Stax Profiles: Hearts Full Of Soul, Part 1: Rance Allen, Booker T & The MGs, Eddie Floyd, Albert King, Little Milton
By now, the history of Stax Records has become more than just a story. The history of this haven for southern soul musicsteeped in gospel and the blues, blues tempered with rhythm or served straight up bluehas grown into something closer to legend, a legend that the recent series of ten Stax Profiles, compilations from seminal Stax blues and soul artists, will only serve to advance.
The history of Stax Records and its Volt subsidiary, from its inception in 1961 until it ceased operations in the mid-1970s, reads like a Who's Who of American Soul Music. Albert King, Otis Redding, and Booker T & The MGswhose fluid yet funky ensemble sound seamlessly integrated black and white music, jazz, gospel, rhythm and the bluesespecially embodied the label's prowess, and did most of their best work for the label. If it was on Stax, it was generally hot, funky and good.
The tragic 1967 plane crash in which Redding and four members of the Bar-Kays, on tour as his backup band, perished also marked the end of the first era of Stax Records, a time dominated by most of the artists celebrated on these first Stax Profiles.
The label continued for nearly another decade and launched a second wave of stars, including the Dramatics and Isaac Hayes, who wrote or co-wrote (mainly with David Porter) many Stax hits, including "Soul Man and "Hold On, I'm Coming. In 1971, Hayes' Stax soundtrack to the film Shaft was the first album by an African-American artist to top both the US R&B and pop charts and garnered Hayes the first Oscar for Best Musical Score by an African-American composer. It also won a Golden Globe Award, the NAACP Image Award, and three Grammy Awards.
Rance Allen sang gospel music like he thought it was rock and roll. This guitarist, pianist, composer and vocalist recorded heavenly music for Stax from 1971-75, most often in harmony with brothers Tom (drums) and Steve (bass).
Through every style of material, Allen testified with the full power of fervent religious conviction. A live performance of perhaps his most popular tune, "Lying On The Truth tears open this compilation with raw, fuzz-toned lead electric guitar that screams from hurt, recorded at the historic 1972 Wattstax benefit concert at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
"Joy and "Let The Music Get Down In Your Soul move more up-tempo, positively bubbling up through their contemporary R&B sounds. Allen's voice soars on angel's wings through the upper reaches of "Ain't No Need Of Crying, written by David Porter; Allen's voice, in tandem flight with the song's light, supple melody, suggests the sparkling R&B vocals of Philip Bailey for Earth Wind & Fire.
Lord knows that Allen knew his old-time, "come to Jesus religious music too, and his spirit illuminates Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "Up Above My Head and the traditional gospel testifying of Rev. James Cleveland's "That Will Be Good Enough For Me. In addition, "What Is This? burns with the twin flames of the blues and gospel, and one of Allen's most sparkling, soulful and jazzy, piano solos, like Ray Charles.
(Compiled by Deanie Parker, former singer, songwriter and publicity director for the Stax label, and President of the Soulsville Foundation for the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis.)
Booker T & The MGs
To many music fans (yours truly among them), the nimble and funky Hammond B-3 organ sound of Booker T & the MGs is the sound of Stax Records, as various combinations of Booker T. Jones (keyboards), Steve Cropper (guitar), Al Jackson, Jr. (drums) and Lewie Steinberg or Donald "Duck Dunn (bass) served as house band on many Stax recordings.
Compiler Elvis Costello doesn't miss a hit from the twist and shout of the opening "Time Is Tight, and tosses in live versions, Beatles covers ("Lady Madonna and "Something ), and rarely heard gems such as the closing, churning tempest "Fuquawi.
The hits include "Hip Hug-Her, perhaps the ultimate sound painting of the suggestive, symphonic symmetry of a shapely woman sauntering past in form-fitting blue jeans; live versions of "Boot-Leg, where Cropper shreds hot shards of melody and rhythm from his guitar, and then ravenously chews up his "Green Onions ; and "Chinese Checkers, where the Mar-Keys horns expand the MGs tight ensemble sound and Jones contributes both the horn chart and trombone.
As for the leader, Jones' electric piano solo in "Jellybread spreads some mighty sweet and tasty jam. In "Over Easy, his acoustic piano glides into cool, Ramsey Lewis-sounding jazz, and his gospel piano, in counterpoint with Cropper's sharp blues guitar, lays down the perfect testimony in his "Sunday Sermon.
Costello's liner notes are the most extensively and lovingly rendered in the series.
(Compiled by Elvis Costello, whose album Get Happy! was a tribute, particularly in its organ sound, to classic R&B and soul.)