Friday, 1 March 2013

The Soul of Stax

Pretty much the only music I listened to in the 1980s was Soul. After the death of Punk in the late 70s there didn't seem to be anything around that had the same kind of passion and honesty. So I went retro. Only 60s Soul did it for me.

I remember hearing Otis Redding's Otis Blue and Wilson Pickett's In The Midnight Hour for the first time on Alexis Korner's BBC Radio 1 Sunday night Soul and R'n'B show somewhere around late 1979. Both albums were recorded at the Stax recording studios in Memphis (though not all the Pickett album was recorded there but the best tracks, like In the Midnight Hour and Don't Fight It, were). The music was powerful. The arrangements were lean. There was absolutely nothing there that didn't need to be there. The rhythm section was tight and funky. The horns punched out lines that responded gospel style to the singer's agony or ecstasy. Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett, and all the other Stax singers I was later to discover, like Sam and Dave, Eddie Floyd, Mavis Staples, Johnny Taylor... they had voices with enormous power and range that seemed to live the songs, not just sing the words. I was hooked.

Thus began a lifelong Soul obsession. And in the early 80s those original 60s LPs were getting pretty hard to find. There were no cheap CD reissues, box sets or compilations around in those days and you pretty much had to slog it around the second hand record shops to pick up old copies of American imports of Stax, Atlantic, Motown, Hi records... (American pressings were more highly prized because they were mastered from the original tapes and had noticeably better sound quality. I remember some of the UK pressings of Atlantic albums, which in the 60s were distributed by Polydor, sounded really godawful.) So I spent most of the decade pretty much going from one second hand shop to another on the look-out for pristine pressings of Aretha Franklin, King Curtis, Sam and Dave, The Meters, James Brown....  Even around Europe. Amsterdam, Paris, Copenhagen, Madrid... never mind the museums and restaurants what were the second hand shops like?

Listened to now, 60s and 70s soul sounds more marvelous than ever. Like the blues there's no arsing about or studio trickery. It's clean. It's real. Recorded more or less live. What you hear is what went down. Great singers. Great songwriters. Great musicians. Soul also had optimism. Fueled on the righteousness of good old gospel and the 60s Civil Rights movement, it had a belief in itself and the future. These were marching songs for changing times. People get ready. A change was gonna come...

The Soul of Stax
The home of Soul music in Memphis, Tennessee was Stax Records. It was founded in 1962 by Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton and it went bust in January 1976. Those 13 or 14 years are the classic years of southern Soul music.

The Soul of Stax, a 1994 BBC / French co-production directed by Philip Priestley, tells the the story of those classic years - the first hit with Rufus and Carla Thomas; the rise and international success of Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, the Staple Singers; the decline and fall of soul after the loss of optimism in the civil rights movement and rise in anger and militancy after the assassination of Martin Luther King; and finally, Stax's eventual bankruptcy.

It features Stax founders Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, Isaac Hayes, Al Bell, Rufus Thomas, house band Booker T (Jones) and the MGs (Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn) and clips of Sam and Dave, Otis Redding and the Wattstax movie.

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