redding, the divorce from Atlantic, and the assassination of Dr. King. All that’s lacking in this top-notch package are track-by-track annotations in the style of The Complete Motown Singles series that would have shed light on the great many artists featured here and their contributions to the Stax tapestry. Full credits, however, do offer discographical information, release dates, and chart positions. Paul Blakemore has beautifully remastered all of the tracks here, and each disc is emblazoned with one of Stax’s period labels.
While 1968 was a year unlike any other, one wishes that Stax ’68: A Memphis Story will lead to similar year-by-year volumes for the venerable soul label. For anyone interested in the label’s musical history or, truthfully, the history of this country and one of its most remarkable cities, this is a collection not to be missed.