Review – Booker T.

(Above: Booker T. Jones performs “Time Is Tight” in Dublin earlier this year.)

By Joel Francis

Soul legend Booker T. Jones’ concert Sunday night at Knucklehead’s was the tale of two shows. The first half of Jones’ two-hour set was solid, if unspectacular and marred by sound and equipment issues. After a 20-minute recess to fix the technical problems, the band returned rejuvenated and tore through powerful readings from the MGs catalog.

Jones’ organ playing has always been more powerful than his singing voice, but both his instruments were drowned out by Troy Gonyea’s guitar. The quartet started off fine with the opening trio of songs from this year’s “Potato Hole” album, but it was difficult to hear Jones’ between-song banter and his singing on “Born Under A Bad Sign” was inaudible.

That song earned a few scowls toward the soundboard and a staff member hurriedly setting up a second mic at the organ. Jones took a mulligan on that one and ran it through again with somewhat improved results. The sound problems followed Jones across the stage when he strapped on a black Stratocaster to pay tributes to his friends and fellow Stax legends Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding.

Hayes and David Porter’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’” was marred by feedback that made “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” unlistenable. After the sound crew proved unable to fix what Jones identified as “440 or 360 frequency” hum, the band took a technical break.

With the sound fixed, the band emerged a new beast. Jones’ organ was crisp and each instrument was more distinct. The band seemed happier, too, and made up for the false start. New song “Native New Yorker” sounded like a lost Allman Brothers track and Drummer Darian Gray updated a couple MGs tracks, including “Hip Hug Her” and “Hang ‘Em High” with freestyle rap vocals. “Melting Pot” built slowly over Gonyea’s chicken-scratch guitar before exploding at the gospel chorus. The 10-minute reading gave the band plenty of time to stretch out and play off each other.

The main set ended with a thunderous “Time is Tight” that opened with organ and bass before the rest of the band kicked down the door. The band scattered after that song, leaving Jones on his organ bench talking to fans and posing for pictures. The musicians reappeared for a spontaneous, powerful roll through Jones’ wonderful, upbeat arrangement of Outkast’s “Hey Ya.”

Knucklehead’s was about three-quarters full of appreciative fans who didn’t hesitate to jump to their feet and crowd the dance floor. “Green Onions” drew a big crowd in front of the stage early, and nearly everyone was on their feet for the second half of the show.  It had been a long time since Jones last played Kansas City, and everyone in the house – musicians included – were graciously patient and willing to make sure the evening turned out all right. The ultimately spectacular evening was well worth the wait.

Setlist: Pound It Out, She Breaks, Warped Sister, Green Onions, Born Under A Bad Sign, Hold On, I’m Comin’, Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay, Potato Hole, Hip Hug Her, New York Native, Melting Pot, Hang ‘Em High, Time Is Tight, (encore) Hey Ya


Soulsville sings Hitsville

soulsville sings hitsville

By Joel Francis

Rare was the time Berry Gordy would let Motown artists record songs outside of the Hitsville catalog (and its lucrative publishing).  Fortunately, Jim Stewart at Stax did not have the same stipulation. Thanks to the 2007 compilation “Soulsville Sings Hitsville: Stax Sings the Songs of Motown Records” soul fans have at least one direct barometer to use in the never-ending debate of Stax vs. Motown.

Rivalries and arguments aside, “Soulsville Sings Hitsville” is a great 15-song collection that casts many soul nuggets worn out by oldies radio in a new light. Soul fans from either side of the Mason-Dixon line will find a lot to enjoy here. And now for the 15-round battle in the head-to-head match of Stax vs. Motown.

Round 1:  – “Stop! In the Name of Love”

Margie Joseph vs. the Supremes

The Supremes took this song to No. 1 in 1965 and made it one of their defining songs. Margie Joseph adds a lengthy monologue and a completely new arrangement that transforms the song. They lyrics are about the only element these versions share. Although it’s hard to top Holland-Dozier-Holland production, Joseph accomplishes the feat by making the song her own and having an infinitely better singing voice than Diana Ross.

