‘Soul Explosion’ Is the Sound of Memphis Soul Reinvented

Fifty years ago, Stax Records became an independent label and this new two-LP compilation details that daring, exhilarating period in soul music.

Soul Explosion
Various Artists
Craft Recordings
31 May 2019

By the late 1960s, Stax Records was on a roll. Churning out soul hits by Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, Sam & Dave, the Mar-Keys, and countless others, the label represented the gritty Southern flip side to the slicker, more polished sound of Motown. To make a more music-oriented analogy, you could say that Stax was the Stones to Motown’s Beatles. But in 1968, the label ended its relationship with Atlantic Records and was forced to operate independently, without a music catalog.

Stax saw this potentially crippling news as an opportunity. Under the guidance of co-owner Al Bell, the label went on to release 27 new albums and 30 singles in just a handful of months. This period was known as “Soul Explosion”, with a sampler of the same name released as a two-LP set in May 1969. The reissue label Craft Recordings is taking note of this important 50th anniversary by not only reissuing the Soul Explosion set on vinyl but also making the 28-track collection available as a digital download for the first time. Throughout the year Craft will also reissue – both physically and digitally – a wide selection of full album reissues of the era by such Stax artists as Johnnie Taylor, Booker T. and the MGs, Carla Thomas, the Mad Lads, and more.

The Soul Explosion compilation is a sheer delight, capturing a revitalized label both free of a parent company and effortlessly moving with the times. While the Atlantic-era Stax sound is lovingly and painstakingly documented on the 1991 boxed set The Complete Stax/Volt Singles 1959-1968 (a must-hear for any self-respecting classic soul fan), Soul Explosion is the sound of Memphis soul on the cusp of a new age. While Stax certainly had a lot to live up to at this point, their first shot out of the cannon was an undisputed smash – breakout Stax star Johnnie Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love” – which opens Soul Explosion – topped the R&B charts and hit #5 on the pop charts.

Other tracks on Soul Explosion may be less recognizable to the average fan but are no less potent. The instrumental combo Booker T. and the MGs – essentially Stax’s house band – contribute plenty of great music here, including their cover of the theme to the Spaghetti Western “Hang ‘Em High”, the bouncy “Soul Limbo”, and the vaguely psychedelic “Soul Clap ’69”. Speaking of psychedelia, one of the greatest anomalies in Stax’s history makes a couple of appearances on Soul Explosion: Southwest F.O.B., a trippy, short-lived combo that included the duo that would go on to become England Dan and John Ford Coley, contribute the self-explanatory “Smell of Incense” and a cover of the pop/soul standard “Mercy Mercy Mercy”.

More of the usual suspects show up on Soul Explosion, including Stax mainstay Eddie Floyd, who contributes an upbeat take on Sam Cooke’s smoldering ballad “Bring It on Home to Me”, the Bar-Kays, who essentially rewrite their smash “Soul Finger” for the hippie crowd with infectious foot-stompers like “Hot Hips” and “Copy Kat”. Blues guitar great Albert King – whose 1967 album Born Under a Bad Sign was reissued on vinyl this year as a Record Store Day exclusive by Craft – crashes in with the strutting “Cold Feet”, tossing off biting guitar licks and plenty of fun lyric references to Stax artists.

Stax mainstay Carla Thomas makes several appearances, including her hip-shaking take on “Where Do I Go” from the musical Hair, and Johnnie Taylor contributes more tracks than just the opening number – the seductive soul of “Save Your Love for Me” and the underrated blues gem “Twenty Years from Today”. But these are tempered nicely with lesser-known artists like the soul/gospel outfit Ollie and the Nightingales (“I’ve Got a Sure Thing”, “Heartache Mountain”), Jimmy Hughes (“I Like Everything About You”, “Peeped Around Yonder’s Bend”) and the Southern soul vocal group the Mad Lads, who bring an old-school doo-wop sensibility to the set with sterling ballads like “So Nice” and “These Old Memories”.

Soul Explosion is the sound of an era, an important turning point in the development of Stax Records. Their biggest hits may have been behind them, but they were determined to release a great deal of eclectic, top-notch music that may not necessarily burn up the charts, but was deservedly loved by soul fans of all stripes. The reissue of this set is a reminder that good music is timeless.

RATING 8 / 10