“The soul label for your swinging turntable,” and “The Memphis Sound.” Those were two phrases the legendary Al Bell brought to the Stax record label in 1965, subsequently catapulting the then moderately successful, underdog record label into a household, legendary name within the realm of soul music. Legend has it, if it weren’t for Bell—his connections, energy and work ethic—and had Jim Stewart and his sister, Estelle Axton, been the sole primary operators of the business from start to finish, the popularity of the label would have never climaxed at the tremendously high level it eventually achieved.
But even though Bell brought the magic that turned Stax into a commercial, lucrative success in the latter part of the 1960s, he wasn’t around for the foundation of the now legendary Stax sound, a sound that famously originated at 926 East McLemore Avenue in southern Memphis, Tennessee. That sound was the nucleus of what would become some of the best and most important records cut in the last 60 years. Unfortunately (and criminally), some of those more relevant—yet sadly not profitable—records do not make an appearance on Stax Number Ones, the latest collection of hits from the counterpart to Motown’s “Hitsville, USA” moniker, Memphis’s “Soulsville, USA”, the gritty, groovy alternative to Detroit that rarely sees the amount of praise it quite honestly should.
Let there be no confusion: Nearly each track on Stax’s latest collection is justified in its own right, and all things considered, this is a release that specifically reserves spots for only No. 1 records throughout, but to feature a compilation with the Stax label on it without a track from the fabulous Wilson Pickett is unintelligible, if nothing else. A set like this without “In the Midnight Hour” or “634-5789 (Soulsville U.S.A.)” simply seems tragic if not heartbreaking. Considering the importance Pickett had not only within the history of soul music, but to Stewart and Axton’s mom-and-pop record label, it just feels as though an exception should have been made. (And personally, opting for Rufus Thomas’s “(Do the) Push and Pull (Part 1)” over possibly his best-ever composition, “Walking the Dog”, was a bit deflating as well. But hey, rules, are rules.)
All griping aside, though, the remastered cuts of these tracks leap out of your stereo like nothing else a true soul music lover has heard. Sure, the original records were brilliant (especially when you take into account the slanted floor of the former movie theater room in which the songs were recorded, and the influence the set-up had on the beautiful sounds often exhibited at 926 E. McLemore), but with new technology making the rounds each minute, it feels as though the time was right to give these tracks a makeover—if nothing else than to increase the volume level on the master recordings. Besides, no matter how many knobs you turn, or pieces of tape you split, the underlying element of merely being a great song always helps when revisiting such classic tracks.
Oddly enough, Johnnie Taylor wins the prize for most No. 1 hits here, as he is featured three times throughout this set. While “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone” and “I Believe in You (You Believe in Me)” are both above-average tunes, his “Who’s Making Love” stands tall and proud over not only his other tracks featured, but probably everybody else’s as well. Eddie Floyd’s fantastically groovy “Knock on Wood” is another sometimes-forgotten about piece that shines like the sun on a hot Memphis day, and Shirley Brown’s “Woman to Woman” still features that spoken-word vocal that takes any fan on a complete love-and-heartbreak-filled roller coaster that is imperative listening.
Even the no-brainers are pleasant filler in between true classic Stax cuts. Booker T. & the MGs’ “Green Onions” will forever be recognizable and funky whenever and wherever it’s heard. Maybe the most famous of the Stax artists, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, and the Staple Sisters all have adequate spots throughout this collection, and each provides a reminder of how sometimes the best musical efforts don’t have to be backed with perfectly-polished stories of ascent, fame, stardom, wealth, or a hit machine made to churn out song after song designed for radio airplay to be legendary.
But ironically, in the end, that’s why Stax Number Ones comes up a bit short. The true essence of Stax records came from two people (one that had to put up her house as collateral, mind you) with no money who loved music. Way before big business and Al Bell transformed the music and operations into the mainstream conscience, Stax was at the forefront of a ton of brilliantly made, classic records that don’t get their proper billing (The Bar-Kays being the first group shunned that comes to mind) throughout this collection. Indeed, Stax Number Ones is a nice introductory lesson, but if you intend on making it to graduate school, keeping with the analogy, you may have to schedule more classes.