Winner: Stax

Round 2:  – “I Don’t Know Why I Love You”

David Porter vs. Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5

David Porter made his name as half of the Porter-Isaac Hayes hitmaking machine in the ‘60s before striking out on his own in the ‘70s. His version of “I Don’t Know Why” easily tops the Jackson 5’s reading. Michael Jackson just isn’t old enough to put the necessary grit in his vocals and ends up practically shouting the song. The gold medal here, though, goes to the co-author and original performer Stevie Wonder. Released as a single from his 1968 album “For Once In My Life,” the song peaked at No. 16 on the R&B charts. Wonder’s vocals simmer, building in intensity until they boil over at the 1:40 mark. Wonder sings so hard he’s almost out of breath as the great arrangement continues to build until the only options are to explode out of the speakers or fade out. Faced with potential lawsuits from music lovers, the track ends just under the three-minute mark.

Winner: Motown

Round 3 – “You’ve Got to Earn It”

Staples Singers vs. the Temptations

One of the Staples Singers’ biggest hits, this song is so closely identified with the group that I didn’t even know the Temptations recorded the original. This Smokey Robinson-penned number was released in 1965 on the b-side of “Since I Lost My Baby.” The Tempts version is serviceable, but aside from Eddie Kendricks’ lead vocals isn’t that memorable. The Staples version trumps on every level: Mavis Staples great singing, the spectacular arrangement featuring a signature descending horn line and harmonica, and the soulful playing and support of Pops and Yvonne Staples.

Winner: Stax

Round 4 – “Can I Get a Witness”

Calvin Scott vs. Marvin Gaye

In the NFL, when a play is challenged and the officials go under the hood for review, there must be incontrovertible evidence to overturn the call. So goes it with covers. It is not sufficient to merely equal the original recording, the burden of the cover is to surpass the original. Calvin Scott does a good job putting his twist on one of Marvin Gaye’s earliest hits, but he doesn’t add anything to it either. Take pity on Scott, however – topping Gaye is no small feat.

Winner: Motown

Round 5 – “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)”

Mar-Keys vs. Four Tops

Although some session credits are available, the Mar-Keys kind of became the catch name for whoever was playing with the Memphis Horns. Some of their cuts ended up on Booker T. and the MGs or Isaac Hayes albums, some were added to Bar-Kays releases and others credited to the Mar-Keys themselves. The Mar-Keys’ 1971 version of “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” is one of the numbers that has fallen through the cataloging cracks – Stax historians aren’t really sure who played on it. However, one fact is indisputable: this track rocks. Andrew Horn blows a mad sax solo with enough grit and soul to match Levi Stubbs’ incomparable voice, while the rest of the musicians strip the sheen laid by the Funk Brothers on the original Motown recording. That said, the Four Tops version became one of their defining performances for good reason. The decision here comes down to preference: the dirtier R&B of Stax or the polished soul of Motown. I like ‘em both.

Winner: Push

Round 6 – “Never Can Say Goodbye”

Isaac Hayes vs. Jackson 5

Isaac Hayes and the Jackson 5 both released their interpretations of Clifton Davis’ “Never Can Say Goodbye” in 1971. The results couldn’t be more different. The pain in Hayes’ deep voice pits him as a grown man with life experience against a bunch of talented kids acting their hearts out. In the weeks following the death of Michael Jackson, the J5 performance has become an unofficial tribute to their singer. It’s a fine sentiment, but, as Mos Def would say, this is grown man business. Hayes wins, no contest.

Winner: Stax

Round 7 – “My Cherie Amour”

Billy Eckstein vs. Stevie Wonder

In the 1940s, Billy Eckstein’s orchestra was one of the first large bop combos in jazz, providing an early home for Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. In the ‘50s, Eckstein’s smooth voice influenced up-and-coming soul singers like Sam Cooke and Solomon Burke. Eckstein dabbled in both soul and jazz in the 1960s, even popping up on  a couple Motown LPs. Although his career was pretty much over by the ‘70s, Al Bell was able to coax the legend to cut a few albums for Stax. Unfortunately, Eckstein’s 1970 delivery of “My Cherie Amour” borders on parody and sadly resembles Jim “Gomer Pyle” Nabors’ version of “You Are the Sunshine Of My Life” that may be found on the Golden Throats series.

