Tag Archives: Stax

Booker T. & The M.G.’s: The Complete Stax Singles Vol. 1 (1962-1967)

Killer soul instrumentals from the Stax house band

As the Stax house band, Booker T. & The M.G.’s were often heard backing seminal recordings by Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave and other label stars, but their career as a standalone group also produced iconic singles, B-sides and albums. Real Gone pulls together the original mono mixes of the group’s first 15 singles, A’s and B’s, to highlight the hits and deep-grooved flips of the band’s first six years. The hits include their chart-topping 1962 debut, “Green Onions,” and a pair of crossover Top 40’s from 1967, “Hip Hug-Her” and a cover of the Rascals’ “Groovin’.” The latter kicked off a string of crossover hits that stretched into 1969 (and will hopefully be anthologized on Volume 2). In between, the group delivered catchy singles that touched the bottom of the Top 100 while generating bigger success on the R&B chart.

The band’s debut album was filled with instrumental covers, but their singles featured original mid-tempo groovers built on soulful organ leads, searing guitar solos, and propulsive backbeats. The group’s first B-side, “Behave Yourself” is a dark, late-night blues, but their second single, “Jelly Bread,” turns the tempo up as Jones vamps behind Cropper’s introductory guitar riffs. The rhythm section of Jackson and Steinberg get everyone moving for 1964’s “Can’t Be Still,” and Isaac Hayes reportedly keys the organ on the follow-up “Boot-Leg.” 1966’s “My Sweet Potato” trades organ for piano, as does the country-inflected “Slim Jenkins Place.” The set’s covers include Buster Brown’s “Fannie Mae,” Gershwin’s “Summertime,” a pair of holiday releases, and, under the title “Big Train,” the gospel classic “This Train.”

Real Gone has packed twenty-nine original sides onto a single 74-minute CD, with liner notes and discographical detail by Ed Osborne, and mastering by Dan Hersch. For the vintage minded, they’ve produced a limited-edition 2-LP set on blue vinyl with a gatefold cover. Shorn of album tracks and the temporal condensation of greatest hits albums, this chronological recitation of the group’s mono singles showcases what listeners heard through their radios at the time. Album sales would later become a central focus of both the recording ethos and marketing strategy of music groups, but in the early-to-mid-60s, singles were still the lingua franca of pop music, and Booker T. & The M.G.’s made some great ones! [©2020 Hyperbolium]

Booker T.’s Home Page

Big Star: The Best of Big Star

Cherry-picked collection of the band’s first three albums w/singles

There’s an element of triumph in the unjustly-ignored-in-their-time Big Star being celebrated in retrospect. At the same time, the books [1 2 3 4], documentary, reissues [1 2 3], box sets [1 2] archival artifacts [1 2 3 4 5 6], resurrections and reunions [1 2 3 4], tributary performances (and resulting concert film) and best-ofs [1 2], threaten to overwhelm the rare brilliance of their slim, original catalog. For the uninitiated, the two-fer of the band’s first two albums provides the original testaments, and the challenging third album the capstone. But if three albums is too much to absorb up front, this collection provides a a Cliff’s Notes to a musical novella whose briefness belies its importance and nuance.

The disc intertwines material from the group’s three 1970’s albums, #1 Record, Radio City and Third/Sister Lovers, and includes many of the band’s most beloved songs. For fans, the draw is a half-dozen single versions. Robert Gordon’s liner notes summarize the ill fates that befell the band, and their Phoenix-like rise from obscurity to seminal influence. The music essays the group’s sweetest acoustic moments, their hardest rocking, and the despair that gripped Alex Chilton as he spiraled into the third album. A “best of” is only a short hop away from an ouvre that can be had in two discs [1 2], but if you’re not ready for the plunge, this is a good place to start. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Big Star’s Home Page

Albert King: Born Under a Bad Sign

AlbertKing_BornUnderABadSignLegendary blues album sweetened with five bonus tracks

