Stax Label Marks 50 Years

The record label Stax is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a two-CD collection of 50 hits. The label brought us artists such as Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers and Otis Redding.

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DAVID WAS: I've been driving around for the last two weeks with a grin on my face that any cop worth his badge should have pulled me over for.

(Soundbite of music)

LUKE BURBANK, host:

It's musician and DAY TO DAY contributor David Was.

WAS: But the good officer wouldn't have found burning herbs or an open beer can. He'd have discovered no worse offense than my soul being possessed by a two-CD collection of 50 songs from legendary Memphis label, Stax/Volt.

It was released this month by Concord Records to honor the 50th birthday of Stax. I plead guilty to singing in the car without license or embarrassment.

(Soundbite of song, "Cause I Love You")

Mr. RUFUS THOMAS (Singer): (Singing) I don't pick sentiment, girl, you're mine. Yeah.

WAS: The saga began in 1957 when Jim Stewart And Estelle Axton - the ST and AX of STAX records - recorded a hit duet between father and daughter act Rufus and Carla Thomas called "Cause I love you."

(Soundbite of song, "Cause I Love You")

Ms. CARLA THOMAS (Singer): (Singing) Well, you lied about me. Lied about Louie, too?

Mr. THOMAS: (Singing) Oh no, Oh no.

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) Yeah.

WAS: The song caught the attention of Atlantic VP Jerry Wexler, and he guided it to number five on the Billboard charts. He also paid five grand for the rights to that and future Stax material. That offset the second and third mortgages Estelle Axton had taken on her home to convert a Memphis movie theatre into a recording studio. She also sold records in the lobby at the old candy counter.

(Soundbite of song, "Green Onions")

WAS: Persistence of vision was a critical element in the label's success, but so is the rhythm section they assembled as the backbone of the label's sound. Known eventually as Booker T and the M.G.'s, it featured Mr. Booker T Jones on organ and piano, Steve Cropper on guitar, Donald "Duck" Dunn on bass and Al Jackson, Jr. on drums.

(Soundbite of song, "Green Onions")

WAS: Together they had their own hits, "Green Onions" being their best known in 1962. But they also provided the crisp, funky sound that forever defined Memphis soul. Motown may have had a corner on smooth, but Stax had grits and gravy by the ladle full.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) (unintelligible)

WAS: Also in 1962, the label spun off the volt imprint as a rhythm and blues venue, and the first artist released thereon was a 21-year-old named Otis Redding. He arrived at the studio one day as a driver for singer Johnny Jenkins. When Johnny's session went awry, Otis used the last half hour of studio time to record "These Arms of Mine," which charted in 1963 and led to later hits like "Try A Little Tenderness" and "Sitting On the Dock of The Bay" - one of the lonesomest ballads in R&B history.

(Soundbite of song "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay")

Mr. OTIS REDDING (Singer): (Singing) So I guess I'll remain the same. Sitting here resting my bones.

(Soundbite of song, "Soul Man")

WAS: If you are of boomer vintage, at least half the songs in this collection are hummable, if not outright singable. Sam and Dave's "Soul Man" was given a new life via the Blues Brothers, as was "Knock on Wood" by Eddie Floyd.

(Soundbite of song, "Knock on Wood")

Mr. EDDIE FLOYD (Singer): (Singing) It's no secret that woman...

WAS: But let's not forget the Staple Singers' "Respect Yourself."

(Soundbite of song, "Respect Yourself")

Mr. ROEBUCK "Pops" STAPLES (Singer, The Staples Singers): (Singing) Respect yourself...

WAS: An early exercise in conscious lyric writing in the otherwise romantically-obsessed R&B world.

(Soundbite of song, "Who's Making Love")

Mr. JOHNNY TAYLOR (Singer): (Singing) Give it up. Now who's making love with you old lady? While you were out making love?

WAS: Johnny Taylor asks the cheating lover, "Who's Cheating Whom" and "Who's Making Love"? And Isaac Hayes' "Theme from Shaft" used the wa-wa guitar pedal like it had never been used before or since.

(Soundbite of song, "Theme from Shaft")

Mr. ISAAC HAYES (Artist): (Singing) Who's the cat who won't cop out, when there's danger all about?

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Shaft.

Mr. HAYES: (Singing) Right on.

WAS: Yeah, they say that Stax is a bad mother. I'm talking about Stax, and we can dig it.

(Soundbite of song, "Theme from Shaft")

Mr. HAYES: (Singing) He's a complicated man. But no one understands him but his woman.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) John Shaft.

WAS: Music from Stax's 50th anniversary celebration, a two CD set - our reviewer, David Was.

(Soundbite of song, "Theme from Shaft")

BRAND: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News, with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.

BURBANK: And I'm Luke Burbank. Right on.

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