Winner: Motown

Round 8 – “Oh, Be My Love”

Barbara Lewis vs. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles

Barbara Lewis actually got her start as a teen soul singer in early ‘60s Detroit before finding greater success on Stax. Based on this number, it’s odd that Berry Gordy passed on Lewis at a time when he was seemingly signing every promising young singer in the city. Lewis’ voice is a perfect fit for the Motown sound. Then again, maybe it’s for the best Lewis didn’t join the Motown family. Chances are she would have ended up another in the long line of promising female talents discarded in the wake of Diana Ross. Lewis does a fine job with this interpretation of a 1967 Miracles b-side penned by Smokey Robinson. Unfortunately, the original version could not be located for comparison.

Winner: No decision

Round 9 – “I Hear a Symphony”

Booker T. and the MGs vs. Diana Ross and the Supremes

On paper, this looks like a slam dunk: Remove Ross’ weak vocals and replace it with one of the tightest, funkiest groups of the day. But somehow, the MGs’ performance just doesn’t add up. The melody just doesn’t sound complete coming only from Steve Cropper’s guitar and Booker T. Jones’ organ can’t replicate the fullness of the Funk Brothers playing. The Supremes’ version is definitely more than the sum of its parts, and a testament to the acumen of the Holland-Dozier-Holland team.

Winner: Motown

Round 10 – “Chained”

Mavis Staples vs. Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye took a break from cutting duets with Kim Weston and Tammi Terrell to lay down this funky number in 1968. The backing vocals and atmosphere give the track a live feel and the sax break is as close to the Stax sound as Motown gets. Mavis Staples cut her version a year later. She more than holds her own against Gaye’s vocals, and the arrangement is just as energetic. Both versions can pack the dance floor, yet are just different enough to stand on their own. Why choose one performance when you can have both?

Winner: Push

Round 11 – “Ask the Lonely”

John Gary Williams vs. Four Tops

John Gary Williams cut several sides for Stax/Volt as a member of the Mad Lads until he was drafted in 1966. When Williams got out of the military, he wasn’t exactly greeted with open arms. His former group had carried on in his absence, and found Williams’ replacement to be much easier to work with. Stax owner Jim Stewart pressured the group to take Williams back and he recorded with the Lads until 1972. That year, Williams was finally able to go solo. He released only one album, which included covers of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” the Spinners and this reading of “Ask the Lonely.” The smooth sax solo that opens this song and Williams’ vocals foreshadow the Quiet Storm movement. Williams arrangement and delivery may have been ahead of it’s time, but it’s not nearly enough to wrestle the title away from Levi Stubbs’ gut-busting performance on the original.

Winner: Motown

Round 12 – “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”

Soul Children vs. Stevie Wonder

The success of “Signed, Sealed and Delivered” – it spent six weeks at No. 1 on the R&B charts in 1970 – gave Stevie Wonder a great deal of leverage when he renegotiated his contract with Motown and gained the artistic control that birthed his spectacular output later in the decade. “Signed” was the first single 20-year-old Wonder produced; his arrangement is so good you can get lost in the various instruments. There isn’t much that can be improved on Wonder’s version and the Soul Children’s slowed-down gospel interpretation falls flat in the face of his triumph.

Winner: Motown

Round 13 – “Someday We’ll Be Together”

Frederick Knight vs. Diana Ross and the Supremes

Diana Ross’ name is coupled with the Supremes on the label of “Someday We’ll Be Together,” technically making it the ensemble’s final No. 1 hit before Ross started her solo career. Peeling back the label and examining the musicians’ chart, however, one can see that the song was actually a dry run for Ross’ solo career. Supremes Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong, who replaced founding ‘preme Florence Ballard, are nowhere to be found, but even if they did they probably wouldn’t have been able to help. The song, co-written and produced by Harvey Fuqua, is a mess. The strings are way too syrupy, and the backing vocals are over-performed. Everything on the track is over-produced. Perhaps this was an effort to make Ross’ thin vocals sound more emotionally relevant, but even that is a failure. It does sport a great guitar line, though. Frederick Knight vaults over this ridiculously low bar, but he doesn’t exactly salvage the song. His strings are more restrained, the arrangement slightly more funky and the vocals greatly improved, but the song itself – which predates Fuqua’s time at Motown – is far from memorable.