In a career that stretched more than forty years, blues guitarist and singer Albert King waxed a lot of fine material, but none finer than this 1967 collection for Stax. “Collection,” rather than “album,” as this set was the culmination of a number of individual sessions that had previously been released as singles. So while there wasn’t a tight set of dates focused on recording a long player, there are several elements that turned the singles into a coherent statement. First was the combination of King, Booker T & The MGs, the Memphis Horns and the Stax studio. The deep southern grooves of the MGs provided King the perfect bed upon which to lay his intense guitar work, and the horn section added both atmosphere and sizzle. A final session netted five of the album’s tracks, and these knit together perfectly with the singles. The final lineup featured many of King’s hallmarks, including “Born Under a Bad Sign,” “Crosscut Saw, “The Hunter” and “Laundromat Blues.” The album made a huge splash among electric guitarists in ’67 and ’68, and has continued to be influential ever since. The 2013 reissue adds five bonus tracks to the album’s original lineup, four alternate takes and an untitled instrumental, all remastered by Joe Tarantino. The 16-page booklet includes insightful new liner notes by Bill Dahl alongside MichaelPoint’s notes from the 2002 reissue and Deanie Parker’s original 1967 cover notes. The extra tracks are worth hearing, but it’s hard to improve upon perfection, which the original album remains to this day. [©2013 Hyperbolium]

And if you’ve never seen it, check out this live version of “Born Under a Bad Sign,” recorded with Stevie Ray Vaughan for the Canadian television program In Session:

Otis Redding: Lonely & Blue

OtisRedding_LonelyAndBlueThe Otis Redding album that could have been

Producer David Gorman has worked a bit of sleight-of-hand in creating this what-might-have-been Stax/Volt release. By cherry-picking from Otis Redding’s catalog, Gorman’s built the most consistent studio album that Redding never released. Rather than balancing heartbreak with hip-shaking soul, Gorman’s playlist gives in only to pleading shades of blue: forlorn, yearning and desolate. Think of this as the soul music equivalent of Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours, Where Are You? and No One Cares, with Redding carrying a torch that just won’t burn out. Like Sinatra, Redding is imprisoned by confusion, sorrow and loneliness, fighting back from emotional destruction, and undercut by somber instrumental backings that only pick up their head to lash out with their horns. Redding’s original albums include many landmarks, but none drink so thoroughly from the well of late-night sorrow as this collection of hit singles, album tracks and a killer alternate version of “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember.” . Packaged in a mini-LP sleeve with ring-worn retro cover art and fictitious DJ liner notes, the package delivers twelve straight shots of Redding’s deepest soul. [©2013 Hyperbolium]

Booker T. & The M.G.s: Green Onions

Booker T. & The M.G.s’ 1962 debut LP couldn’t possibly live up to the invention and excitement of its title single, but it doesn’t have to, as even without the catchy hooks of their hits, the band’s soul grooves cut deep. With only three originals (“Green Onions,” the cooler variation, “Mo’ Onions,” and the exquisite late-night organ blues, “Behave Yourself”), the Stax house band was left to pull together cover songs from a wide variety of sources. They give instrumental hits by Dave “Baby” Cortez (“Rinky-Dink”) and Phil Upchurch (“Can’t Sit Down”) solid shots of Memphis soul, and though Acker Bilk’s “Stranger on the Shore” could be the last slow dance of the evening in a restaurant’s cocktail lounge, Steve Cropper’s guitar still manages to add some flavor. More impressive are his chops on Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman” and Jones’ soulful chords and lightning-fast single notes on “Lonely Avenue.” The original track lineup closes with a wonderful take on the jazz tune “Comin’ Home Baby,” with both Jones and Cropper shining brightly. The 2012 reissue includes a 12-page booklet featuring full-panel front- and back-cover shots, Bob Altshuler’s original liners and new notes from Rob Bowman. Also included are hot live takes of “Green Onions” and “Can’t Sit Down,” recorded in stereo in 1965 and originally released on Funky Broadway: Stax Revue Live at the 5/4 Ballroom. Though Booker T. & The M.G.s are best known for their hits (e.g., The Very Best Of) and the Stax singles they powered for others, their original albums hold many lesser-known charms that will delight ‘60s soul fans. [©2012 hyperbolium dot com]

