Posts Tagged ‘Stax’

The Staple Singers: Be Altitude – Respect Yourself

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

The Staple Singers make their biggest hits and best album

The Staple Singers had been a together for nearly two decades when they landed at Stax in 1968. They’d recorded old-school spirituals for Vee Jay and folk-influenced sides for Riverside before finding a new direction with the Memphis soul powerhouse; not only did the Staples adapt to the soul and funk energy of Stax, but they evolved their material from the pointed social topics of the folk era to less specific, but highly empowering “message music.” Their first two Stax albums, 1968’s Soul Folk in Action and 1970’s We’ll Get Over, featured backing from the label’s house band, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, and mixed terrific material from Stax songwriters with Staples’ originals. Despite the quality of each release, nothing clicked on the charts, and the group’s third long-player, 1971’s Staple Swingers, found Stax executive Al Bell taking over production chores from M.G.’s guitarist Steve Cropper.

Even more importantly, Bell began recording the Staples’ backing sessions in Alabama with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section: Eddie Hinton (lead guitar), Jimmy Johnson (rhythm guitar), David Hood (bass), Barry Beckett (keyboards) and Roger Hawkins (drums). Hood’s deep bass lines and Hawkins’ rhythm touch anchor this album, solidified by Johnson’s chords, Beckett’s vamping and Hinton’s inventive fills; the Memphis horns add texture and accents without ever needing to step out front to announce themselves. Produced at a time that Stax was evolving from its soul glories of the ‘60s to its funkier output of the early ‘70s, the Staples hit a third gear as they built the album’s tracks, particularly the hit singles “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself,” from perfectly intertwined strands of soul, funk, and gospel. Also blended in to “I’ll Take You There,” as Rob Bowman astutely observes in the liner notes, is the reggae of the Harry J All-Stars’ instrumental “The Liquidator.”

The album’s original ten tracks include longer versions of the singles, stretching each to nearly five minutes. You can understand why the extra vocalizing of “Respect Yourself” was trimmed for radio play, but Staples fans will treasure the full-length production. Concord’s 2011 reissue adds two previously unreleased bonus tracks: the cautionary “Walking in Water Over Our Head” and an alternate take of Jeff Barry and Bobby Bloom’s “Heavy Makes You Happy.” The latter forgoes the horn arrangement of the original single, emphasizes the rhythm section (as did all of engineer Terry Manning’s album mixes), and adds forty-three seconds to the running time. These are great additions to an album that’s already the best full-length of the Staples’ career, and one of the best Stax ever produced. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

Mavis Staples’ Home Page

Albert King: The Definitive Albert King on Stax

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

Prime Stax material from a blues legend

Albert King had been bouncing around various blues scenes for over fifteen years when his 1966 signing to Stax led to both the label and artist achieving new levels of commercial success. King’s earlier sides for Parrot, Bobbin, King, Chess and Coun-Tee had found mostly regional success, though 1961’s “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong” did manage to crack the national R&B top twenty. But it was the sides he cut for Stax, many with Booker T & the MGs as his backing band, that would rocket him to stardom and mint an indelible catalog that included the classics “Crosscut Saw” and “Born Under a Bad Sign.”

King’s career at Stax caught fire at precisely the right moment to have maximal impact on the growing American and British blues-rock scenes. His playing was not only a primary influence on Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and other rock guitarists, but the advent of multi-act ballroom shows gave King a stage on which he could play directly to an audience outside the roadhouses and blues clubs; his 1968 performance at the Fillmore West, heard at greater length on Live Wire/Blues Power, is excerpted here in a shortened single version of “Blues Power.” The stinging notes of King’s guitar fit perfectly against the soulful vamping of the Stax house bands (including the Bar-Kays and Memphis Horns), offering continuity with the label’s other acts and differentiating his records from those of other blues guitarists.

