STAX GOLD-HITS 1968-1974.

STAX GOLD-HITS 1968-1974.

For some time, I’ve been meaning to do a feature on one of my favorite soul labels Stax. Previously, I’ve reviewed a number of albums that have been rereleased and remastered, with Johnny Taylor’s Taylored In Silk, Shirley Brown’s Woman To Woman, The Dramatics’ Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get and The Staple Singers’ Be Altitude: Respect Yourself just four of these albums. These are just four of a huge roll-call of artists that recorded for Stax during the label’s lifetime. Among the other artists were some of the biggest names in soul and funk music. This included Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Booker T and the MGs, Carla Thomas, William Bell, The Emotions, Mavis Staples, The Soul Children, The Temprees and Mel and Tim all recording for Stax. With so many big names and so much great music on Stax, I thought that I’d feature one of the many Stax compilations have been released. Now as someone who over the years, has collected so many Stax compilations, I’ve plenty of albums to choose from. So, as a taster for a future in-depth feature on the trio of The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles’ box sets, I thought I’d review a compilation that features some of the best known singles between 1968 and 1974, Stax Gold-Hits 1968-1974, which was released in 1991 by Ace Records.  

On Stax Gold-Hits 1968-1974  are tracks from some of the biggest artists on Stax at this period. This compilation includes music from the mid and later period on Stax. Stax’s history is broken into three periods on The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles’ box sets. Between 1959 and 1968 was the “first period,” with 1968-1971 the “mid period” and 1972-1975 the “later period,” when Stax was experiencing financial problems. However, Stax Gold Hits 1968-1974 features music from the mid and later period, with some great music from some of Stax’s biggest names. Among the artists featured on Stax Gold Hits 1968-1974 are Booker T and the MGs, Isaac Hayes, Judy Clay and William Bell, The Dramatics, Johnny Taylor and The Bar-Kays. The twenty-four tracks that feature on Stax Gold Hits 1968-1974 are a good overview of music that Stax released during this time, and is a perfect introduction to the label’s music. After this, there’s so much magnificent music to explore from the Stax’s three periods. However, what are the highlights of Stax Gold-Hits 1968-1974? That’s what I’ll now tell you?

My first choice from Stax Gold-Hits 1968-1974 are two tracks from Booker T and The MGs, who were also Stax’s house band. They played on so many tracks for a variety of other Stax artists including Otis Redding and Sam and Dave. The two tracks on the compilation are two of their best tracks. Soul Limbo was released in 1968 and the title track from their Soul Limbo album. With its wailing Hammond organ, frenzied percussion and driving rhythm section it’s a true classic from Booker T and The MGs, a two and a half minutes stew of soul and funk music that’s just brilliant. 

Time Is Tight was released in 1969 and was from their soundtrack album Up Tight. Like Soul Limbo, it feature the unmistakable sound of Booker T Jones’ Hammond organ, while bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, drummer Al Jackson Jr. and guitarist Steve Cropper provide one of the tightest rhythm sections in soul music’s history. Although Time Is Tight is a quicker track, the arrangement is quite different with just that tight rhythm section and Booker T Jones’ Hammond organ featuring. Here, the rhythm section provide the track’s heartbeat, with pounding drums to the fore, while Booker T Jones’ Hammond organ wails atmospherically and beautifully throughout the track, adding to the track’s subtleties, charms and beauty.

Johnnie Taylor was one of the biggest solo artists in Stax’s history, releasing hits like Who’s Making Love, which gave him a number one US R&B single in 1968. In 1973, Johnny had another million selling single I Believe In You (You Believe In Me), from his 1973 Taylored In Silk album. It’s a song about love and relationships. The tempo is slow, an organ, rhythm section and flute accompany Johnnie. Meanwhile, bass dances around, seemingly partnering the flute and then latterly the strings.  Straight away, the arrangement unfolds revealing a combination of pounding drums, sweeping strings, shimmery, chiming guitars, floaty flute and that dancing bass. They provide a fuller arrangement for Johnnie’s vocal which is laden with power and passion. His voice soars, accompanied by female backing vocalists, whose voices unite soulfully with the driving, swirling and rich arrangement, resulting in a track that sounds quite beautiful and brilliant.