Albert King: I’ll Play the Blues for You

Legendary bluesman finds the funk at Stax

King first developed his resume as a bluesman in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, recording singles for Parrot, Bobbin, King and Coun-Tree; but he really defined himself to the public with his move toMemphisand signing to Stax in 1966. Initially paired with Booker T. & the MGs, King recorded signature tunes that included “Crosscut Saw” and “Born Under a Bad Sign,” but starting in the early ‘70s, he latched onto the Stax soul groove with this 1972 release. Backed by the Bar-Kays and Isaac Hayes’ Movement, King’s music got a strong dose of funk., particularly in the lanky bottom end of James Alexander’s bass, Willie Hall’s snare and kick drum, and the sophisticated charts blown by the Memphis Horns. King’s long, bending notes added an original flavor to the Stax sound, and on a remake of Motown’s “I’ll Be Doggone” he stretches out the blue notes for all he’s worth. The album’s title track, cut into two pieces for release as a single, became King’s life theme and cracked the R&B Top 40. The 2012 reissue of this title adds four previously unreleased bonus tracks that include alternate versions of “I’ll Play the Blues for You” and an intense, hornless-version take of “Don’t Burn Down the Bridge.” The reissue closes with a superb guitar-and-organ instrumental, “Albert’s Stomp,” that fades out just as it really gets cooking. The set’s 12-page booklet includes liner notes by Bill Dahl and Tom Wheeler. [©2012 hyperbolium dot com]

Shirley Brown: Woman to Woman

Stax exits the stage on a high note

Soul singer Shirley Brown owns the somewhat dubious distinction of having the last major hit single for Stax. The title track from her 1975 debut album, issued on the Truth subsidiary, reached the top of the R&B chart in 1974, and just missed the pop Top 20. The album’s lead off, “It Ain’t No Fun,” was issued as a follow-up, but with Stax sliding into bankruptcy, the release stalled further down the charts. Stax had survived the near-death of their 1967 break with Atlantic, and with the 1968 creation of an instant album catalog under the direction of Al Bell, the label had successfully expanded its roster with non-Memphis acts. But a shaky distribution deal with CBS eventually undermined the company’s foundations.

Brown was born in West Memphis, but raised in Illinois, where her church singing provided a strong gospel background. Her musical education was advanced by an apprenticeship with blues guitarist Albert King, who also introduced her to Stax. Her debut was co-produced by Stax founder Jim Stewart and MG drummer Al Jackson Jr., and the songs collected loosely around the title hit’s theme. Brown delivers performances that are infused with anguished strength and heartbreak that may or may not be repairable. The calm with which she delivers the hit single’s spoken introduction suggests the protagonist will thrive, whether or not her relationship survives the infidelity at the song’s core.

Brown is magnificent singer, with a voice that could have easily overshadowed a song’s lyrics or melody. But when she lets loose with an impassioned wail or soars to a high note, it’s to express and punctuate the song’s emotion rather than demonstrates her range. Brown stays strong in the face of unrequited love, failing relationships, infidelity and unfulfilled desire. But it’s not all romantic gloom, as she revels in the love of “Long as You Love Me,” and celebrates her mate in “So Glad to Have You” and “Passion.” Concord’s 2011 reissue adds five bonus tracks, including covers of “Respect” and “Rock Steady” previously unreleased in the U.S., and a previously unreleased version of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” that stretches the Stevie Wonder title into seven minutes of simmering gospel soul. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

Rufus Thomas: Do the Funky Chicken

Stax’s elder statesman hits a funky ‘70s groove

R&B singer Rufus Thomas had been with Stax for over a decade when he recorded this 1970 album. He and daughter Carla had hooked up with Stax’s predecessor, Satellite, as early as 1960, and Rufus scored a Top 10 hit with “Walking the Dog” in 1963. He released a steady stream of singles throughout the 1960s, with only limited success until 1969’s “Do the Funky Chicken.” Though it only rose to #23 on the Pop charts, it was a big hit on soul radio, and the title and dance became lasting totems of ‘70s pop culture. The album from which the single sprang includes other novelty tunes, including a remake of Thomas’ 1953 hit “Bear Cat” and a two-part gospel/funk workout on the nursery rhyme “Old McDonald Had a Farm.”

