Stax After Otis

Yes, it’s a broken record but in yet another chapter in the ongoing saga of the “will the musically inclined public buy the same material yet again?” Concord Records which now owns Fantasy (and Rounder) has reissued two of the most surprising LP-sized CD boxed sets of the '90s: The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles Volume 2 1968-1971 and The Complete Stax/Volt Singles Volume 3 1972-1975 in a more compact form, but still containing the original liner notes by Rob Bowman, who also wrote the definitive history of the label Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records. The big draw this time out—though not for audiophiles—is that listeners can now buy each track as an individual MP3.

Having reviewed these sets when they came out in 1993 and 1994 respectively, they are a fascinating journey. Briefly as background, in 1968, as co-producer Bill Belmont says in a new forward for this edition, Stax/Volt was a label without a catalog. After the death of the label’s biggest star Otis Redding in December 1967 (damn those small planes!), Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton (the first two letters of their last names made Stax), severed a distribution deal with Atlantic Records, in the process losing all their back catalog up to that point to Atlantic. When it was decided the company would try and rebuild it’s catalog, a sale to Gulf + Western was arranged and Stax executive VP Al Bell was brought in as a part owner. Axton sold her shares in 1969. The new snapping fingers logo arrived in 1970. Steve Cropper left Stax in 1971. It was Bell’s vision, one that included building Stax into a competitor to Motown, that powered the label until its final demise in 1975.

Given the talent drain that Redding’s death alone meant to Stax (not to mention the exit of Sam & Dave and others), the quality of the music on these sets is more hit and miss than what’s on the massively essential The Complete Stax-Volt Singles 1959-1968. The key to these sets is time: how much do you have to sit and sift through, separating wheat from the chaff. As an experiment, I randomly chose one disc from each set. On Disc Seven of the 1968-71 set, the roster consists of acts like The Staples Singers who’s “Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom-Boom)” is every bit as smooth as anything Motown was doing, Johnny Taylor whose “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone” has that trademark Memphis strut and Isaac Hayes, whose overripe reading of “Look of Love” is slow and lugubrious in the extreme. On Disc Four of the 1972-1975 set, the nuggets are fewer and further between, and the formulas have worn thin. Yet while the perky pop of Mel & Tim’s “I May Not Be What You Want,” is old hat, the talking ballad of Jimmy Lewis, "Stop Half Loving These Women,” embarrassingly dated and Rufus Thomas’ “Funky Robot” works an exhausted vein, The Dramatics dramatic “Hey You! Get off My Mountain,” which suffers from a slow tempo, could have been a Philly soul-styled had the tempos been turned up.

Even the great Eddie Floyd, by then the last of the survivors from the glory days, sounds a little tired in “Lay Your Loving On Me.” For the thrill of the hunt, and the occasional glimpse of southern soul greatness, these sets are worth the time.

Allen Fant's picture

A killer label that released killer tracks!

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

Vol. 1 represents the relatively short-lived cooperation of the races. The label and the musicians were integrated. IMO, this produced the best music, for this label among others. Unfortunately, this didn't last. As the music and label became increasingly racially homogeneous, i.e., black, the music suffered.