Another song from Johnie Taylor’s Taylored In Silk album is Cheaper To Keep Her, a song about love and relationships gone wrong, Johnny coming to the conclusion that it’s cheaper to keep his wife than divorce her. When released as a single, it reached number two in the US R&B Charts and number eleven in the US Billboard 100. It’s a track that swings, with shades of a big band sound when the blazing horns briefly interject, accompanied by a piano and bass. When Johnnie sings, his vocal is quite different, half-sung, half spoken. While horns rasp ironically, female vocalists sweetly, swoon, soulfully in unison “it’s cheaper to keep. her.” Still, the piano and bass, continue to provide a sound that has a quaint, old-fashioned sound and feel, that’s highlighted by the horns, backing vocalists and slower, yet swinging tempo. Above the arrangement sits Johnnie’s vocal, full of confusion and bemusement. Although quite different from the previous tracks in sound and style, this song really works. Much of this is down to the somewhat retro sounding, big band influenced arrangement, and Johnnie’s ability to breath life and energy into the lyrics. 

Private Number by Judy Clay and William Bell is another track about relationships gone wrong. A heartbroken William sings his heart out, against swathes of strings, rasping horns and a rhythm section that features members of Booker T and The MGs. Judy replies to William, her vocal matching the raw emotion and passion of William. Thankfully, by the end of the track Judy agrees to give William her Private Number, giving the song has a happy ending. However, this is a real heartbreaking slice of Southern Soul, laden with emotion, featuring an arrangement that matches the emotion of the vocal. With strings and horns accompanying Judy and William, the result is a stunning arrangement, one of the best on Stax Gold-Hits 1968-1974.

Another of the Stax albums I’ve previous reviewed was The Dramatics’ Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get. Probably their most famous track was In the Rain, giving the group a number one R&B hit, while reaching number five in the pop charts. It has a hugely atmospheric and effective opening, with rain and gusts of wind combining. That gives way to chiming guitars which echo, creating an atmospheric, deeply sad sound, perfect for the lyrics. The guitar combines with piano and rhythm section, providing an understated arrangement, allowing a vocal laden in sadness and regret to take centre-stage. Adding to the sad and atmospheric sound are lush strings and subtle backing vocals. Later in the track, rasping horns briefly enter, their sound subdued, in keeping with the rest of the arrangement.  It’s atmospheric song, dramatic and full of sadness and regret, with some deeply sad and thoughtful lyrics.

Probably one of the best known tracks on Stax Gold-Hits 1968-1974 is Issac Hayes funk drenched, Blaxploitation classic Shaft. This was the title track from his 1971 film soundtrack Shaft, which gave Isaac a number one albums in the US R&B Charts and US Billboard 200. Isaac also won two Grammy Awards for Shaft and when Shaft was released as a single, it too reached number one albums in the US R&B Charts and number two in the US Billboard 100. Now as someone who loves Blaxploitation music, this is a stonewall classic, totally peerless. With its dramatic introduction that gradually builds and builds, to reveal a searing, sizzling, funky stew of blazing horns, wah-wah guitars and cascading string and of course, the funkiest, hottest rhythm section. Add to that Isaac’s understated, yet strutting vocal, with breathless female backing vocalists accompanying him, and you get the picture that this track is indeed a true classic. From there on, things get even better, with the punchy horns rasping, the strings sweeping and swirling, whilst the rhythm section and wah-wah guitars combining to create the funkiest sound backdrop for Isaac’s vocal. However, this is just a taster of the Shaft soundtrack, which belongs in every record collection. Truly, it’s one of the best soundtracks of the past forty plus years…by far.

The Staple Singers have two songs of Stax Gold-Hits 1968-1974, with Respect Yourself the first of these two tracks. Taken from their 1972 album Be Altitude: Respect Yourself which became The Staple Singers’ most commercially successful album. It reached number nineteen in the US Billboard 200 and number three in the US R&B Charts. Respect Yourself reaching number twelve in the US Billboard 100 and number two in the US R&B Charts when it was released as a single. The track opens with keyboards, rhythm section and horns blazing before Pops’ understated vocal enters. Behind him, the rest of the group sing backing vocals, while a pounding rhythm section, guitars and keyboards accompany them. The lead vocal changes hands several times, with Mavis powerfully telling everyone to respect themselves. According to Mack Rice, the song was about encouraging African American people to respect themselves. This song about self-empowerment became important at a time when the civil rights movement was just about over. Meanwhile, the band have locked into a funk groove, and are feeding off each other, encouraging one another to greater heights. This they do, while in the process, recording a quite brilliant track, one that would become synonymous with The Staple Singers for evermore.

