The Dramatics at Stax sounded like an odd fit. Stax is the Memphis based label that specialized in funky soul of the Bar Kays or Booker T. & the MG’s, and that gritty churchified cut me and I’ll bleed soul of Otis Redding. The Dramatics hailed from Detroit, and their smooth doo-wop inspired harmonies and sophisticated instrumental arrangements sounded like they’d be at home at Motown or even in Philadelphia. The group actually had a cup of coffee at Motown after Berry Gordy’s outfit purchased the label that held The Dramatics’ contract.
By 1968, The Dramatics were in the Stax/Volt camp. The years 1967 and 1968 were pivotal ones for Stax and for the acts associated with the label. Redding died tragically in December 1967. Stax signed a distribution deal with Atlantic earlier in the decade, and the deal coincided with a creative period for both companies. When Atlantic sold Stax to Warner Brothers, Stax exercised a clause allowing the company get out of that deal if Atlantic head Jerry Wexler left the company or if his stock in Atlantic was sold. However, Atlantic and Warner Brothers had a deal that transferred the Stax masters to the Warner Brothers.
Stax got out of the distribution deal, but they left without the masters to all of the material made by the company between 1960 and 1967. That meant Stax had to make a bunch of new music if the company hoped to stay in business. The creativity borne out of desperation resulted in a second golden era at Stax that lasted from 1968 until the company imploded in scandal and insolvency in the mid 1970s.
The Dramatics tenure at Stax coincided with the label’s second creative period, so the songs on Greatest Slow Jams honor that portion of the groups’ history. This, of course, is the period when The Dramatics scored their first Top 10 hit, “Whatcha See is Whatcha Get,” a song that may have been a bit too uptempo to be included on Greatest Slow Jams. Instead, the album supplements ballad hits of the group with some lesser known cuts such as the Dramatics’ cover of the gospel classic “Tomorrow,” a song made popular by another legendary Detroit group, The Winans. However, I don’t mind the inclusion of “Tomorrow” on Greatest Slow Jams because The Dramatics’ rendition is lovely.
Fortunately the album does include “In The Rain,” the group’s second big hit. That number represents a quality recurrent in all of the slow jams included on this record – lush instrumental arrangements, tight harmonies, powerful lead vocals, inspired lyricism brimming with vivid stories and romance. These songs have amazing titles and the stories that The Dramatics unspool through their storytelling.
The album opens up with “Just Shopping (Not Buying Anything),” a tune that begins with a an acoustic guitar riff adds horns, smooth bass, strings before the guys start harmonizing after more than an minute of smooth instrumentals. “Just Shopping” tells the story of a guy’s attempt to woo a lady who resists his pitch with the hook of “just shopping/not buying anything.”
The wit and romance on “Just Shopping,” the brilliant “Toast to the Fool” and every other song on Greatest Slow Jams will find a warm reception among fans longing for a return of the excellent writing, vocals, lyrics and instrumental arrangements that Stax always brought to the table. Strongly Recommended.
By Howard Dukes