[6 May 2008]
Stax Records has been spending a lot of time lately going through the vaults and dusting off some pretty incredible gems for proper release. The label’s 50th anniversary last year was the impetus for a string of celebratory releases, including compilations of previously-unreleased material and showcases of their earlier catalogue. The latest in the series is a pair of albums that highlight a different angle of Stax talent: Stax Does the Beatles and Soulsville Sings Hitsville: Stax Sings Songs of Motown Records take the catalogue of two other song masters and throws them into the Stax studios. Beyond showing the ability of the Stax roster to interpret other peoples’ music, both ultimately show how a Stax translation of any song would always be something unique, regardless of the author.
Worlds away from the Stax studio in Southern Memphis, the Beatles were often noted as a musical inspiration in interviews with Stax artists. Just as the Liverpool group had a solid writing team in McCartney and Lennon, so too did the Stax house, including the heavyweight writing team of Isaac Hayes and Dave Porter. The comparisons generally end there though, and the prime difference between the two groups is significant—while the Beatles were well known for their songwriting and melodic styles, Stax artists were known for that gritty signature sound and style that always leaned more towards sounding impromptu than polished. Hearing the two artists overlap here is an interesting experiment.
The Stax style (and Stax artists) never lacked for personality, a point that is easily communicated as you listen through the label’s catalogue. While the songs of the Beatles are classics in anyone’s mind, the Stax treatment adds a twist that only further serves to reassure the genius of both sides. Otis Redding’s gruff voice and energy on “Day Tripper” (along with those bright blasts of Stax horns that fit so well into the song’s original guitar riff) is an example of the best of both worlds. The combination works. A later member of the Stax roster, Isaac Hayes offers a similar reconstruction of “Something”, and turns the track into a 12-minute epic that was originally made available on his 1970 album, The Isaac Hayes Movement. While most of the album’s offerings can be found elsewhere (only four of the 15 tracks are previously unreleased), there are enough examples here of the fusion working well for these songs to deserve a proper compilation.
The Stax trip over to Motown doesn’t prove as smooth: all of the ways that the Stax artists’ blend with the Beatles worked, the second experiment with Soulsville Sings Hitsville does not. Any fan of either record label—and, yes, you usually have to make the choice early to be either a devotee of Stax or their early rival record label in Detroit, Motown—could probably offer up the concern with this album even without hearing it. Just as much as Stax was known for a more organic, gritty and spontaneous approach to songwriting and recording, Motown was known for the exact opposite, with a more polished, produced and thought-out process behind its records. Motown in Detroit was a pop phenomenon, African-American artists breaking through on the mainstream charts in a consistent, and unheard of, way. The label’s efforts and style became known as “The Motown Sound”, essentially a style of soul music that included the heavy use of tambourine and drums, a focus on melody and a call and response singing style. These elements are at the core of the Motown songs; take that away and it’s hard to replace it with anything else that will work.
We’re all familiar with the versions offered up by the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Tempations ... the list honestly goes on and on with superb songs and performances. And it’s interesting to hear Stax newbie at the time, Margie Joseph, singing a heavier version of “Stop! In the Name of Love”, and the Soul Children offer their funky interpretation of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”. Many of Stax heavyweights have their own contributions here, including Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers and label house-band, Booker T & the MGs. The one glaring fact though is that these Motown songs don’t really seem open for interpretation. Motown releases were extremely tailor-made projects that included everything from minute details in the studio to choreography on stage; tampering with these elements by another set of artists that have such a distinct style themselves just isn’t a good fit. It’s also probably why fans have to stake their claim early on with the rival labels, and pick one side or the other.
The Stax catalogue is a seemingly bottomless pit of musical treasures; the series of releases from the label over the past year is certainly a reminder of that. And fans always welcome the chance to hear more from their favorite artists on the label, especially those on the roster of the early days, whose material is harder to come by any other way. The label braintrust just might do well to consider Stax’ own legacy of quality (as well as that of these artists) as they’re plotting what I’m sure will continue to be a long list of re-masters, re-packaged, previously unreleased compilations. Maybe not every song ever recorded in the Stax studio should have a clever marketing theme behind it to be packaged up and released again today?