Winner: Stax

Round 14 – “I Wish It Would Rain”

O.B. Clinton vs. the Temptations

“I Wish It Would Rain” is one of the most devastatingly heartbreaking songs in the Motown catalog. Mourning his lost love, David Ruffin lays his soul bare for all to see. Topping this soul masterpiece would be quite a challenge – so O.B. McClinton didn’t even try. Dubbed the “Chocolate Cowboy,” McClinton was an oddity on the Stax label. His singles only charted on the country charts, with his slower tempo, pedal steel-backed version of “I Wish It Would Rain” peaking at No. 67 in 1973. His is a noble attempt, but the song works better in R&B than it does country.

Winner: Motown

Round 15 – “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”

The Bar-Kays vs. Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight and the Pips

The wah wah guitar solo that punctures the Bar-Kays’ version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” just past the four-minute mark eclipses anything Gordy had imagined at Motown (save Rare Earth) and points Stax down the very odd path of Iron Butterfly and the acid rock of the early ‘70s. This version draws on the spirit of Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning “Shaft” and steers close to CCR’s lengthy, jammed-out rendition. I’m not sure if this actually tops the performances Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight took to No. 1 a little more than a year apart. The versions are so different; it’s comparing apples and oranges. Enjoy them all.

Winner: Push

Final score: Stax 4, Motown 7.

The winner in this (the only) bout is overwhelmingly Motown, but Hitsville has an incumbent’s advantage of making Stax tackle its material. Listening to the Supremes tackle the Emotions, Levi Stubbs sparring with the Otis Redding songbook , the Temptations doing Sam and Dave and Norman Whitfield and Holland-Dozier-Holland applying their touches to Hayes/Porter and MGs arrangements would not only be a fantastic delight, but likely tip in favor of Soulsville. Sadly, we’ll never know. As a consolation prize, we have this compilation to bridge two very different and influential approaches to soul music.

“Stax Does the Beatles”


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.

Album review – “Stax: The Soul of Hip-Hop”


By Joel Francis

When RZA needed a hook for “C.R.E.A.M.” he turned to the Charmels’ “As Long As I’ve Got You” and joined a large fraternity of rappers and producers who have leaned on the Stax catalog for their tracks. And though Stax has provided the samples for hits by Jay-Z, Public Enemy, Notorious B.I.G. and countless others, the source material has somehow remained in the secret province of crate-diggers.

Until now. “Stax: The Soul of Hip Hop” is 14 wonderfully selected, mostly obscure late-period Stax cuts released as part of Concord Record’s revitalization of the label. It’s unlikely that many Ghostface Killah fans listening to “Supreme Clientele” would have the urge to track down the source material for “The Grain.” But listening to Rufus Thomas’ “Do the Funky Penguin” on this compilation not only sheds light on the music that informed Ghostface – it’s fun enough to make the album more than a history lesson.

It’s great if De La Soul and Cypress Hill are the reasons these song sound familiar, but the collection succeeds because it dusts off great songs that are ignored on most retrospectives. 24-Carat Black’s lone album was ignored in 1973. That album’s title track “Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth” opens this compilation with a slab of socially conscious funk. The female trio the Emotions found their greatest success with Earth, Wind and Fire in the late ‘70s, but “Blind Alley” shows they were fully formed pop soul act long before Maurice White helmed their albums.

The Dramatics’ “Get Up and Get Down” foreshadows the disco movement, while Little Milton’s “Packed Up and Took My Mind” is the marriage of soul and blues that Robert Cray has been chasing for 20 years. The inclusion of Isaac Hayes and Booker T. and the MGs tosses a bone to casual fans, although two Hayes cuts may be one too many.

The only misstep is a song that dates from Stax’ early days with Atlantic Records. Wendy Rene’s 1964 track “After the Laughter (Come Tears)” is an unconvincing ballad whose best quality is a great calliope organ line. Complaining about this cut, the extra Hayes track and the wish that the producers would have packed the disc with more tracks, though, misses the point and spoils a great treasure.

This set not only proves that the hip hop samplers had immaculate taste, but that they weren’t just cherry picking.  While they may have only mined 10 or 15 seconds from each track, the ore runs consistently deep through each performance.

If hip hop is the reason for this collection to exist and that marketing angle will draw those fans to this music, then so be it. But a celebration this fun doesn’t need an excuse.

Stax vs. Motown (part three)

The final installment of my conversation with soul music fan Brad S. includes how to build a solid, affordable soul music libarty. Here is part one and part two.