King’s decade on Stax provided varied opportunities, including a tribute to Elvis (“Hound Dog”), a session with fellow Stax guitarists Pops Staples and Steve Cropper (the former singing John Lee Hooker’s “Tupelo, Part 1” and the latter singing his original “Water”), sessions at Muscle Shoals (Taj Mahal’s “She Caught the Katy and Left Me a Mule to Ride”) and with John Mayall (“Tell Me What True Love Is”), and an opportunity to wax covers of blues and rock classics, including Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor,” the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women,” and Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom.” The 34-track set comes with a 20-page booklet of photos, album cover reproductions, session data and detailed liner notes by Bill Dahl. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

Booker T. & The M.G.’s: McLemore Avenue

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

Booker T. & The M.G.’s salute the Beatles

This 1970 album pays tribute to the Beatles studio swan song, Abbey Road. The original album’s tracks (save “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” “Oh! Darling” and “Octopus’s Garden”) are arranged as instrumentals in three medleys and a solo spotlight of George Harrison’s “Something.” Booker T’s organ and piano, and Steve Cropper’s guitar provide most of the vocal melody lines. The results are interesting, if not always particularly inventive. Many of the songs find resonance with the group’s soulful style, but neither the arrangements nor the performances offer the last-gasp creative dominance the Beatles poured into the final work.

By this point in Booker T. & the M.G.’s career, the soul grooves that had backed Stax’s great vocal acts and launched iconic instrumental hits were second nature, and perhaps that’s part of the problem. A few of the performances, such as “Here Comes the Sun” and “You Never Give Me Your Money,” fail to strike any new sparks, and sound more like the uninspired cover versions churned out by faceless studio groups in the ‘60s than the high-octane output of the era’s most famous instrumental soul combo. In contrast, Al Jackson kicks up sparks with his resonant tom-tom lead in to “The End,” Booker T and Steve Cropper cut winning solos on “Something,” and the four parts of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” fits the four instrumentalists like a glove.

Concord’s reissue reproduces the original album cover – a Memphis-based pastiche of the original – and adds liner notes by Ashley Kahn. The album’s original tracks are augmented by five additional Beatles covers drawn from the group’s albums, all remastered in 24-bits by Joe Tarantino. Among the bonuses are an unreleased alternate take of “You Can’t Do That” and an unlisted radio ad delivered as an “Her Majesty” like coda at the end of the last track. Interestingly, this was the next-to-last album recorded by the MGs for Stax, mirroring Abbey Road’s place in the Beatles’ recording history; but it was the group’s terrific last LP, Melting Pot, that was their own proper swan song. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

Patrick Sweany: That Old Southern Drag

Friday, March 11th, 2011

Heart-stopping Southern soul from a Northern immigrant

Ohio native and Nashville immigrant Patrick Sweany makes rootsy sounds that are out of place on Music Row, but will be welcomed in the home of anyone who likes a side order of the ‘60s with their rock, soul, and blues. The album rolls through Southern soul, vintage rock ‘n’ roll and anguished R’n’B, dovetailing punchy production with memories of Delaney and Bonnie, Arthur Alexander and the throwback sounds of Marshall Crenshaw. The bass, drums and rhythm guitar bolster the melodic howl of Sweany’s voice; his singing is edgy, pleading, and emotionally raw from blue disappointment. The nostalgic “Rising Tide” hits a ‘70s rock groove that might have belonged to Bad Company, but the deep bass, funky horns, vamping organ and guitar figures of “The Edges” return the listener to the Memphis that Dan Penn laid on the Hacienda Brothers. The tour de force ballad “More and More” is given the Otis Redding treatment with hard percussive stops, while the acoustic plea “Frozen Lake” is gut-wrenching in the blue-soul of its romantic apprehension. Sweany is well-known as a guitarist and songwriter, and he bolster each accolade here, but it’s the deep well of emotion in every vocal that will make this record stick in your heart. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

MP3 | Frozen Lake
Stream That Old Southern Drag
Patrick Sweany’s Home Page

Albert King with Stevie Ray Vaughan: In Session

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

Superb meeting of two blues guitar legends with added DVD

This 1983 live performance summit meeting between a legend and a soon-to-be legend has been reissued a few times on CD, including a hybrid SACD in 2003 and a remastered CD edition in July 2010. This latest version augments the original eleven audio tracks with video of seven performances, adding “Born Under a Bad Sign,” “Texas Flood” and “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town” to the song list. At the time this pair met in a Canadian TV studio, Vaughan was blazing a trail into the blues world with his debut album, Texas Flood. King was long since a legend, and though he apparently didn’t recognize the name “Vaughan,” he immediately recognized the young guitarist who’d sat in with him whenever he played in Austin.

