In his treatise, “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”, pop music philosopher Billy Joel noted, “There’s a new band in town but you can’t get the sound from a story in a magazine.” To the extent that it’s true, this wisdom also holds for classic record labels and coffee table books. So, while The Last Soul Company: The Malaco Records Story, is a sumptuous souvenir celebrating the 50th anniversary of Jackson, Mississippi-based Malaco, the book can’t ever fully express what the label is all about, and what it means. For that, you need to hear the music.
Malaco knows this, which is why the company has curated many streaming playlists, including Malaco 50 Fan Favorites (Spotify) filled with classic soul tunes released on the label. Any serious investigation of Malaco ought to start with this playlist. This isn’t to say that The Last Soul Company, written by Grammy-winning author Rob Bowman, can’t tell the story, because it certainly does. Like Stax and Motown, Malaco has played an important role in Black music and culture.
Bowman wrote Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records and won a Grammy for his liner notes to The Complete Stax/Volt Singles Volume 3: 1971-1975. He also played an important role in the creating of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis. All of this makes Bowman the logical choice to tell the Malaco story, which he does through extensive interviews with Malaco executives, staff members, and artists.
Although Malaco has been a force in southern soul and gospel music for five decades, in many ways the label has largely flown under the pop culture radar. Case in point: a Philadelphia-based radio station, generally known for the wide range of music it plays, recently devoted an entire day’s programming to soul. However, a look at the day’s playlist reveals that few Malaco recordings were played.
While Malaco executives would surely have appreciated some radio love on that recent day devoted to soul, the label will survive this slight. As Bowman notes throughout The Last Soul Company, aside from creating and distributing amazing music, surviving is what Malaco does best.
It should be noted that The Last Soul Company is a Malaco-sanctioned history, with founder Thomas Couch, Sr. listed as the book’s editor. The book is published by Malaco Press. While this knowledge might temper a reader’s perception of the book’s point of view, Bowman notes from the start that there are definite parameters to Malaco’s success: “If on the one hand Malaco’s longevity is to be celebrated, this is somewhat tempered by the very real limits of its success.” Bowman then points out that the company has never had a #1 pop record and that only three Malaco releases in 50 years have made the pop Top Ten, with the last one being in 1976.
Indeed, the book traces the rise of Malaco from humble beginnings. College students Tommy Couch and Wolf Stephenson began booking bands for fraternity dances at the University of Mississippi. After graduating, Couch expanded the business with Stephenson and Couch’s brother-in-law, Mitchell Malouf. The partners opened a recording studio in 1967, and in 1970 brought producer Wardell Quezergue on board. Quezergue’s initial sessions ultimately led to two big hits: King Floyd’s “Groove Me”, released on Malaco’s Chimneyville label; and Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Shot”, which hit big after Stax picked it up.
Successes and struggles followed, with the label being saved in 1975 by Dorothy Moore’s hit single “Misty Blue”. The late 1970s and ’80s saw Malaco become the home to blues and soul artists such as Z.Z. Hill, Denise LaSalle, Johnnie Taylor, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Shirley Brown, and others. Meanwhile, Malaco’s gospel division became a force to be reckoned with.
Changing times have tested Malaco’s resilience, which Bowman details in the last chapters. The label has survived the move away from physical product sales, changes in radio station formats, and even the destruction of the company’s studio in a 2011 tornado.
Finally, remember how Bo Diddley urged us, in the words of another great philosopher, Willie Dixon (even better than Billy Joel!) in his 1962 song, “You Can’t Judge a Book By Its Cover”? When examining the photo montage on the book’s back cover, it is not hard to discover a glaring omission that might prompt some judgment. There are 19 people shown on the cover, not one of whom is a woman.
Given the chart and sales success of Moore, LaSalle, and Brown, let alone women who have worked for the company, it is unfortunate that the back cover is completely male-centric. Remember: in 1976 Dorothy Moore and her “Misty Blue” saved the company. Moore, along with LaSalle and Brown, ought to be represented on the book’s cover.
While The Last Soul Company is indeed a beautiful artifact, it also features the disadvantages of a coffee table book, being physically heavy and awkward to read (as well as pricey). A more accessible version would be helpful for Malaco fans on a budget or who don’t own suitable coffee tables. In the meantime, it’s a good companion piece to the recorded history of Malaco Records that’s found in the grooves.