Various Artists - Stax ’68 A Memphis Story (2018)

Various Artists
stax_68_a_memphis_story.jpg
Click on CD cover
to listen or purchase

Various Artists - Stax ’68 A Memphis Story

The tragedy for Stax Records in the year 1968 is that everybody associated with the label, from executives Jim Stewart and Al Bell to musicians such as Otis Redding, Steve Cropper and Booker T. Jones, wanted to expand while the world around them was contracting. In that sense, the label shared something in common with Dr. Martin Luther King, who came to Memphis in March and April of that year with an expansive view of what his movement for human and civil rights could accomplish at a time when he was becoming increasingly politically isolated.

The multi-media package Stax ’68 A Memphis Story, which will be released on Oct. 18 by Craft Recordings, tells the story of Memphis, Stax Records and the music the label released during the tumultuous year of 1968. This five CD box set contains every single and B-Side that Stax released during 1968.

Various Artists - Stax ’68 A Memphis Story

The tragedy for Stax Records in the year 1968 is that everybody associated with the label, from executives Jim Stewart and Al Bell to musicians such as Otis Redding, Steve Cropper and Booker T. Jones, wanted to expand while the world around them was contracting. In that sense, the label shared something in common with Dr. Martin Luther King, who came to Memphis in March and April of that year with an expansive view of what his movement for human and civil rights could accomplish at a time when he was becoming increasingly politically isolated.

The multi-media package Stax ’68 A Memphis Story, which will be released on Oct. 18 by Craft Recordings, tells the story of Memphis, Stax Records and the music the label released during the tumultuous year of 1968. This five CD box set contains every single and B-Side that Stax released during 1968.

Those songs provide an insight into what was happening at Stax, in Memphis and in America in 1968. The CD comes with a 56-page book that includes archival photos and two sets of liner notes. The first, written by Andria Lisle and Robert Gordon, is a history of the Memphis’ racial environment and the sanitation strike that brought King to Memphis. Part two details the efforts of the executives, vocalists, producers, musicians and songwriters working to create music while being buffeted by personal loss, business setbacks, and national tragedy.

And create they did. Stax, of course, is known as Soulville – the rougher, grittier version of Motown. And the label made no effort to smooth out the rural field hollers of the blues, the sanctified or Baptist church traditions or even the country and rockabilly influences that had been there since Stewart started the label as Satellite Records in the 1950s.

By 1968, Soulville was in a position to be a label that encapsulated everything happening in music at the time. Artists such as Redding,  Rufus Thomas, Mable John, Carla Thomas performed the soul music that allowed Stax to rightfully be called Soulville. However, Stax counted artists such as Daaron Lee, who released “Long Black Train,” a straight country song that told a story about childhood friends who ended up on the opposite sides of the law.

Albert King dropped blues gems such as “Blues Power” and the Muskegon, Mich. based rock band The Aardvarks dropped trippy psychedelic rock numbers like “Conscious Train of Thought.” The label even stepped into Motown’s territory with songs such as Ollie & the Nightingales’ “A Sure Thing,”

All of this, as we learn from Steve Greenberg’s liner notes, was both a part of Al Bell’s grand plan – a plan that became an existential necessity because of the tragedy of Redding’s death in late 1967 and the fact that Atlantic owned the distribution rights to nearly every Stax record released from 1960 to 1967. Stax signed an agreement with Atlantic stipulating that the former could terminate its distribution deal with Atlantic if co-owner Jerry Wexler was no longer the owner. That happened in 1967 when Warner Brothers purchased Atlantic. When Stewart sought to execute the deal, he learned that Atlantic owned Stax’s catalog, as well as the contracts of Stax’s biggest hit makers at the time, Sam & Dave. Stax, after fruitless negotiation, cast out on its own, and with a real need to get new music out there. Stax still had a great deal of talent, and those artists, producers and writers got to work. One of their first big hits in 1968, and the record that opens this box set, is Redding’s posthumous release, “Dock of the Bay.” Redding, along with several members of the Bar Kays died in an airplane crash on Dec. 10, 1967.

“Dock of the Bay” and Sam & Dave’s “I Wanna Thank You,” were both released on Jan. 8, 1968. Both became top 10 hits. The hits continued after the news of Stax’s break with Atlantic. Booker T. and the MGs hit with “Soul Limbo,” Johnnie Taylor has a smash with “Who’s Making Love,” and William Bell’s “I Forget to Be Your Lover,” released in 1968, became his first Top 10 hit in March 1969.

Yet, Stax kept being squeezed by the contracting real world. King’s assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968, brought the city’s racial tensions to a head, and those tensions had an impact on the Stax that had been an oasis of racial cooperation and equality. Linda Lyndell was a white singer who grew up singing in black churches in Gainesville, Fla. She signed with Stax and her most famous release is “What a Man.” The label pitched the tune to radio, but DJs and radio cooled on it after realizing that Lyndell was white. Racists, angered that Lyndell sang an R&B song that they felt encouraged race mixing, threatened to kill the singer. Frightened, Lyndell left the music business and stayed away for a quarter century until Salt & Pepa used the song’s bass line and hook as the basis of their rap hit by the same name.

Stax’s attempts to broaden the label’s reach ran up against the racial and political realities of 1968, and this box validates the label’s reputation as the preeminent maker of soul music. Songs such as Rufus Thomas’ “I think I Made a Bo Bo,” Eddie Floyd’s Motown-inspired “I’ve Never Found a Girl,” Taylor’s “Sundown” and “I Ain’t Particular” are all underappreciated gems by well-known artists. Cuts such as “Lovey Dovey” and “New Year’s Resolution” show that Redding and Carla Thomas had the potential to become Stax’s version of Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell.

Stax ’68 introduces listeners to some of the label’s lesser known acts such as Shirley Walton and Jeanne and the Darlings – their “What Will Later On Be Like” is a classic that should be getting some run on Soul Town.

A lot of bad things happened in 1968. But as Stax ’68 A Memphis Story shows, Stewart, Bell and their talented staff made a lot of good in a bad situation. It is an incredible story that highlights the rollercoaster ride of the Golden Age of soul music during one of the most infamous and tumultuous years in American history. Highly Recommended.

By Howard Dukes

 
Featured Album - Conya Doss - CLEAR
Album of the Month - Cecile McLorin Salvant - The Window
Featured Album - Raul Midón - If You Really Want
Featured Album - Anthony David - Hello Like Before

Leave a comment!