New Stax Collection Requires Some Mining to Find the Gems
For the past year, Stax Records has been busy sifting through their aural archives, pouring out dusty treasures from the vault. This latest compilation of box sets contains 145 cuts on 6 CDs featuring rare singles and B-sides from the early '60s through the mid-'70s with a range that includes country, blues, and gospel as well as soul.
Disc 1: Rufus Thomas and Daughter' Carla's '60 cut “Deep Down Inside” is perfect swamp pop. Thomas is uncharacteristically mellow on Billie Holliday's “Fine And Mellow,” actually embodying the latter trait for most of the rendition. Booker T and the MG's crank out a twangy, instrumental take on Buster Brown's '59 “Fannie Mae.” Sam and Dave's '67 offering “A small Portion of Your Love” was the B-side of “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby,” but it packs as big a wallop, soul-wise.
Disc 2: It's a crime Delaney and Bonnie's '68 release “We've Just Been Feeling Bad” didn't make a bigger impact. Sounding like William Bell and Judy Clay, the duo deliver a mellow soul duet far different from their usual bloozy wildcat rock and roll. Bell and Clay step up with “Love-Eye-Tis,” a slinky, funky brass fueled duet from '68. Clay steps out on her own with a stunning performance on “Remove These Clouds.” Jumping back and forth across the gospel and soul gap, Clay is as magnificent as Mavis, swooping down to scoop up handfuls of soul and lift 'em heavenward. It's a classic example of crossover that could have conquered top slots in soul or gospel.
Eddie Floyd's “Knock on Wood” earned him the sometimes dubious honor of being covered by every bar band in the world, but his soul/gospel creds shine with preachy deliverance on '69's “Consider Me.”
Disc 3: Buoyed by a bassline that sounds borrowed from the Staples “I'll Take You There,” Jean Knight follows up 1971's “Mr Big Stuff” with funky soul on '72's “Pick Up The Pieces.” The Staples represent the best in gospel/soul, with Mavis' sensual moans simultaneously driving '74's “What's Your Thing” heavenward and toward dreams of sharing tangled bedroom sheets with her. Rhonda Washington, presenting as Hot Sauce, serves up some fine, preachy soul in the Mavis mode on “Mama's Baby, Daddy's Maybe.” Although they're no relation, the Green Brothers' “Can't Give Up I Love You Too Much” borrows heavily on Rev. Al's falsetto glides and swoops.
Disc 4: Highlights the Enterprise label that Stax founder Jim Stewart started after losing all his artists to Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records in '68. Its an eclectic and often confusing mix of artists and genres. Despite its stark lyrics about slave labor, Caboose's “Black Hands, White Cotton” came off more like a Neil Diamond knockoff. O.B. McClinton wanted to crossover from R&B to country and be the next Charley Pride. His first run at it in '72 with a cover of Clarence Carter's Slip Away” sounds a bit forced, but his take on “Don't Let the Green Grass Fool You” from that same year is more relaxed, his country accent sounding much more authentic. But country wasn't the only flavor on Enterprise. Chico Hamilton's jazzy, Latin-flavored instrumental “Conquistadores '74” would be more at home in Santana country. Larry Raspberry and the Highsteppers' Leon Russell-inspired “Rock and Roll Warning” adds to the confusion of what Stewart was trying to do with the label.
Disc 5: Showcases the short lived Hip subsidiary of Stax, set up as a pop music vehicle but releasing only 4 albums and 36 singles. The girl group the Goodies charted in 1968's top 40 with a “Leader of the Pack” template on “Conditon Red,” but even the composing talents of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham couldn't save the Goodies eponymous '69 single single from obscurity. Big Star was was the biggest deal on the label, sounding like the Edgar Winter group on “In The Street.”
Rockabilly fireball Billy Lee Riley's '57 novelty “Flying Saucer Rock and Roll” made him a 'billy star, but it sounds like he decided to walk in Tony Joe White's muddy footprints for the swampy janglefest “Family Portrait.”
The Hot Dogs' punkabilly take on the Cash classic “I Walk the Line” is the most interesting cut in the collection, on yet another subsidiary of Stax, the Ardent label, conceived as a rock platform. Wobbling unsteadily between bad Beatles clones and the Rev. Horton Heat, the thing keeps accelerating in tempo and pitch until it's spinning so fast it eats its own tail and shudders to a jangly stop.
Disc 6: In addition to B-sides and rare cuts from Stax soul men and women, the latest glimpse into the vaults reveals a gospel subsidiary label. The Chalice label was only active from '65-'67, run by Stewart's sister Estelle Axton, who also ran the Satellite record shop at Stax headquarters located in what used to be the foyer of Memphis' Capitol Theater.
Reverend Bernard Avant Jr. and the St. James Gospel Choir's rendition of Wilson Pickett's '70 hit “Don't Let the Green Grass Fool You” smoothed out Pickett's strangling, scalded panther delivery as well as the lyrics, re-titling their version “Don't Let the Devil Fool You,” but leaving the original's ebullience intact.
Rance Allen's reworking of Archie Bell and the Drell's '69 version of “There's Gonna Be A Showdown” is a true crossover vehicle, as much screaming soul as gospel, Allen's soaring falsetto commingling the high end of Al Green with Pickett's pantherisms.
An early incarnation of the Dixie Hummingbirds recording here as the Dixie Nightingales unleash a chilling account of President Kennedy's death on “The Assassination,” lead singer Ollie Hoskins wailing like a lost soul about the day they shot the president down.
The compilation is entertaining but it ain't easy listening music. This one requires some dedication, sifting through the ore to ferret out the gems.