By Joel Francis
The ultimate Stax tribute to the Beatles was Booker T and the MGs 1970 album “McLemore Avenue.” None of those tracks appear on the 2007 compilation “Stax Does the Beatles,” but strong contributions from Isaac Hayes, the Bar Kays, Carla Thomas and four other MG tracks make collection as strong as it appears on paper.
Otis Redding opens the album with arguably the greatest Beatles cover of all time. His version of “Day Tripper” (presented here in an unreleased alternate take) may even top the Beatles. Redding’s “Day Tripper” may be second only to Wilson Pickett and Duane Allman’s “Hey Jude” in the pantheon of Beatle covers. Pickett’s reading is sadly missing on this album, but David Porter’s “Help!” continues Redding’s frenetic horn lines and double-time delivery to add an urgency only hinted in John Lennon’s originals vocals.
“Stax Does the Beatles” contains two very different versions of “Yesterday,” a funky, sassy spin on “And I Love Her” and a slight cheat with John Gary Williams’ 1973 cover of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.” Some readings work better than others, but all are stamped with the high quality that defined the Stax catalog.
The collection’s centerpiece is Isaac Hayes’ 12-minute cinematic, romantic rendition of “Something.” His arrangement features almost as many instruments as the Beatles “A Day in the Life,” including saxophone, wah guitar, full orchestra and a gorgeous piano line that holds the whole thing together. And that’s just the first 2 minutes.
Some might complain Hayes’ “Something” is overblown, over-produced and pretentious. They haven’t been paying attention to the deep longing in Hayes’ voice.
Although “Something” and “Day Tripper” come the closest, nothing on this collection will replace or make one forget the Beatles versions. The magic in their songs is that there are so many nooks and crannies it seems unlikely future generations will ever exhaust the possibilities of reinterpretation.
For Beatle fans that can play a song in their head by just thinking of the title or chorus, these R&B translations are for you. They are a fresh coat of paint on a favorite structure. For soul fans interested in the influence of soul in rock and vice versa, there is much to enjoy in “Stax Does the Beatles.” People who don’t like either Stax or the Beatles should find the nearest house of worship and repent. Then buy this on the way home.