Brad S.: Okay, list time: What are your Top 10 Motown albums? You mentioned “What’s Going On,” “Songs in the Key of Life,” “Talking Book” and “Cloud Nine.” What other albums make the cut? I’m going to ask you to go for diversity here, especially if we’re fighting the perception of that “Motown hit song” stereotype.

Joel Francis: The thing to remember about albums is that prior to 1967 and “Sgt. Pepper’s,” pop albums were basically collections of singles. Going back a bit further, before Frank Sinatra’s concept albums for Capital in the late ’50s, LPs were for classical and jazz (i.e. longer performances) almost exclusively.

Berry Gordy had a hard time when Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder presented him with album-length concepts in the early ’70s. One could argue that “What’s Going On” and “Talking Book” were the first Motown albums that weren’t just glorified singles collections.

I know this contradicts what I said earlier, but I don’t think I can defy your stereotypes of mid-’60s Motown with any albums. That said, there are some great collections that show the depth and richness of the Motown performers of that era.

Universal, who now owns the Motown catalog, did a great job of anthologizing the great Motown groups on the “Ultimate Collection” CDs in the ’90s. These discs get the nod because they’re cheap (about $5 used on Amazon) and comprehensive. They all run in excess of two dozen tracks, which is more than enough to hit all the often-heard must-haves, but provide a deeper examination and context as well.

It’s hard to go wrong with a solid collection of Smokey Robinsons, The Temptations, early Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, and the Supremes. These might not be as diverse as you were expecting, but songs like “Going to a Go-Go,” “Baby Don’t You Do It” and “Ball of Confusion” have fallen through the cracks and are worth revisiting. Divorcing oldies staples like “Uptight” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” from a Top 40 context and placing them back in the artist’s cannon shines new light and perspective on the warhorses.

Because of its distribution deal with Warner Bros. the Stax side is a bit more complicated. Collections tended to fall on the pre- or post-Warner Bros. side and paint an incomplete picture. Fortunately, the consolidation of the major record labels has put all of Stax output in the hands of Concord Records. Concord has revived the Stax brand and started issuing comprehensive collections for the first time.

While there is no definitive Stax anthology series like Motown’s “Ultimate Collection,” quality single- and double-disc collections and box sets are available for nearly every Stax artist. I’d start with Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, the Staple Singers, Booker T and the MGs and Isaac Hayes and play around from there.

Two four-disc box sets provide a comprehensive overview of each label’s glory years. The Daily Record has been discussing each track on “Hitsville U.S.A.” A good follow-up project may be a walk through the “Stax Story” collection, though with more than 80 tracks to go with “Hitsville” I wouldn’t get too ancy.

Stax vs. Motown (part two)

The second of three installments in my conversation about the golden era of Stax and Motown with soul music fan and Stax afficiando Brad. Don’t forget to check out part one.

Brad S.: I have to admit, when I think of Motown, I almost only associate it with the ‘64-‘65 period. Although I know, to cite one example, one of my old favorites, “Reflections” incorporates just enough psychedelica to distinguish it from what I consider Motown to sound like.

So what are some of those Motown songs that brought you back in?

Joel Francis: For a label so reliant upon singles, it was the albums that drew me back into Motown. “What’s Going On” made me realize there was more to Marvin Gaye than “It Takes Two.” Stevie Wonder’s “Talking Book” and “Songs in the Key of Life” and The Temptation’s “Cloud Nine.”
These albums showed more depth, emotion and creativity than the monotonous parade of mid-60s oldies radio staples would have you believe. Motown may have made its name with its assembly line parade of hits in the first half of the ’60s when it set the agenda, but its output gets more interesting to me in the second half of the decade as it responds to the Beatles, psychedelica, the civil rights movement, etc. That’s when the artists and songwriters really started to grow.

Getting back to Stax I don’t think it ever really recovered from the death of Otis Redding. The near-simultaneous loss of its biggest star in a plane crash and back catalog to Atlantic records was the beginning of the end. I know they regrouped and had massive success with Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers and Wattstax, but the Stax I enjoy most – Otis, Sam and Dave, Rufus Thomas, Booker T and the MGs, sessions with Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Aretha – was never entirely recaptured.

BS: I hear you with the post-Otis era of Stax, but that also begs this question: What were the true prime lifespans of these labels? I’m not talking about the point at which they continued only in name. The other question that comes to mind is how much of the label’s success is because of a fortunate luck of the draw with artists or is it because of the efforts of record owner or signature producer? Or to put it another way, is there an equivalent to (Motown founder and visionary) Berry Gordy on the Stax side?

