Stax label redux might revive Memphis soul

  • Follow Steven Uhles

Recently, the Concord Music Group announced plans to reactivate Stax, the classic label responsible for the rough-hewn soul that served as a counterpoint to the smooth Hitsville tracks produced at Motown.

While Motown was producing polished products by the Jackson 5 and Supremes, Stax was producing a sound that would eventually become known as Memphis soul. Stax produced historic tracks that included Otis Redding's (Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay and Isaac Hayes' Oscar-winning theme from the movie Shaft, often utilizing in-house talent such as Booker T. and the MGs, and the Memphis Horns.

I hope reactivating the Stax name also means revisiting that unique sound.

In the years since the Staples Singers laid down I'll Take You There, one of the last hits recorded at the label's famous studio, soul and R&B have lost much of the power that marked the finest Stax songs.

By recording simply, with top-notch musicians, in an acoustically challenged room rehabbed from an old theater, Stax was able to capture the raw roots of soul, removing, often out of necessity, the flourishes and studio sheen that marked not only the Motown sound but also today's soul and R&B.

Even contemporary artists marketed as classic soul performers - the John Legends and Alicia Keyses and D'Angelos of the world - seem to have lost sight of the ragged brilliance that was Stax. Though these artists often produce brilliant and eminently listenable music, the love, lust, pain and passion these artists sing about is understood more intellectually than viscerally. We understand the heartbreak because there's a lyric that lays it out for us. With a Stax song, all those emotions were in the delivery.

When Redding sang about young girls getting weary, you heard the resignation in his voice. When Mr. Hayes laid out certain truths about John Shaft, you understood he was cool because the insistent guitar and soulful snarl informed, not because there was a chorus that laid it all out.

The original Stax sound stemmed from an authenticity, a simplicity that allowed the label to retain those still-fresh links to the Southern gospel and blues traditions.

It was a unique blend of art and circumstance that probably can't be completely replicated. After all, try to re-create the past, and art, more often than not, becomes artifice, an amusement park version of history. Still, it would be interesting to hear what current soul sensations might do, might sound like, if faced with the daunting prospect and promise of recording in the old Stax style. Perhaps it could, in fact, mean the resurrection of one of music's great labels.

Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or

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canalfishing 06/23/07 - 12:43 am
lets the soul roll

lets the soul roll

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