The video dimension turns this session into a master class for both Vaughan and the viewer. Vaughan is seen soaking up lessons from King’s guitar playing, stage manner and the verbal notes he provides between songs. What was previously a musical conversation now becomes a visual one as well. King is often seen marveling – almost in surprise – at Vaughan’s playing, and Vaughan’s expressions capture the joy he feels in so clearly making the grade. Without a live audience, the two bluesmen play for each other and for the blues. The ease of King’s play, the naturalness with which the guitar forms an extension to his soul is awe inspiring. The snippets of dialogue between the CD’s tracks have always shown the personal bond that complemented the guitar slingers’ artistic connection, but the visuals shed new light on the deep affection they clearly have for one another.

King and Vaughan are backed by the former’s tack sharp road band, and run through a set drawn mostly from King’s catalog. You can hear what was on the horizon, though, as Vaughan rips into his own “Pride and Joy” with monster tone and a gutsy vocal. Throughout the session the players trade licks and prod each other with solos that quote all the great players from whom they learned. King’s influence is clear in Vaughan’s playing, but hearing them side-by-side gives listeners an opportunity to hear how the same fundamentals change as they filter through different fingers and hardware. As Samuel Charters points out in one of the three sets of liner notes, Albert King fans will particularly savor the rare opportunity to hear and see him play rhythm guitar. The audio does a nice job of keeping their guitars separated slightly left and right, and the video lets you see exactly who’s playing what.

As free as both guitarists play, the band, the catalog, and the deference Vaughan shows King all tipped in favor of the latter setting the tempos, leading with his guitar and providing lessons and advice between songs. In any other venue Vaughan would be the master, but here he plays the role of apprentice. How many chances do you get to play with someone who can introduce “Blues at Sunrise” with “This is that thing, uh, I recorded with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin out there at the Fillmore West”? It was a good time to be the apprentice, and the addition of songs originally cut from the broadcast (to make room for commercials) notches this package up to five stars. Anyone who loves King, Vaughan or great blues guitar should catch this. [©2010hyperbolium dot com]

Steve Cropper and Felix Cavaliere: Midnight Flyer

Monday, July 5th, 2010

Blue-eyed and Memphis soul too smoothed-out to light sparks

Steve Cropper (ace guitarist for Booker T and the MG’s and Stax mainstay) and Felix Cavaliere (lead vocalist and organist for the Young Rascals) got together in 2008 for the tasty Nudge it up a Notch. Each showed some fire left in the tank, with  Cropper’s guitar playing instantly identifiable, and Cavaliere’s soulful voice still intact. This second outing still finds resonance between the two players, but its smoother sound doesn’t create the sparks of their previous outing. Key contributors to the previous album, including producer (and co-songwriter) Jon Tiven and drummer Chester Thompson are missed here. The opener, “You Give Me All I Need,” plays like a Hall & Oates song, and the title track’s galloping rhythm doesn’t generate the heat that it should. The production is generally too modern and the sound too clean to give this album the bite these players need. The songs, written by Cropper, Cavaliere and their producer/drummer Tom Hambridge, aren’t up to the level of their previous outing, neither evoking earlier glories nor offering anything startling new. The instrumental closer “Do it Like This” finds the album’s best groove, and a pair of covers, Ann Peeble’s “I Can’t Stand the Rain” and Jerry Butler and Betty Everett’s “I Can’t Stand It,” are more engaging than the original material. You can hear the musical talent, but neither the songs nor the production make the most of it. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

Otis Redding: Live on the Sunset Strip

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

Three incendiary Otis Redding live sets from April 1966

The past few years have been rich for Otis Redding fans, with expanded reissues of key live recordings hitting the market. A pair of 1967 performances from London and Paris documented Redding at the top of the Stax Revue, and his breakthrough performance at Monterey Pop has been reissued in high-definition Blu-Ray. These are now augmented by this double-disc set of Redding’s four night stand at Los Angeles’ Whiskey A Go Go. Unlike the 1967 sets, in which Redding performed with Booker T. and the M.G.s in a large auditorium, these 1966 Whiskey dates are played with his ten-piece road band to a smaller, but hugely appreciative, club audience. Some of this material has been anthologized before [1 2], but this is the first time these three complete sets (the last from Saturday night and both from the closing Sunday) have been released as a whole.

