Singer Carla Thomas with Stax founder Jim Stewart.
Singer Carla Thomas with Stax founder Jim Stewart.

Various Artists

Berry Gordy may have run a tighter shop over at Motown, but it was Jim Stewart's Stax Records in Memphis that was the real heart and, well, soul of 1960s and '70s soul music.

Originally a budget-minded operation founded by a failed white country fiddle player, Stax Records evolved into a powerhouse R&B operation with more sparse, ragged and slightly less polite sound than its Detroit-based competition. The producers and artists who recorded for Stax -- and its sister label Volt -- were responsible for a truckload of topnotch gems by the cream of the soul crop. Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes, Booker T. and the MGs, Sam and Dave, the Staple Singers, the Mar-Keys and, perhaps most important, Otis Redding, were just a few of the big league hitters in the Stax lineup.

All of that talent is on prominent display in this new four-CD collection, which should be indispensable for that reason alone. But there is a lot more here, and it's put together in far less cumbersome and a more-to-the-point fashion than 1991's exhaustive nine-disc Stax Singles anthology.

To the uninitiated, much of the Stax-Volt catalogue is recognizable these days for the second life it has taken on in advertising. But long before these tunes were used to peddle sedans to affluent boomers, the music cut a deeper swath. In fact, there's a pretty good argument to be made that not only was it fun to dance to, but at times it also carried a far-from-subtle political message aimed at segregated and suppressed music fans. Repeated listenings of Redding's "Respect" and "I've Been Loving You Too Long," and Sam and Dave's "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down" reveal deeper subtexts. Hayes' "Theme From Shaft" simmers with urban rage and hero worship. And even the MGs' rollicking "Time Is Tight" sounds like a call to arms -- a theme later more fully exploited by the Clash.

But don't let such weighty matters spoil the party. There is a wealth of material here aimed solely at having a good time. Check out Rufus Thomas' various celebrations of short-lived dance crazes of the day: "The Breakdown," "Do the Funky Chicken," "Can Your Monkey Do the Dog" and "Do the Push and Pull," to name but a few. It's like a musical how-to manual. Or listen to the honey-sweet harmonies that the Staple Singers pour over the coarse rhythms of their optimistic hits "I'll Take You There" and "Respect Yourself." Meanwhile, far more earthy pleasures are celebrated in Linda Lyndell's unrestrained "What a Man."

Even clumsy Caucasian music is transformed into suave soul by the Stax machine. The MGs' take on "Hang 'Em High" and Hayes' cover of Burt Bacharach's "Walk On By" both mine rich rhythms where before there were only fossilized chord changes.

Much of this material has been watered down over the years. Well-meaning hip-hop groups and R&B performers have dipped into the pool plenty, turning some of these tunes into sonic wallpaper. And empty-headed novelty acts, such as the Blues Brothers, further diluted the original thrust. But those searching for the real deal can start here.


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