Stax B sides a mixed bag
Stax Records defined the "Memphis Sound" of soul music in the 1960s. With a roster that took in Otis Redding, Booker T & The MGs, Sam & Dave, Rufus Thomas and Isaac Hayes, Stax and its sister label Volt provided the main competition to Motown as a home to classic soul acts.
Three separate box sets issued in the early 1990s collectively compiled every single ever released by Stax and its subsidiaries (and the 1960s were a time when sales of the 45 RPM single was the measure of a song's popularity). The nine-disc first volume, The Complete Stax-Volt Singles: 1959-1968, released by Atlantic in 1991, is the best and most important of the lot, containing most of the label's biggest hits and most iconic songs.
Stax severed distribution ties with Atlantic in 1968, and its post-'68 catalog is now owned by Concord Music (which purchased the library when it bought the Fantasy Group in 2004). Vol. 2 (1968-1971, on nine discs) and Vol. 3 (1972-1975, on 10 discs) were released by Fantasy in 1993 and '94, respectively.
Rob Bowman, author of the definitive history of Stax as well as co-producer of the previous three volumes of the Stax Singles compilations, is again on board as co-producer, coming up with three discs' worth of B sides from those singles. The other three discs from Vol. 4 take in singles and album cuts from Stax's rock, country and gospel imprints.
Reviewers of the first three Stax-Volt box sets generally described them as "completist" material, collections so vast and deep that the casual fan wouldn't get enough value to justify the price, that the likely purchasers were the sorts of music fans who simply have to own every song in a particular catalog.
If the first three volumes, which tracked every single ever issued, are for completists only, then what to make of a six-disc collection of B-sides and tracks from obscure non-R&B LPs from various Stax subsidiaries?
Serious collectors of classic soul will be the obvious audience but only the first three discs here focus on Stax. The other three take a look at the various side-labels the Stax owners tried to run, with little success Enterprise, Hip and Ardent for rock and country, and Chalice and The Gospel Truth for gospel. And all of the big, familiar hits are already on the first three collections, anyway here, we're getting the songs on the flip sides of those 45s.
And so it's fair to argue that this Vol. 4 is likely the least valuable of the four multi-artist box sets tracing Stax' history. (Of course, there are artist-specific box sets drawn from the vaults of Stax and Volt Records: A Booker T. & the MGs box set, an Otis Redding box set, another for Sam & Dave, and of course Isaac Hayes.)
Highlights of the first three discs, drawing on Stax and Volt B-sides, include Rufus Thomas' 1963 R&B take on the Billie Holiday torch song, "Fine and Mellow" (which works so well, one wonders why other non-jazz artists haven't tried their hand at her compositions). Thomas' "I Want to Get Married" (1964) is an instantly infectious pop nugget that could have stood on its own as the A side. Floyd Newman's instrumental "Sassy" is Isaac Hayes' first time on record (playing the organ). "Standing in the Need of Your Love" by Jeanne & The Darlings is as strong a B-side as Thomas' "I Want to Get Married."
Most of the Booker T. & the MG's cuts were already included on the "Time Is Tight" box set, but those who don't have that set will be able to add some otherwise unavailable B-sides to their library.
Bluesman Eddie Kirkland, at the time playing in Otis Redding's band, has a couple tracks here as "Eddie Kirk." More R&B-oriented than his later blues outings, it's a neat glimpse into his early approach to music.
But most of the rest of the Stax / Volt discs, while often interesting and always well-performed, is simply not as strong as the material on the other collections. These songs were released as the B-side on 45s for a reason.
The three discs devoted to the non-soul subsidiary labels also present a mixed bag.
On the Enterprise disc, there are a couple Billy Eckstine sides from the early 1970s—an attempt to "update" his sound, and it works about as well as Frank Sinatra's similar efforts at the same time (i.e., not very).
Chico Hamilton cut an album in 1974 for Enterprise and was joined in studio by the members of Little Feat. "Conquistadores '74" is a muscular bit of soul jazz marred only by a fade-out ending.
There is a comeback attempt by early rock 'n' roll pioneer Billy Lee Riley, and an early side by future Eric Clapton cohort Bobby Whitlock. Both are interesting, but hardly must-have material.
From the Ardent subsidiary comes legendary indie rocker Alex Chilton's Big Star, with the original version of the song used as the theme for "That '70s Show" "In the Street." A second cut, "O, My Soul" is also, like "In the Street," a joint effort between legendary Stax songwriter (and performer) William Bell and the young Chilton. It's an interesting cross-section of history. Soul singer O.B. McClinton's 1972 cross-over country hit, "Don't Let the Green Grass Fool You" is a forgotten gem that will make many an iTunes playlist.
The final disc is a collection of gospel sides issued on the Chalice and The Gospel Truth subsidiaries. These are interesting in that gospel was transforming from its formal roots to a more populist sound.
The 76-page booklet is chock-full of vintage photos of the artists, as well as the paper labels of the 45s themselves. The first three discs (of Stax / Volt B-sides) are described by Bowman, Bill Belmont describes the Enterprise sides, the Hip chapter is uncredited, Alex Palao gives a short overview of Ardent Records, and respected music journalist Lee Hildebrand covers the two gospel imprints. All are well-written and informative.
While recording dates and songwriting credits are detailed and complete, there is no information given about the musicians on each track which is a bit frustrating.
Overall, there is nothing truly essential here particularly passionate fans of 1960s music, both soul and rock, will find much to enjoy, but more casual fans may wonder where the hits are.
© Copyright Jim Trageser
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