If you really care, you have a favorite. A die-hard fan of the Boston Red Sox is so consumed with his passion that there is no room in his heart for love, respect, or even mercy for the New York Yankees. (Across the pond, substitute Arsenal and Manchester United, respectively.) If Rush Limbaugh is your guy, then you can not help but think that it is Al Franken who is a big, fat, idiot. And if you think that Lynyrd Skynyrd is the greatest band to grace the earth since the big old orb was fashioned, then it’s going to be real hard for you ever to listen to Neil Young. (Or go to college. Or get a job. Or to stop drinking that six-pack with breakfast every morning.)
If you really care, you have a favorite. That especially holds true when it comes to that kind of music that appropriately goes by the name “soul”. Now, if you just want to cut a little rug or have some background music at your dinner party, then you probably could indiscriminately segue a Jackson 5 number into a little Otis Redding groove and top it off with a little Aretha Franklin. But for those who not only listen to records, but admiringly gaze into the secrets of their labels for all the clues of their quasi-religious lore, such a juxtaposition of Detroit, Memphis, and New York City would be intolerable. For much in the same way that current hip-hop labels like Death Row and Murder [née] Inc. stage grand battles between their stars, so, too, in the late ’60s and early ’70s were lines clearly divided between the great soul music centers of the era.
Most popular, of course, was the polished and practiced sound of Motown, the label that launched 1,000 hits. Berry Gordy’s label is the only one who could justify titling its own greatest hits boxed set Hitsville U.S.A. and get away with continuing to rely upon its eternal moniker. Most appreciated by the press seems to be Jerry Wexler and his Manhattan-based Atlantic Records crew, who released some of the most memorable and influential songs of the time. But the best — and I say this with the admitted bias of the aforementioned die-hard fan — will always be the tiny little Stax Records, epicenter of the wonderful universe known as Soulsville.
Stax Records was a neighborhood operation that grew up in the worst neighborhoods of a rather impoverished Memphis, Tennessee. Its biggest stars were homegrown: its first house band, the Mar-Keys, featured a nephew of the owners; the immortal Otis Redding was discovered unloading sound equipment from a local truck; the inimitable Isaac Hayes preceded his career as the depthless-voiced wonder by penning hits with Memphian David Porter for the biggest acts of the day. Stax Records had a sound that was only their own: fueled by the endless grooves of Booker T. & the MG’s, artists like Eddie Floyd, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, William Bell, and even Albert King brought their emotion-laden performances to incredibly vivid life. While Motown was putting out dance tunes, while Wexler was modernizing the gospel church, the team down at Soulsville was putting each and every ounce of a wonderful but often difficult life into 45 after 45, LP after LP.
It’s no secret that Stax records utterly collapsed in the late ’70s, or that their home base, located in the third poorest zip code in America, was razed to the ground in the ’80s. But the good people of Soulsville (and it seems as if all of them were good, doesn’t it?) got back together around the turn of the millennium to rebuild and pay proper tribute to their legend. On May 2, 2003, the American Museum of Soul Music opened its doors on the rebuilt site of Stax Records; the museum not only preserves the legacy of the label, but also tells the story of the entire style of music — from its roots in the church to its current expression in hip hop; from the artists at Stax to those other greats on Atlantic, Motown, Hi, Fame and more. Especially given its shared existence with the Stax Music Academy, which provides after-school programs and education for the neighborhood kids, Soulsville immediately became a not-to-be-missed experience in a city whose worthwhile tourist spots are many.
All of this re-dedication to a neighborhood, a label, a genre and an ethos, was celebrated in proper style, of course: Memphis’ historic Orpheum theater was rented out, all the stars of the Stax galaxy came home, and one hell of a party was thrown. Eddie Floyd got the crowd on its feet with a rousing “Knock on Wood”, and then Jean Knight kept them going with her classic “Mr. Big Stuff”. William Bell, Carla Thomas, Mavis Staples, and Little Milton shared the stage with Michael McDonald, Jimmie Vaughan, and Chuck D, reeling out classics like “Mustang Sally”, “When Something’s Wrong with My Baby”, and “Respect Yourself”. The music made was hardly a pale tribute to the by-gone heights of yesteryear; it remains immediate, pulsating, and electric. William Bell puts as much pathos into “You Don’t Miss Your Water” in 2004 as he did 40 years ago when he first recorded it; the Bar-Kays infuse “Soul Finger” with the same manic funk energy found in the grooves of its original wax.
Soul Comes Home, both in CD and DVD formats, captures this event for all those unlucky enough not to have been able to walk down Beale to the Orpheum for the concert itself. While this live recording hardly replaces the need to have the original versions of all these songs in your collection, it’s a most worthwhile addition to anybody’s collection. You get to hear a modern-day Al Green not singing in his church, but testifying about “Love and Happiness” with unrivaled intensity. You get to witness the monumental (in size and stature) Solomon Burke pay fitting tribute (and how many can do this?) to the only Otis Redding with a powerful version of “Try a Little Tenderness”.
If you get the DVD, you also get two added bonuses: the rare live performance of a stage-fright burdened Percy Sledge singing his “When a Man Loves a Woman”, and the show’s visual highlight, Isaac Hayes conducting an entire soul orchestra through the hysterical but undeniable “Theme from Shaft“.
You can take it from me that the single greatest indy label of all time wasn’t Sub Pop, but Stax/Volt. Or, you can buy yourself Soul Comes Home in either of its two magnificent formulations, and let the artists do the explaining for themselves. (Literally, in the case of the DVD, with is bonus feature-ettes on the history of the label, its genre and performers.) And, even if you wind up thinking that I’m wrong, even if you commit (in my book) that grand musical sin of choosing Detroit over Memphis, or Al over Otis, you’ll still thank me for having recommended a listening/viewing experience that’s one hell of a good time. For when Soul Comes Home, it’s a party that no one should miss.