While Respect Yourself was a successful single for The Staple Singers, another track from Be Altitude: Respect Yourself that would give them their biggest hit single. I’ll Take You There, was released in February 1972 and was written and produced by Al Bell, reached number one in both the US Billboard 100 and US R&B Charts. During the track, Mavis asks everyone to find heaven. When you listen to the introduction, many people will recognize it as being part of a reggae track The Liquidator. Al Bell wrote the song in one key, C, only using three chords, C, F and A. After the “borrowed” introduction, Mavis pleading, emotive vocal enters, with the rhythm section, chiming guitars and short snaps of horns accompanying her. Later, an electric piano is played by Barry Beckett, while engineer Terry Manning plays harmonica. Both instruments are important in the track’s success. Just as important were The Memphis Horns soulful contributions, which can be heard throughout the track. However, without Mavis almost preaching vocal, this wouldn’t have been the same track. Here, she demonstrated just how hugely talented a singer she was, giving a powerful, moving and emotive performance.

Like Mavis Staples, Shirley Brown was another hugely talented female vocalist on Stax. She’s best known for her hit single Woman To Woman, which reached number one in the US R&B Charts, number twenty-two in the US Billboard 100 and was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1975. Later, an album also entitled Woman To Woman was released in 1975, reaching number eleven in the US R&B Charts and number ninety-eight in the US Billboard 200. However, by then Stax was experiencing financial problems, and the album was neither promoted nor marketed widely enough. Woman To Woman is best described as a mini-drama, with the track opening with Shirley phoning a woman called Barbara, who apparently has been having an affair with Shirley’s husband. Shirley warns her love rival, that the man she’s in love with, is her’s, every bit of him. Against a slow, lush and atmospheric arrangement that’s mainly the rhythm section, chiming, shimmery guitars, and subtle horns, Shirley warns Barbara. After a minute and a half, Shirley’s vocal begins. Like the earlier part of the track, Shirley’s voice is full of passion, but here it soars powerfully, as she warns Barbara and explains the situation. Behind her, the arrangement is still subtle, melodic, with just the rhythm section, horns and guitars combining. Together, they provide the perfect backdrop for Shirley’s gutsy vocal, which is part warning, part promise. Quite simply, Woman To Woman is a ballsy track, one part bravado, to one part passion.

My final choice from Stax Gold-Hits 1968-1974 is the final track on the compilation, The Soul Children’s tale of an affair and stolen moments, I’ll Be the Other Woman, which reached number thirty-six in the US Billboard 100 and number three in the US R&B Charts. This track was also on their 1974 album Friction. Written by Carl Hampton and Homer Banks, it’s three and a half minutes of raw emotion and heartache. With just keyboards, hi-hats and gentle percussion opening the track, horns rasp, before a vocal laden with emotion and sadness enters. Meanwhile, the rest of the group sing tight, soulful backing vocals, while horns soars above the arrangement. A slow, wandering bass line is ever-present throughout the track, while Booker T Jones’ Hammond organ adds to the track’s emotion and atmosphere. Truly, this is one of the best tracks on the compilation, thanks to an arrangement that matches the vocal’s emotion, heartache and sadness.

Stax Gold-Hits 1968-1974 demonstrates the quality of artists that recorded for Stax between 1968 and 1974. With artists like Isaac Hayes, Booker T and the MGs, Carla Thomas, William Bell, The Emotions, Mavis Staples, The Soul Children and Mel and Tim recording for Stax during this period, Stax had one of the most talented and successful rosters in American soul music. Apart from possibly Motown, Stax was blessed with a proliferation of creative minds working at their McLemore Avenue studios in Memphis. While the artists grabbed the headlines, a small army of songwriters, producers and musicians were responsible the brilliant music the label released between 1957 and 1975, when the label closed due to financial problems. However, between 1959 and 1975, Stax released some of the most important, influential and innovative soul music, with their trademark Southern Soul sound. On Stax Gold-Hits 1968-1974 you can hear some of the labels best music during that period. This is the perfect introduction to some of the best music in the mid and late periods of Stax Records. After this, their is a wealth of some of the best Southern Soul music to explore, from artist albums, compilations and box sets, some of which I’ll be reviewing in the future. Meanwhile, Stax Gold-Hits 1968-1974 is a perfect primer to the music of Stax Records. Standout Tracks: Issac Hayes Shaft, The Staple Singers Respect Yourself, Judy Clay and William Bell Private Number and The Soul Children I’ll Be the Other Woman.

STAX GOLD HITS 1968-1974.

Stax Gold: Hits 1968-1974

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