More interesting than the novelty tunes is an extended take on “Sixty Minute Man” that mixes African-styled chanting, a rough-and-ready vocal and hypnotic bass, guitar and drum figures. The album is an interesting mix of shtick and soul, as the band – mostly likely the Bar-Kays throughout – hits funky instrumental grooves, such as the break on “Let the Good Times Roll,” and the 52-year-old Thomas steps out front to sing and ham it up. At the same time, his straight-up Stax-styled remake of the Valentinos’ “Lookin’ for a Love” proves he could stand still and deliver stirring soul music.

Concord’s reissue adds eight bonus tracks that include pre-LP singles “Funky Mississippi” and “Funky Way” and their B-sides – all backed by Booker T. & The MGs. The bonuses are rounded out by a pair of generic mid-70s two-part funk jams, “Itch and Scratch” and “Boogie Ain’t Nuttin’ (But Gettin’ Down).” Like the other entries in Concord’s Stax reissue series (including The Dramatics’ Watcha See is Watcha Get and Shirley Brown’s Woman to Woman), this has been remastered in 24-bit audio by Joe Tarantino, making this among the best sounding Stax reissues in the digital domain. Fans of Stax, early-70s funk and Rufus Thomas will all find something special here. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

The Dramatics: Whatcha See is Whatcha Get

Two-fer of classic 1972 soul LP and its 1973 follow-up

The Detroit-based Dramatics first full-length album, Watcha See is Whatcha Get, was also their ticket to the national soul scene. The group had been kicking around in a variety of forms since the mid-60s, but made only light impressions on the charts. They hooked up with Stax in the late ‘60s, but it wasn’t until they returned to Detroit and cut “Whatcha See is Whatcha Get” with producer/songwriter Tony Hester that they really broke through. The single’s chugging Latin beat, tight strings and horns, and a lead vocal that flowed between the group members proved irresistible, and the single rose into the national Top 10. The funky follow-up “Get Up and Get Down” momentarily stalled the group’s commercial momentum, but the album’s next single, “In the Rain” rose to #5 Pop and topped the R&B chart. The album version of the latter hit stretches out the single’s 3:29 to an even more inviting 5:11.

The group continued to score on the R&B chart, but never again found the same level of cross-over success. Additional personnel changes altered the group’s vocal balance, with lead singer William Howard replaced by Larry Reynolds in 1973. You can hear the transition in this disc’s bonus tracks. Concord’s reissue includes the group’s entire second album, A Dramatic Experience (including the superb anti-drug “The Devil is Dope”), as well as the funky bonus tracks “Stand Up Clap Your Hands” and “Hum a Song (From Your Heart).” The entire disc has been remastered in 24-bit audio by Joe Tarantino, and given the low quality of vinyl sold in the early ‘70s, this is very likely the best these discs have ever sounded outside the studio. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

Johnnie Taylor: Taylored in Silk

Blues- and gospel-influenced soul singer hits a peak on Stax

Vocalist Johnnie Taylor wore a number of musical hats, starting with roots in gospel, striking a soulful resonance with Stax, and finding his largest chart success with 1976’s “Disco Lady.” Taylor brought his roots with him to Stax, and his first few releases were see-saw affairs that vacillated between blues and Southern soul. His rise as a bona fide soul and R&B star began with the arrival of new staff producer Don Davis, who helmed 1968’s chart-topping “Who’s Making Love.” Taylor and Davis continued to fine-tune the balance of blues grit and soul emotion, hitting a peak with this 1973 release, Taylor’s next-to-last for Stax. Interestingly, little of the recording was actually performed in the Stax studio; basic tracks were recorded in Muscle Shoals, horns were added in Detroit and the strings overdubbed in New York.

There are still some straight blues here, such as Mack Rice’s “Cheaper to Keep Her,” but the most effective cuts mix emotional Southern soul balladry with elements of urban R&B. The superb “We’re Getting Careless with Our Love” provides a cautious retort to the overt cheating of Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones,” and the 1972 Mel & Tim Stax hit “Starting All Over Again” is covered as more wishful than hopeful. The second half of the album has some lush arrangements, such as for “Only Thing Wrong With My Woman,” but Taylor’s voice always harbors enough grit to keep his crooning from turning soft. The 2011 reissue adds six bonus tracks drawn from the A’s and B’s of three Stax singles, including the solid funk “Hijackin’ Love” and “Shackin’ Up,” the deep-groove Southern soul “Standing in for Jody” and the two-part blues “Doing My Own Thing.” [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]