These are much more than collections of songs – they’re performances, with beginnings, middles and ends. Redding was not just the best soul singer of his generation, but a terrific entertainer who crafted whole performance, not just vocals. The segues between songs are often so tight as to leave both Redding and the audience gasping for breath; once he has you in his emotional grasp, he doesn’t let go. His command – of the material, his singing, the band, and of the audience – is so thorough that it’s difficult to believe he was only 24-years-old at the time. The sets are a perfect blend of his best known hits and covers, including tour de force workouts of the Stones “Satisfaction,” along with lesser-known gems like “Any Ole Way” and the R&B hit “Chained and Bound.” There’s some duplication of songs from set to set, but it’s interesting to hear how Redding mixes up the song order from night to night.

As satisfying as were the Stax Revue sets, as rousing as were those performances, as great as was the Stax house band, these performances are as good or better. Redding is an incandescent ball of fire for a half-hour at a stretch, and his band, led by saxophonist Bob Holloway, never lets up. Redding is warm as he takes a moment to speak with the audience, and he and Holloway share a bit of repartee while the band catches their breath. By the last set of the stand, Redding gets a bit playful with the set list, adding a cover of the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” and a ten-minute rendition of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” whose groove is soul deep (but whose looseness would have made James Brown a pretty penny in band fines).

The three sets weigh in at two hours of churning soul music, recorded by ace West Coast engineer Wally Heider. The sixteen-page booklet includes new liner notes by Ashley Kahn, a choice photo of a tuxedoed Redding with two go-go-dancers, and a microscopic reproduction of Pete Johnson’s L.A. Times show review. Redding’s subsequent European tour with Stax, three-night stand at San Francisco’s Fillmore, and legendary performance at Monterey Pop may have been witnessed by larger audiences, but these club sets capture the roots of his musical greatness: unrelentingly gutsy performances that leave every last drop of soul on the stage. This is an essential spin for Redding, Stax and soul fans. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

Various Artists: Stax Number Ones

Monday, April 5th, 2010

The cream of Stax’s chart crop

It’s hard to criticize a collection of stellar soul sides, but one has to wonder what market niche this fills. All fifteen of these tracks reached the top spot on either the Billboard pop or R&B chart, and represent the tip of Stax’s immense impact on both the charts and popular culture. Presented in chronological order these tracks include iconic instrumentals, duets, and solo turns that literally defined southern R&B and hard soul. It’s an ace collection of soul classics, but at only fifteen tracks it pales in comparison to the discount-priced double-CD Stax 50th Anniversary Celebration. For only a few dollars more the anniversary set gives you everything here except Rufus Thomas’ “(Do the) Push and Pull (Part 1)” and Johnnie Taylor’s “I Believe in You (You Believe in Me),” and thirty-five more gems. Tracks 1-4 and 7 are mono, the rest stereo, and all appear to be single edits rather than longer album versions. The ten-page booklet includes credits and pictures, but no liner notes. Everything here is great, but unless you’re on a tight budget (or fifty soul classics is just too much for you to handle), the double-CD is the better bet. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

Stax Museum of American Soul Music
Concord Music Group’s Stax Home Page

Christine Ohlman & Rebel Montez: The Deep End

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

SNL singer serves up rock ‘n’ roll with a side of Stax

Rock ‘n’ roll women have always been a sparser commodity than their male counterparts. Even the adjective that describes a forceful rock ‘n’ roll performance discriminates with its anatomical reference. Rock’s had a few chart-topping female stars, including Wanda Jackson, Janis Joplin, Ann Wilson, Joan Jett and Pat Benatar, but the bulk of female rockers labor in day jobs that overshadow their solo output, or work in local obscurity. Patty Scialfa’s better known for her marriage and membership in the E Street Band than for her three releases, Karla DeVito is remembered more for the video she made with Meat Loaf (on which she lip-synched Ellen Foley’s vocal) than her solo album or subsequent song writing, and Ronnie Spector took decades to emerge from the shadow of her former husband and producer.

