Stax/volt: Small Labels Had A Big Influence


April 28, 1991|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Unless you're a devoted '60s soul fan, odds are you'd draw a blank when asked about the "Stax/Volt sound." You wouldn't know about Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, the owners of these two Memphis-based soul labels, or the little studio-cum-record shop on East McLemore that was their home base. And though Stax/Volt had some of the era's greatest

writers and producers, names like Chips Moman, Steve Cropper, Al Jackson and David Porter are unlikely to ring any bells with the average fan.

But the funny thing is, you probably do know the Stax/Volt sound. That is, you do if you know the sound of Otis Redding, Sam & Dave or Booker T. & the MGs.

Remember the punchy brass and prodding bass of Eddie Floyd's "Knock onWood"? That's Stax/Volt soul. Or how about the supple pulse and insinuating chorus of Carla Thomas' "B-A-B-Y"? Stax again. And there's plenty of Stax soul in the brassy bluster and funky groove of Albert King's immortal "Born Under a Bad Sign."

All those singles and more -- much more -- can be found on a new boxed anthology called "The Complete Stax/Volt Singles, 1959-1968" (Atlantic 82218), due in stores Tuesday. A truly awe-inspiring collection, it compiles a decade's worth of Stax and Volt A-sides, as well as a few significant B-sides. All told, there are some 244 performances spread out over nine CDs, offering almost 11 hours of music. (Suggested list price for the set is $99.98, or just over $11 per disc).

Granted, the collection's completeness does seem a bit daunting, particularly to the casual fan. Sure, any right-minded music fan would jump at the chance to hear Otis Redding's "These Arms of Mine," or the ineluctable groove of Booker T.'s "Hip Hug Her." But who among us can honestly say he hungers for "The Three Dogwoods" by Nick Charles, or the Memphis Nomads' "Don't Pass Your Judgement"?

This being the age of the boxed retrospective, a certain amount of obscurantist overkill is to be expected. After all, without the occasional odd title or rarity, such sets would be little more than bloated "Greatest Hits" collections, and therefore of limited "historical" value.

And the Stax/Volt set, in all honesty, has its share of chaff. That's particularly true of the early discs, which find the fledgling label still in search of its sound; for every "Green Onions" or "These Arms of Mine," there are duds like Barbara Stephens' "Wait a Minute," the Del-Rios' "Just Across the Street" or "What Can It Be" by the Astors.

Even so, Stax and Volt singles hitfar more often than they missed, even if the charts didn't always reflect that success. The set is full of delightful discoveries, minor gems ranging from the girlish exuberance of Cheryl and Pam Johnson singing "That's My Guy" to the sassy swagger of Eddie Purrell's "The Spoiler." But there are some lost moments of greatness here, as well.

Take, for example, a 1966 single by Mable Johns called "Your Good Thing (Is About to End)." A killer done-me-wrong song, it spells out the singer's grievances in a traditional, bluesy verse that seems to be building to an explosive chorus. But, instead, Johns pulls back and delivers the punch line with such icy control that it really does seem like the end of somebody's "good thing."

This is the real thing, here: raw, emotional singing of the sort that cuts right to the bone. Like the best Stax singles, this performance isn't heard so much as it is felt, and that's one of the reasons it's so memorable -- even if it never did make the

pop charts.

It's also indicative of what made the Stax sound so special. Stax and Volt singles were soulful in a way Motown records never dared. Although that often kept impassioned performances by Otis Redding or Sam & Dave off Top-40 lists that easily included the more polished Marvin Gaye or Four Tops, it also gave them an earthy vitality the Motown hits rarely managed.

That was certainly true of the vocal performances; after all, would Berry Gordy ever have let one of his charges sing a note as blue as the slow slide Otis Redding uncorks in "I've Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)"? Certainly not.

But it was also true of the guts of the Stax sound: the rhythm section. Just as the Motown hit machine owed much of its momentum to the house rhythm section of Earl Van Dyke and the Funk Brothers, so, too, did Stax build its sound off of the bluesy groove of Booker T. & theMGs. Yet, though their functions were the same, there was a world of difference between the two bands.

Van Dyke and his men were jazz musicians at heart, and it shows in the lithe sophistication of their sound. Sure, they could get down when asked, but the Motown groove tended more toward swing than gutbucket funk.

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