The glorious decade and a half of music that Stax released in the ’60s and early ’70s had crowned Carla Thomas the Queen of Memphis Soul. Her roots with the label were well established right from the start: her father, Rufus, was one of the first signings, her debut solo single at 18 years old (“Gee Whiz”) was one of the label’s first hits, and her duets with Otis Redding on King and Queen in particular went on to become classics of the genre. Who would have ever guessed that behind the exquisite, soulful voice was actually the heart of a jazz singer?
The folks at Stax gave Thomas the opportunity to test the waters of jazz and pop standards in a most incredible way, booking five nights of shows at Washington, D.C.’s prestigious Bohemian Caverns jazz club late in May of 1967. A great Donny Hathaway-led backing band was hired, Stax Vice-President Al Bell hosted as master of ceremonies, and the room was packed with label roster heavyweights like Otis Redding and label owners Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton. It was to be a career-making performance by all means, and one that was recorded on May 25, 1967 with the intention to release it soon thereafter and let other audiences know about Thomas’ talents beyond the soul revue. For whatever reason — and despite the fact that a catalogue number had already been assigned to the project — the album was shelved, Thomas’ reputation as a soul singer grew and remains foremost on her resume, and the record from the Bohemian Caverns has sat in the Stax vaults for the past 40 years. There’s a natural curiosity that follows a project with such a tumultuous history, but the fact is, Thomas would have been renowned for her soulful voice regardless of whether this recording had been mysteriously passed over or not.
Thomas delivered an impressive set at the Caverns: a mix of the Tin Pan Alley-style standards that she loved like Johnny Mercer’s “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” and Doris Day’s “It’s a Lovely Day Today”, Broadway hits like “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” from the 1960 Musical Bye Bye Birdie along with her own hits like “Gee Whiz”. An eclectic range of songs were performed that night, but one that was also designed to appropriately display and celebrate Thomas’ own vast range of talent. With such an obvious intention in mind, it’s odd then that the album concludes with five tracks from Thomas’ father and fellow Stax artist, Rufus Thomas. In the house to support his daughter that night, Rufus was called up on stage by Al Bell following his daughter’s set and cajoled into performing a few songs. It stands as a nice demonstration of the feeling in the house that night, but including five tracks on an album where the original set was only nine songs is excessive and takes away from the point of the recording.
While knowing all of this history behind the album certainly makes it a more compelling listen, it’s also still the soulful ballads and raucous numbers from Carla Thomas that really seems to have the ability to draw listeners in. No doubt, there was a good reason behind her title as the Queen of Memphis Soul. The songs here may have been close to Thomas’ true musical heart, and the venue provided an absolutely perfect vehicle for delivery, but after being so familiar with her abilities and achievements as a soul singer, it just feels like a more of a letdown than anything else to hear Thomas perform in this more “standard” way.