Christine Ohlman, whose twenty-year gig with the Saturday Night Live Band has put her voice in the ears of millions of listeners, has released six albums and contributed vocals to dozens of projects, yet remains more of a cult favorite than a name star. She sings in a gutsy rock ‘n’ roll voice edged in soul and blues, part Bonnie Raitt and part Genya Raven, with an element of Van Morrison’s early wildness. Her throwback sound combines the romanticism of Brill Building pop and horn-fed Stax muscle (courtesy of the Asbury Jukes’ Chris Anderson and Neal Pawley) into a potent rock ‘n’ roll stew. Her music reaches back to a time when guitars were front and center and bass lines propelled dancers to the floor.

The album opens with Ohlman growling her lovesickness against a twangy variation of the riff from Barrett Strong’s “Money.” She’s drawn to the wrong man, but loyal to a fault, recounting the reasons to break away but lamenting what she’s missing, proclaiming everlasting love and, in the tradition of the Crystals, opening her arms without worry of what others will think. She slings it out with the ease and familiarity of a club singer, working the crowd and drawing listeners close. Ohlman’s band is similarly road-tested (Michael Colbath’s bass playing is particularly notable), and her guests include Ian Hunter, Al Anderson, Eric Ambel, Levon Helm, Dion, and Marshall Crenshaw. Her dozen originals are complemented by covers of Van & Titus’ deep soul “Cry Baby Cry,” Marvin Gaye and Mary Wells’ “What the Matter With You Baby,” and Link Wray’s “Walkin’ Down the Street Called Love.”

Once upon a time, when rock ‘n’ roll thrived on the radio, this album would have spun off several hit singles. But in today’s fragmented music market, and with little room for raw, gutsy guitar-based music, you’ll more likely hear this in the background of a Fox TV show whose music coordinator is tasked with setting a rebellious mood, or perhaps on a celebrity musician’s weekly satellite radio program. Of course, you can also hear Ohlman in her weekly gig on SNL, and perhaps the show’s producers will be so kind as to offer her a spotlight to sing her original songs – songs that stand tall alongside the covers she curates for the band. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

MP3 | The Deep End
Christine Ohlman’s Home Page
Christine Ohlman’s MySpace Page

Isaac Hayes: Sings for Lovers

Monday, December 21st, 2009

Stax soul man sings songs for sexy lovers

Concord’s “For Lovers” series features catalog selections from vocalists and instrumentalists that exploring the joys and heartbreaks of love. Singer, songwriter, instrumentalist and producer Isaac Hayes proves himself a natural fit for this series with this hand-picked set of soulful originals and drastically reinterpreted covers. The latter includes a dramatic reading of Bacharach and David’s “The Look of Love,” pared from the album’s original 11-minute production to the single’s lyrically-focused 3’19; even more impressive is Hayes’ reconstruction of David Gates’ soft-rock hit “Baby I’m-a-Want You” into a Stax-styled mid-tempo soul tune.

Hayes works a similar magic on The Carpenters’ “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” reproduced here at its full nine-minute album length with lyrics stretched across romantic orchestrations, and a duet with David Porter gives a Sam and Dave spin to Johnnie Taylor’s hit, “Ain’t That Lovin’ You (For More Reasons Than One).” Highlights of Hayes’ originals include the string introduction and carnal vocal of “Joy (Part 1),” the light funk “I Can’t Turn Around,” and the thoughtful “Let’s Don’t Ever Blow Our Thing.” With only eleven tracks clocking in at fifty-eight minutes, there was room here for a few more items, such as the hit singles “Walk on By” and “Never Can Say Goodbye.”

Those only familiar with Hayes’ early classics, Hot Buttered Soul and Black Moses, will discover some new sides here. Several of these tracks are cherry-picked from post-Shaft albums of the mid-70s, including Juicy Fruit (Disco Freak) and Chocolate Chip, giving listeners a taste of Hayes’ post-peak work without having to pick through entire albums. Four other tracks are selected from the 2006 collection Wonderful, which anthologized earlier non-LP singles and compilation cuts. None of these provide a full substitute for the early full-length LPs, but the selections provide a good helping of soulful love without having to wade past through the mid-70s disco inflections. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]