60 Years of Stax

10 Of The Best From The Legendary Memphis Label

Tuesday 18th July 2017

When asked to name an influential American soul label from the 1960s, most people will answer Motown, but there was another player in the game. Stax formed in Memphis in 1957. Originally named Satellite Records the label eventually took the name Stax from the names of its founders, brother and sister, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton. From the outset, Stax sought to be an interracial outfit. The label's house bands included Booker T. and The MG's and The Bar-Kays, both of which had a mix of white and African-American band members, unusual at that time, with racial tension in America reaching a breaking point.

Stax championed Southern soul, gospel, blues, jazz and funk throughout its financially turbulent history. Finances, distribution deals and the death of their biggest artist would ultimately see the label change hands and eventually disappear, but in 2007 the label was relaunched on its 50th anniversary and ten years later Stax is still going strong. To mark its 60th year, we take a look at ten influential records from the Stax catalogue.

Booker T. & the MG's - 'Green Onions'
One of Stax Records' greatest assets was undoubtedly their house band, Booker T. and the MG's. Fronted by keyboardist Booker T. Jones with Steve Cropper on guitar, the band played on too many Stax hits to list, not least 'Walking the Dog' and 'Hold On, I'm Comin' (see below). Cropper was also co-writer and guitarist on Otis Redding's '(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay'. With so many credits it's hard to imagine how they had time to write and record as a band in their own right. In 1962 'Green Onions' became one of the best-known instrumental tracks of all time, and was followed by other greats such as 'Soul Limbo' and 'Time Is Tight'. 'Green Onions' enjoyed a revival of popularity in the UK when it appeared in Quadrophenia in 1979.

Otis Redding - 'These Arms Of Mine' 
Widely acknowledged as one of the greatest recording artists of all time, Stax, and its subsidiary Volt, really hit their stride when they signed Otis Redding. He quickly became regarded as their key artist, but it was also Otis Redding that called time on the early golden age of Stax when his untimely death pushed the label over the brink into bankruptcy. Although Redding's hugely successful '(Sittin' on) The Dock Of The Bay' was released after his death, it was Atlantic that ended up owning the rights to the song due to a messy distribution deal with Stax. 'These Arms Of Mine' was taken from Redding's 1964 debut LP, released by Stax.

Eddie Floyd - 'Knock On Wood' 
It's difficult to imagine the history of pop music without 'Knock On Wood'. Written and recorded by Eddie Floyd in 1966, the song has been covered many times since, by artists as diverse as labelmate Otis Redding in 1967, David Bowie in 1974 and Amii Stewart whose '79 disco version was a huge hit across the world. Other notable covers of his songs include The Jam's version of 'Big Bird'.

The Staple Singers - 'Respect Yourself'
The Staple Singers were initially a gospel-folk singing group scoring hits with standards like 'Will The Circle Be Unbroken' before signing to Stax in 1968. Changing personnel at Stax facilitated a move from their folky roots to the familiar funk and soul of songs such as 'I'll Take You There'. Taken from their album 'Be Altitude: Respect Yourself', 'Respect Yourself' was written by R&B singer-songwriter Luther Thomas Ingram. The song tapped into the spirit of America's civil rights movement of the time, remaining an anthem of self-worth ever since.

Isaac Hayes - 'Theme From Shaft'
Beginning his career with Stax as a session musician, Isaac Hayes became the centre of attention when Stax lost Otis Redding and its back catalogue. 'Hot Buttered Soul' saw Hayes challenge preconceived ideas of soul with his lengthy orchestrated production treatments. In 1971 his skills were vindicated by the mainstream when he picked up an Oscar for Best Original Song with his 'Theme From Shaft', as well as an Oscar nomination for best Best Original Dramatic Score with his ambitious score for 'Shaft'. Hayes continued to push the limits of the funk and soul genres paving the way for disco and house.

Sam & Dave - 'Hold On, I'm Comin'
Sam & Dave are undoubtedly best-known for their hit 'Soul Man', written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, but their first big hit was 'Hold On, I'm Comin' in 1966, also written by Hayes and Porter. Legend has it the song took its name after David Porter had taken a long toilet break during a recording session, causing Hayes to grow impatient with Porter then calling out 'Hold On, I'm Comin'.

The Bar-Kays - 'Soul Finger' 
Another session band from the Stax stable, The Bar-Kays were groomed by Booker T. & the MG's to be Otis Redding's backing group. 'Soul Finger' was released in June 1967, before the same plane crash that killed Redding also killed much of the band in December of that year, leaving only two original members. 

Big Star - 'September Gurls'
Despite being best-known for the likes of Otis Redding, Stax wasn't just about soul. Big Star were essentially an American rock band who were influenced by British bands including The Beatles, The Kinks and The Who. The resulting sound was perhaps ahead of its time, with songs such as 1974's 'September Girls' sounding as though they might have been released in the early 1990s. Sadly, Stax managed the marketing of the two albums Big Star made with the label badly, leading them to be commercial failures. Today, REM, Teenage Fanclub, Wilco and Primal Scream are among the bands that cite Big Star as a key influence.

Albert King - 'Born Under A Bad Sign'
One of Stax's blues artists, Albert King's 'Born Under A Bad Sign' is regarded as a touchstone moment in blues music, with guitarists including Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton citing it as a direct influence in the direction they would take from 1967 onwards. Both Issac Hayes and Booker T. & the MG's played on the record.

Rufus Thomas - 'Walking the Dog' 
Recorded in 1963, 'Walking the Dog' was just one of a string of novelty dance records by Rufus Thomas, 'Do the Funky Chicken' being another prime example, but humour aside, it was early successes with Thomas' recordings that garnered Stax Records' (then named Satellite) distribution deal with Atlantic. Rufus Thomas was also instrumental for the label in schooling its youngers artists in the art of showmanship, including Otis Redding.

For further listening from the Stax catalogue be sure to look up The Dramatics, The Delfonics, The Emotions, The Spinners, The Mar-Keys, Melvin Van Peebles and Mavis Staples. 

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