[JPL] From Stax, the Heart of Soul CDs and DVDs mine gems from that label's archives

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Sat Jan 24 16:57:49 EST 2009



JANUARY 24, 2009

>From Stax, the Heart of Soul
CDs and DVDs mine gems from that label's archives

It was the little soul label that could. Stax Records was the Memphis music
machine that produced the likes of Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, the Staple
Singers, Isaac Hayes, Booker T. & the MG's, William Bell, Rufus and Carla
Thomas, and many others. It was founded in 1957 by two white Memphis
siblings -- Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton (the Stax name came from combining
the first two letters of their last names) -- who converted an old movie
theater into a recording studio and adjoining record store. The label's
ambitions reached new heights under a new African-American co-owner, former
disc jockey Al Bell. The Stax style, particularly in the early days, was
characterized by cutting a record in only a few takes, with no overdubbing
and lots of ad-libbing. Every studio record was essentially a live record.
Live and raw.

Stax had a long run, before sliding into bankruptcy in 1975. The studio was
torn down in 1989. But in 2006, the building was reconstructed according to
the original designs and reopened as the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
The old Stax label has also been revived, signing such contemporary artists
as neo-soul singer Angie Stone. Beginning in force in 2007, Stax began
issuing a series of superb CDs and DVDs commemorating some of the greatest
soul music ever recorded. Next month, the label will reissue a remastered
version of Hayes's classic album "Black Moses." Here are a few of the best:

'Otis Redding -- Live in London & Paris': Redding was the finest singer to
come out of Stax -- and arguably the most outstanding male soul singer ever.
No one better exemplified the rough-hewn, sweaty, impromptu approach to
recordings there. This album captures Redding at the height of his powers --
just a few months before his death in 1967 -- in his best setting, in front
of the audiences in Europe that made him understand the reach of his fame.
Highlights include his trademark version of "Try a Little Tenderness," in
which he is joined for an ad-libbed ending by Sam & Dave and Carla Thomas,
who were also on the European tour.
'Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story': This lovingly done documentary,
narrated by Samuel Jackson, captures so many of the twists and turns in the
rise and fall -- and rise and fall again -- of Stax. Unlike too many music
documentaries, this one actually lets viewers hear the music. And the
filmmakers did great reporting, doggedly tracking down nearly every
important person associated with Stax. They expertly chronicle the rise of a
mom-and-pop record label that became a soul-music powerhouse, then was
nearly laid low by Redding's death and, a year later, was transformed by the
assassination, in Memphis, of Martin Luther King Jr. His death forever
altered the city, making impossible the biracial magic that had been such an
integral part of Stax. Among the remarkable footage here: Isaac Hayes
rehearsing "Shaft" in the studio, sitting alongside director Gordon Parks;
concert clips of the likes of Sam & Dave; and, finally, scenes from the
auction of assets when Stax's fortunes took a terrible turn.
'Dreams to Remember: The Legacy of Otis Redding': The definitive Redding
documentary features one jaw-dropping clip after another. Highlights include
a 1967 London performance of "Satisfaction" featuring Redding on fire --
pumping his fist, his body glistening with sweat. He looks as though he
might explode. The filmmakers also discovered the only two known recorded
Redding interviews, one with Dick Clark. Just as charming are several TV
clips, where Redding is surprisingly awkward as he tries to dance, sans
microphone, and sometimes cracks up as he forgets some of the lyrics he is
supposed to lip-sync. He was just 26 when he died in a plane crash in Lake
Monona in Wisconsin.
'Wattstax: Music from the Wattstax Festival and Film': As the civil-rights
movement transformed into the Black Power movement in the 1970s, Stax
underwent a similar change. The label's heights were reached when it
organized a seven-hour concert in Los Angeles in August 1972 to commemorate
the city's riots a few years earlier. The event drew 100,000 people to the
Los Angeles Coliseum and was also the subject of a woefully under-recognized
film, which captures a unique expression of artistic black pride from that
period. This reissued and re-edited version of the accompanying concert
album features memorable appearances and performances by the Staple Singers,
Richard Pryor, Rufus Thomas, the Soul Children, Isaac Hayes, and Jesse
Jackson, who opens the event by leading the crowd in a chorus of "I am
somebody: black, beautiful, proud."
'Johnnie Taylor -- Live at the Summit Club': Taylor is one of the great soul
singers of this period, a gospel and R&B protégé of Sam Cooke. This record
captures a live show at a Los Angeles nightclub -- hastily arranged after
his appearance at the Wattstax event was scrapped due to scheduling
problems. It was just as well. This is an astonishing album. Taylor's energy
is fierce and intense, and he is backed by a great, funky band. One
performance from this show is included in the Wattstax film -- "Jody's Got
Your Girl and Gone" -- and it is one of the movie's most electrifying
'Judy Clay/Veda Brown -- The Stax Solo Recordings' (issued by Kent Records,
not Stax): Two lesser-known singers who did a handful of recordings for
Stax, both of these women sang deep, gospel-drenched soul. Veda Brown's
"Short Stopping" is a Stax classic. Many of these songs capture the later
Stax sound, much of which was actually recorded with another important soul
rhythm section in Muscle Shoals, Ala.
Mr. Drucker is a reporter in The Wall Street Journal's New York bureau.

Write to Jesse Drucker at jesse.drucker at wsj.com

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