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New Stax Box Set Details a Fraught 1968

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    Posted: 17 Oct 2018 at 11:13am
 In December 1967, the plane shuttling vocalist Otis Redding and four members of the Bar-Kays between engagements crashed in Lake Monona near Madison, Wisconsin. It was a devastating moment for the musicians’ families, as well as for fans across the country. But Redding’s death also pushed Stax Records, the Memphis-based soul label that had issued his work, into an existential crisis.

A five-disc box set, Stax ’68: A Memphis Story (Craft Recordings/Stax), documents the aftermath.

“It was a feeling of being lost and being numbed,” remembered Deanie Parker, who worked in various capacities at Stax beginning in 1963 and later helped establish the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. “Two weeks later, after the plane crash, a big delivery trunk pulled in front of Stax’s building, bringing in these two huge trunks that were still dripping water, because they were retrieved from the lake where the plane crashed. In the most tactful way, we made sure to get those things in the trunks back to those victims’ loved ones.”

Redding’s legacy opens Stax ’68 with the wistful “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” a single that was rushed out in early January 1968. The single succeeded Sam and Dave’s 1967’s hit “Soul Man” as Stax’s top-selling record. Following Redding’s immortal song is its more upbeat B-side, “Sweet Lorene,” which sounded more like his patented gritty soul.

Other references to Redding’s untimely death on Stax ’68 surface on Eddie Floyd’s surging “Big Bird,” a song about his attempt to fly from the UK back to Georgia to attend Redding’s funeral. A more direct homage is William Bell’s plaintive “A Tribute To A King.” Bell, a close friend of Redding, wrote the song for the singer’s family with no intention of it officially being released.

“I fought against it being released, mainly because I didn’t want anyone to think I was trying to capitalize on a friend’s death,” Bell said, which in part explains why “A Tribute To A King” was issued as the B-side to his sauntering ballad, “Every Man Oughta Have A Woman.”

Soon after losing Redding and most of the members of the Bar-Kays, Warner Bros. purchased Atlantic Records, Stax’s distributor. The 1965 contract between Stax and Atlantic contained a clause stating that the Memphis label could sever ties with Atlantic if Jerry Wexler ceased being the company’s sole owner. Stax took advantage of that provision, but to its detriment. The contract also stipulated that Atlantic owned Stax’s masters and rights of reproduction, leaving the Memphis imprint without a catalog. Stax also soon learned that Sam and Dave, one of its biggest acts, actually was signed to Atlantic.

In racially segregated Memphis, Stax was an oasis where black and white musicians collaborated. But on April 4, 1968, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther Jr. was assassinated at Memphis’ Lorraine Motel, throttling the decade’s idealism.

“We were essentially a happy people within the Stax Records walls,” Parker recalled. “But every time we stepped outside the door into real Memphis, we had to deal with the fact that there were many men on the streets and around the corner who couldn’t feed their families, because they couldn’t get a decent wage. Some people in the Memphis community were very hostile toward Stax, because we represented a lifestyle for the future.”

Bell perceived a financial fallout following the unrest around King’s assassination.

“There was looting and rioting in different cities that we’re touring in, and record sales were down, because a lot of the stores had been bombed out. It just had a trickle-down effect,” he said.

In the eeriest of circumstances, singer Shirley Walton was recording vocals for “Send Peace And Harmony Home,” a soul anthem originally written as a gift to King and included in the box set, on April 4. She reportedly struggled connecting to the song until receiving word of King’s slaying. Stunned and sadden by the news, she and the musicians finished the session, which was released the following month. The new box set contains additional socially conscious tunes evoking the civil rights movement, specifically efforts from the then-newly signed Staple Singers—“Long Walk To DC,” “The Ghetto” and “Got To Be Some Changes Made.”

Facing seemingly insurmountable challenges—both societally and within the business itself—Al Bell, a former radio disc jockey, rose through the Stax ranks under the leadership of its founders, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton. After he became executive vice president and eventually principal owner, Bell famously orchestrated the simultaneous release of 27 LPs in mid-’69 to help build the imprint a new catalog.

But before he implemented that plan, Bell secured a deal with Gulf and Western’s Paramount Pictures division to fund Stax’s post-Atlantic operations. He also launched a new sub label, Enterprise Records—named after the vessel in Star Trek—to capture the ears of a broader listenership.

“I had a good feel for the diversity of music appreciation from the African American consumer,” he said. “So, I went after blues, soul, the Motown sound and jazz.”

Enterprise originally was designed as a subsidiary label focused on jazz, even though Isaac Hayes’ soul-funk classics Shaft and Hot, Buttered Soul were issued under its auspices. Nevertheless, Stax ’68 features Hayes’ instrumental soul-jazz gem “Precious, Precious” and the blues-drenched “Going To Chicago Blues.” For jazz fans, though, the most engaging Enterprise cuts on the set might be two rare tunes by trumpeter Eddie Henderson: the sunny, mid-tempo “Georgy Girl” and the swaggering “A Million Times Or More.”

The rarities and oddities that comprise a portion of Stax ’68 actually are what makes it an intriguing release. For sure, it contains some well-known favorites from Booker T. and the MG’s, Rufus Thomas, Albert King, Carla Thomas and Johnnie Taylor. More fascinating, however, are songs like Derek Martin’s “Sly Girl” (which borrows judiciously from the 1965 Four Tops hit “It’s The Same Ole Song”) and Daaron Lee’s honky-tonk take on Johnny Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love.” DB

from http://downbeat.com

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