[17 August 2007]
The accomplishment of just reaching something like a Golden Anniversary warrants nothing short of a parade, a celebration that would be especially deserving in the case of monumental record label Stax Records and their vast catalogue of ground breaking soul and R&B. The label has decided to celebrate its accomplishment in perhaps an even more appropriate way, with a parade of remastered compilations from some of its greatest artists. It’s a mind-blowing catalogue of gems that the label holds and one that can be difficult to get your hands on, especially from its early years of operations.
The story of Stax began in Memphis in 1957 when Jim Stewart enlisted the help of his sister Estelle Axton to develop Satellite Records, a label he’d set up to issue recordings of local country and rockabilly artists; the label name would soon after be forced to change to Stax, a combination of the siblings’ surnames, after an already existing Satellite Records was discovered in LA. The famous Stax studio was created the following year when Jim and Estelle took ownership of the Capitol Theatre in a black Memphis neighborhood, turned it into a recording studio and record shop, and began making records with predominantly black artists.
This unconventional locale of the studio was the main reason behind the unique sound being produced at Stax, a signature style that was literally discovered by accident. The recording studio in the converted movie theater still had the sloped floor where the seats had once been, and the imbalance created an acoustic that translated into the deep and raw sound that would go on to define such classic hits as “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”, “Respect Yourself”, “Mr. Big Stuff”, “Soul Man”, “Green Onions” and “Knock on Wood”.
The early years of Stax Records’ roster housed the likes of greats like Rufus and Carla Thomas, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and Isaac Hayes. Booker T. and The MG’s served as the label’s house band. It’s simply a level of talent that is looked back at with awe by any music lover today. Atlantic Records bought the label in 1967, and so began the tumultuous history of Stax Records being passed around like a hot potato and going in and out of bankruptcy that has now, thankfully, been resurrected by Concord Records.
Tracks from those pre-Atlantic years are especially scattered; music was primarily released as singles, resulting in a number of A- and B-sides by artists that have been floating around for years waiting for a permanent home on a proper compilation. The label’s 50th anniversary comes just in time, with the back catalogue of artists finally sifted through and compiled completely, remastered and now released.
You probably haven’t heard much about William Bell, widely regarded as the most underrated artist of Stax Records. It’s certainly not the legacy you’d expect from the first male solo artist signed to the label, and the writer responsible for hits like “I Forgot to Be Your Lover”, “Private Number”, and “Born Under a Bad Sign”, the title song of an album by guitarist Albert King which was also a major hit for the British recording group Cream. Unfortunately, commercial success was spotty for Bell and his recordings, and while he enjoyed some cross-over success on the pop charts, those moments were far and few between.
It took much cajoling for Bell to even lay down his first record with Stax: he’d long been considering a career in medicine and the idea of throwing that away for a stab at entertainment seemed unwise. In the summer of 1960, Bell was singing with his group the Del-Rios and checking out just a single performance was enough to convince Stax producer Chips Moman that Bell should be recording on his own. Sitting on the fence for almost a year, Bell finally gave in to record the self-penned ballad, “You Don’t Miss Your Water”, a track that would go on to be one of the first hits for Stax and is widely credited for shaping the sound of the soul ballad. The singer’s musical vision was an interesting combination with the stark, raw sound that Stax was pumping out. Bell incorporated a string orchestra on his 1967 track “Everybody Loves a Winner”, a rare thing on soul ballads at the time and especially rare on Stax works then that typically boasted the “less is more” approach. The song hit #18 on the R&B charts and received enough pop airplay to earn a spot on the Hot 100.
Bell’s reputation as a balladeer followed him throughout his career, though his attempt to find his own magic formula for radio success was greatly impacted by the writing partnership that he formed with Booker T. Jones, frontman for the Stax house band. The combination of Bell’s music knowledge and vocal talent with Jones’ skill in melody and lyric were an ideal match: the pair became one of the label’s most treasured writing teams producing many of the highlights in Bell’s catalogue including “Born Under a Bad Sign”, “Share What You Got (But Keep What You Need)”, and “Private Number”.
Tracks penned by the Jones and Bell proved to be some of the singer’s biggest hits, but unfortunately just at the height of this break, Bell was drafted by the US Army and spent two years serving in Hawaii. The break put the singer out of the musical loop, and he found himself struggling to get back in touch upon his return to the scene in 1965. By that time, Isaac Hayes had emerged as another major songwriter and producer for Stax and he stepped in to help Bell achieve a harder sound with his recordings that would be more in line with what was popular with current radio. The results included singles for Bell like the hard-hitting “Eloise (Hang on in There)” and memorable duets with Judy Clay on “Private Number” and “My Baby Specializes”. The singer’s close friendship with fellow Stax artist Otis Redding was another great influence on the songs that Bell wrote and recorded; Redding had a lot of success with uptempo numbers that Bell tried to emulate. Ironically, it was the song that Bell wrote after Redding’s untimely death in 1967, “A Tribute to a King”, that became one of the singer’s top radio hits on both R&B and Pop charts.
All of these reasons to be reminded of William Bell are included here, and beyond being a definitive piece of Stax history, the disc wonderfully serves as a more complete picture of the incredible repertoire that Bell has contributed to the music community. Hopefully, it will also act as a gateway for people to rediscover what a ground-breaking purpose the singer served.