Stax sounds like shorthand for "stacks of 45s." But the Memphis soul label actually was a hybrid of Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton's last names. Stewart and Axton were brother-and-sister business partners who started Satellite Records in 1957 and changed the company's name in 1961 to Stax.
Back in the 1960s, soul labels in different parts of the country had their own regional flavor. Arctic in Philadelphia was sweet, Specialty in Los Angeles was bluesy, Red Bird in New York was street and so on. Much of this distinction was a direct result of the owner's taste, the "special sauce" brought by the house band and the aesthetics of staff songwriters.
In contrast to Motown, its chief rival in the 1960s and early '70s, Stax had an earthier, funky flavor. While its songs and arrangements may not have been as polished or hook-centric, Stax had a deep connection with listeners who lived along the two-lane roads of the rural South. Stax's house band was the integrated Booker T. and the MGs, with Isaac Hayes (above) substituting for Booker T. when necessary on keyboards. Black or white made no difference at Stax. It was always about the bump and funk.
As anyone who has been to Memphis knows, the city sits in the heart of the musical South, where black and white musicians came together in the 1960s and were hired by Stax based on their drive and talents. From 1959 to 1975, Stax and its sister label, Volt, thrived on the release of singles for radio airplay. Radio drove sales, which in Stax's case were transacted in its own Memphis store next to the recording studio. [Above, Estelle Axton and Jim Stewart]
Stax and Volt—much like Motown, Tamla and Gordy—were set up to ensure maximum airplay without running afoul of new anti-payola rules instituted by radio stations after Congressional hearings in 1960 cracked down on the repeated play of labels by DJs hoping for cash envelopes.
Back in 2007, Atlantic, which owns the Stax back catalog, issued The Complete Stax/Volt Singles: 1959-1968 Vol. 1. A few years ago, Vivid in Japan remastered Vol. 1. Now Concord has issued Vols. 2 and 3. The two sets were originally issued in 1994 and have been updated and are available for the first time as downloads.
While Vol. 1 (1959-1968) showcases music produced by a relatively small operation, Vol. 2 (1968-1971) and Vol. 3 (1972-1975) feature music from a label on its way to become a corporate hit-making enterprise. Listening to the evolution as Stax's recordings drift into blues, sweet soul, strings and dance is fascinating.
The beauty of the Stax singles between 1968 and 1975 is that there really weren't any duds, which is rather remarkable. That can't be said of most independent soul labels. Of course, some Stax/Volt recordings were more popular and memorable than others, but I was surprised that there weren't any wipe-outs that make you cringe. [Above, the Soul Children]
I spent hours over the past weeks listening to all 19 discs in the two sets and never once reached for the mouse to move the tracks forward. Each song has its own character and personality, which makes for great listening. Each single was a unique product, and each is comfortable in its own skin. Other labels created a consistent profile. Not so Stax. [Above, the Dramatics]
While many have written about Stax's so-called Memphis sound, the truth is the label had no identifiable fingerprint from single to single. Stax had a flavor but not a signature sound. Many Stax/Volt singles had horns, a hip bass line, a funky guitar and strong, jazzy drums topped by a tambourine. But singles, even by the same artist, were all highly distinct. That's why listening to these boxes is such a joy. The music never bogs down in a copycat rut. [Above, Booker T. & the MGs and the Staple Singers]
When Stax filed for bankruptcy in 1976, a distribution deal with CBS fell through and the company was forced out of business. What remains is a bounty of singles drenched in the roadhouses of Saturday nights and the gospel and spirituals of Southern churches on Sunday mornings. In listening back to Vols. 2 and 3, you hear a label going with its own flow, Hot 100 be damned. [Above, the Staple Singers]
JazzWax tracks: You'll find The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles, Vol. 2: 1968-1971 here and The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles, Vol. 3: 1972-1975 here (but wait for Concord to update and offer digital downloads).
JazzWax clips: Here's Little Milton's I'm Gonna Cry a River...
Here's Hot Sauce's Bring It Home (And Give It to Me)...
Here's Los Leaders' Which Way...
And here's Rufus Thomas's 6-3-8...