Stars of Stax

Some of my favorite artists who recorded at the legendary Memphis record label

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Stax Records. I’ve always been impressed with the amazing array of artists who are associated with this record label: Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Albert King, Carla Thomas, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes, Kim Weston and The Staple Singers, to name some of them. I thought this would be a great theme for a list, but before I get to it, a bit of history is in order.

Stax Records was originally founded as Satellite Records in 1957 in Memphis, Tenn. by Jim Stewart, a banker who played the fiddle in a country band on the side. Initially operating in a garage, Stewart started out focusing on country, rockabilly and straight pop. In 1958, his sister Astelle Axton co-invested in the company by mortgaging her family home.

Jim Stewart & Estelle Axton

In 1959, Satellite set up a small recording studio in Brunswick, Tenn. and released its first record in the summer of  that year, Fool In Love, by R&B band The Veltones. Following the release of the record, Satellite moved back to Memphis and set up shop in an old movie theater. In the summer of 1960, Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla became the first artists to record at the new facility. Their record Cause I Love You was nationally distributed by Atlantic Records, laying the foundation for an important yet fateful distribution partnership.

Stax Records Museum

Due to a legal dispute, Satellite Records changed its name to Stax in September 1961, using the first two letters from the siblings’ last name – Stewart and Axton. In addition to a recording studio in the movie theater’s former auditorium, the company also set up a record store in the cinema’s old foyer. The store carried records from many different labels and became a popular hangout for local teenagers, which gave the company valuable insights into what music was selling.

Stax also established a house band that backed up the company’s artists during recordings. Eventually, that band consisted of the members who formed Booker T. & the M.G.’s in 1962: Booker T. Jones (organ), Steve Cropper (guitar), Lewie Steinberg (bass) and Al Jackson Jr. (drums). They served as the session band during most recordings until 1970.

Booker T & the MGs

In 1962, Stax also signed Otis Redding, who would become its biggest star until his untimely death in 1967. By the mid ’60s, Stax had also signed other major artists, including Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, Wilson Pickett and Isaac Hayes. Stax’s Booker T. & the M.G.’s and other ethnically integrated bands, along with a racially integrated team of staff and artists was unprecedented amid the civil rights-era racial strive and deep-seated tensions of the late ’50s and ’60s, especially in Memphis and the South.

In 1968, Stax ended its distribution deal with Atlantic Records and in the process lost the rights to all recordings Atlantic had distributed between 1960 and 1967. A new co-owner, Al Bell, stepped up and substantially expanded the label’s operations in an effort to better compete with its main rival Motown Records. In 1972, Bell got a distribution deal with CBS Records, but CBS lost interest in Stax, which eventually forced the label to close in 1975.

In 1977, Fantasy Records purchased the post-1968 Stax catalog and some of the pre-1968 recordings. In 1978, Stax under Fantasy’s ownership began signing new acts. But by the early ’80s, no new material appeared on Stax, and it became strictly a reissue label. In 2004, the Stax label was reactivated after Fantasy had been acquired by Concord Records. Today, Stax continues to be owned by Concord and issues both new recordings and its 1968-1975 catalog. Atlantic Records still owns most of the Stax material from 1959 to 1968.

Following is a selection of songs from some of my favorite artists whose records have been issued on Stax, old and new:

Booker T. & the M.G.’s/Green Onions (1962)

Otis Redding/I’ve Been Loving You For Too Long (1965)

Wilson Pickett/In the Midnight Hour (1965)

Sam & Dave/Soul Man (1967)

Isaac Hayes/Theme From Shaft (1971)

The Staple Singers/I’ll Take You There (1972)

Albert King/That’s What the Blues Is All About (1974)

Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats/S.O.B. (2015)

Melissa Etheridge/Hold On I’m Coming (2016)

Southern Avenue/80 Miles From Memphis (2017)

Between its initial establishment and 1975, Stax has released more than 800 singles and nearly 300 LPs, winning eight Grammys and an Academy Award. The label has had 243 hits in the Top 100 R&B Charts and more than 167 hits in the top 100 Pop Charts. In April this year, Concord and Rhino Entertainment, which manages the Stax catalog owned by Atlantic Records, announced a joint campaign to celebrate the 60th anniversary with multiple albums, boxed sets and live performance releases throughout the year. Among others, this includes the Stax Classic Series, which consists of collection albums for each of the label’s 10 biggest stars, the Complete Stax Singles boxed set series, as well as a 4-CD anthology of Isaac Hayes to coincide what would have been his 75th birthday.

Sources: Wikipedia, Stax Records website, YouTube

When Covers Are Just As Much Fun As Originals

A playlist of some of my favorite remakes

Lately, I’m somehow in the mood of compiling lists: first car songs, then train tunes and now remakes. Given how much I enjoy listening to great covers, it’s a surprise I didn’t do this list first!

In general, remakes I like fall into two categories: A version that changes the character of a song, essentially turning it into a new tune. Perhaps the best example I can think of is Joe Cocker’s version of The Beatles’ With a Little Help From My Friends. Or it simply can be a remake of a tune that stays true to its original – nothing wrong with that, especially if it’s a great song! One terrific example I came across recently is Roger McGuinn’s cover of If I Needed Someone, one of my favorite Beatles tunes. I know, again the Fab Four – I just can’t help it!