JF: For me, Motown loses its luster when it relocated to Los Angeles. There are two reasons for this decline. The first factor is the rise of disco, which practically killed soul music until the neo-soul rebirth of the late-’80s. Second, Berry Gordy’s ambition to branch out into movies and television scattered the label’s focus and brought “mission creep” into his boardroom.

Stax golden years for me are its time with Atlantic when the late Jerry Wexler was helping run the studio. With the exception of Isaac Hayes and the Staple Singers (who were signed later), no one performed as well after the split as they did before. That said, it’s important to remember Stax two big ’70s non-soul successes bluesman Albert King and power pop rock combo Big Star. Many of today’s indie rock bands owe a huge debt to Alex Chilton and Chris Bell’s fantastic Big Star.

If there was a Berry Gordy figure at Stax, I would say it was Wexler in the early days and Al Bell in the later period. Not only was Wexler involved with much of Stax material, but he was also the person responsible for bringing other Atlantic artists, like Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and Solomon Burke, to record at Stax.

After Wexler left, Bell assumed more production duties and became Stax co-owner. Bell patterned his business model off of Gordy. Bell was the person responsible for getting Stax into the soundtrack business (think “Shaft”) and movie business (think “Wattstax”). Ironically, after Stax bankruptcy and demise, Bell worked with Gordy at Motown in the ’80s.

To answer your question, though, I’d say both Motown and Stax’ success came because they were great at identifying talent – be it the songwriting teams of Holland-Dozier-Holland or Hayes-Porter or the raw talents of Mary Wells and Carla Thomas – and had a great business plan for delivering that talent out to the masses. Success breeds success and once those initial singles broke the charts, other artists wanted in.

Continue to part three.

Stax vs. Motown (part one)

With the recent passings of Jerry Wexler and Isaac Hayes and The Daily Record’s ongoing walk through the Hitsville U.S.A. box set, I thought this would be a good time to examine the histories of the twin titans of soul music, Stax and Motown. Joining me in this conversation is Brad, friend of the blog and the man who puts the “B” in “R&B.” This is part one of three in the series.

Joel Francis: To me, Motown and Stax are two sides of the same coin. Like most people born after the baby boom, I first heard Motown and Stax records on the oldies station. I didn’t know much about the artists, but I could tell that certain songs sounded similar and stood apart. It wasn’t until college that I could differentiate the Temptations from the Four Tops. Around the same time, I learned that the Booker T and the MGs were the backing band for most of the Stax singles I loved. Brad, as a fellow soul music fan, tell me about how you were introduced to Stax and Motown and why Stax holds ultimate appeal for you.

Brad S.: In my hometown, we had the Top 40 station, the country station, the “background music” station, the “farm report” station and static. So it took a little bit of work to discover soul music beyond the omnipresent James Brown “I Got You (I Feel Good).” But being a child of the 80’s, a few factors put soul on my radar:

(1) Some soul classics came along with the oldies music that came out of a Hollywood retro trend – “Dirty Dancing,” “The Big Chill,” “Peggy Sue Got Married,” “Back to the Future,” etc.

(2) The baffling cultural mini-phenomenon of the California Raisins advertising campaign.

(3) Being a Hall & Oates fan, who followed their popular “Big Bam Boom” album with “Live at the Apollo with David Ruffin and Eddie Kendrick.”

(4) Discovering the Blues Brothers movie.

This last factor was the most significant. That musical stew of blues,R&B and soul – featuring Stax alums Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn – really drew me in. The music was a blend of classic and re-recorded numbers that enabled it to sit alongside of contemporary rock without feeling diminished in comparison. It also had a gritty edginess that I felt the Motown stuff lacked. I perceived Stax to be the “rock” to Motown’s “pop.” Motown’s impeccable production sometimes felt “overproduced” to my sensibilities – like all the edges had been sanded down. It felt like it was trying to appeal to the “white” audience, and in that it was successful. But my personal preferences lie elsewhere.

I tend to oversimplify in the following way: Motown is sweet and smooth; Marvin Gaye is Motown’s archetypical vocalist. Stax is raw and gritty; Otis Redding is its archetypical vocalist. Beyond its oversimplification, I’m curious if you – being better-read on the matter – think my musical shorthand is accurate or not.