Obviously, it won’t come as a big surprise that both of the above tunes are on my list. Here is the entire compilation.

With a Little Help From My Friends/Joe Cocker

Not only credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney by actually also written collaboratively by the two, With a Little Help From My Friends first appeared in May 1967 on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was one of only a handful of Beatles tunes featuring Ringo Starr on lead vocals. Cocker’s version came out two years later as the title song of his debut album. Here’s a clip of his legendary live performance at Woodstock.

Love Hurts/Nazareth

Written by American songwriter Boudleaux Bryant, Love Hurts was first recorded by The Everly Brothers in July 1960. In 1975, Scottish hard rock band Nazareth turned the tune into an epic power ballad, including it on their sixth studio album Hair of the Dog. It’s another great example of a remake that completely changed the character of the original tune.

Under the Boardwalk/John Mellencamp

Under the Boardwalk was first recorded by The Drifters and released as a single in June 1964. The song was created by songwriters Kenny Young and Arthur Resnick. Perhaps the best known cover of the tune is from The Rolling Stones, which was included on their second U.S. record 12 X 5 released in October 1964. While I like the Stones version, I think John Mellencamp did an even better remake for his 1999 studio album Rough Harvest.

Pinball Wizard/Elton John

Pinball Wizard is one of my all-time favorite tunes from The Who. Written by Pete Townsend, it was released as a single in March 1969 and also included on the Tommy album that appeared two months thereafter. The one thing I always felt about The Who’s version is that it ended somewhat prematurely. Enter Elton John and his dynamite, extended cover for the rock opera’s 1975 film adaption. Here’s a clip from the movie version with The Who – it doesn’t get much better! BTW, it also nicely illustrates how Sir Elton can rock and what a kick-ass piano man he is, no matter what glasses he wears, or boots for that matter! 🙂

Stand By Me/John Lennon

One of the most beautiful ballads of the 60s, Stand By Me was written by Ben E. King, together with the songwriter powerhouse of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The tune was first released by King as a single in 1961 and also later included on his 1962 studio album Don’t Play That Song. One of my favorite remakes is John Lennon’s version, which he included on his sixth studio album Rock ‘n’ Roll released in February 1975. Here’s a nice clip of Lennon’s performance of the tune on the BBC television show The Grey Whistle Test.

If I Needed Someone/Roger McGuinn

Written by George Harrison, If I Needed Someone was included on The Beatles’ sixth studio album Rubber Soul from 1965. Harrison played his Rickenbacker 360/12 to record the tune, which he had first used the previous year during the motion picture A Hard Day’s Night. That’s where Roger McGuinn for the first time heard the beautiful sound of the 12-string electric guitar. He decided to use it for his own music, which resulted in The Byrds’ signature jingle jangle sound. Given this inspiration, it’s perhaps not a big surprise that McGuinn ended up recording a cover of the tune. It was included on his 2004 studio record Limited Edition.

Proud Mary/Ike & Tina Turner

Proud Mary was written by the great John Fogerty and first released by Creedence Clearwater Revival in early 1969, both as a single and on their second studio album Bayou Country. Then in 1971, Ike & Tina Turner recorded an amazing remake. It appeared as a single and was included on the album Working Together. The cover, which became their biggest hit, is another great example of how a remake can become a completely new song.

Light My Fire/José Feliciano

Credited to all four members of The Doors – Jim Morrison, Robbie Krieger, John Densmore and Ray Manzarek – Light My Fire appeared on the band’s eponymous debut album from January 1967. It was also released as a single in April that year. I’ve always loved the organ part on that tune. And then there is of course the cover from José Feliciano, which as a guitarist I appreciate in particular. It appeared on 1968’s Feliciano!, his fourth studio record. Feliciano’s laid-back jazzy style to play the tune is exceptionally beautiful.

Runaway/Bonnie Raitt

Runaway is one of my favorite early 60s pop tunes. Written by Del Shannon and keyboarder Max Crook, it was first released as a single by Shannon in February 1961. The song was also included on his debut studio album Runaway with Del Shannon, which appeared in June that year. Bonnie Raitt, who I’ve admired for many years as an exceptional guitarist and songwriter, recorded a fantastic remake for her 1977 studio album Sweet Forgiveness.  I was fortunate enough to see this amazing lady last year. She is still on top of her game! Here’s a nice clip of a live performance I found, which apparently occurred at the time the record came out.

Hard to Handle/The Black Crowes

Hard to Handle is one of the many great tunes from Otis Redding, who co-wrote it with Al Bell and Allen Jones. It was released in June 1968, six months after Redding’s untimely death at age 26 in a plane crash. In 1990, The Black Crowes recorded a fantastic rock version of the song for their debut studio album Shake Your Money Maker, scoring their first no. 1 single on the Billboard Album Rock Tracks. It is perhaps the tune’s best known cover.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Beatles Bible, YouTube