JF: Oh man, “The Blues Brothers.” What a cultural discovery that was. I think I first saw that movie my freshman year of high school. Like you, I knew several of the songs from oldies radio, but seeing them performed added a completely new dimension to the song.

Being a few years younger than you, I really got into the California Raisins. I saved up my allowance to buy their cassette, which featured “You Can’t Hurry Love” and a couple other Motown songs. I didn’t learn until recently that Buddy Miles, the great drummer in Jimi Hendrix’ Band of Gypsys, was the voice of the Raisins.

The prevalence of Motown on the oldies station – my mom’s favorite station – and the grit of the Blues Brothers drove me away from Motown for a while. The sweet strings just couldn’t match the punchy horns. That lasted until I went off-dial and discovered the Motown songs untouched by our microscopic oldies radio playlist. Songs from the late ’60s and early ’70s by Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and the Temptations. That drove me right back in.

Continue on to part two.

Isaac Hayes: Forever a Soul Man

By Joel Francis

When Isaac Hayes played at the Voodoo Lounge last October, I jumped at the opportunity. Well, that’s not exactly true. My wife, who had been seduced by my Ultimate Isaac Hayes collection, was elated at the prospect and convinced me to buy tickets. I figured this might be our last chance to see him perform in Kansas City, but I didn’t think he’d be dead less than a year later. While the show was solid, Hayes looked shaky. Regardless of his health, or the reason for his frailty, it was still a treat to hear “Walk On By,” “Theme From Shaft” and “I Stand Accused” performed by many of the same men who recorded them over a generation ago.

More than even Booker T and MGs, Hayes was the backbone of Stax Records. In the ‘60s, Hayes and David Porter were the label’s go-to songwriter team, turning out hits like “Soul Man,” “Hold On, I’m Comin'” and “B-A-B-Y” for artists like Sam and Dave, Carla Thomas and Johnnie Taylor. After the near-simultaneous loss of Otis Redding in a plane crash and the label’s back catalog in a bad distribution contract with Atlantic Records, Hayes became the label’s biggest star.

Stax may have expected more sharp, pop hits when Hayes finally started producing his own albums, but he went the opposite way, transforming unlikely covers into epic slabs of funk and soul. With a deep voice, second only to Barry White as the definitive baby-making crooner, Hayes took left-field selections like Bread’s “Baby I’m-A Want You” to a black audience.

The songs may have not been Hayes originals, but the arrangements were. Burt Bacharach’s “Walk on By” ran past 12 minutes with a stirring string arrangement in its first half and stinging guitar and organ interplay in the second half. Running times of more than 10 minutes had become a Hayes trademark. The seminal “Hot Buttered Soul” album had just four tracks and clocked in at 45:05.

Even though edited versions were released for radio play, these sweeping performances could not be contained on a 45 and, for the first time, urban audiences started buying albums over singles. And not only were they buying albums, but many of Hayes’ releases were double-LP sets.

In the early 1970s, Hayes was the Soul Man. Adorned in gold chains, he was Black Moses. Standing alongside labelmates the Staple Singers, he headlined the 1972 Wattstax Concert, performing in front of a crowd of 100,000 fans. A few months after Wattstax, Hayes received the best song Oscar for “Theme From Shaft.” He was at the pinnacle of his artistry.

His success continued, but by 1975 he was a shadow of his artistic and commercial success. Although Hayes continued making albums at his regular pace, disco and bankruptcy hurt his music career. By the ‘80s, Hayes put music on the back burner so he could focus on acting. He popped up on “The Rockford Files,” “The A-Team” and “Miami Vice” and had supporting roles in Mel Brooks’ “Robin Hood: Men In Tights” and “Escape from New York.”

In 1988 he helped the pre-“In Living Color” Wayans brothers lampoon the blaxploitation genre he helped define, as Hammer in “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka.” Hammer meets an untimely and hilarious demise when, after gearing up with an obscene amount of guns, ammo and grenades, he trips and falls on a stray bullet and is consumed by his own arsenal.

Today, Hayes is best known from “Shaft” and his role as Chef on “South Park,” but thanks to sampling, his radio presence hasn’t diminished. Jay-Z’s debut album, “Reasonable Doubt,” could still have been a classic without “Can I Live.” However, it is telling that this song, supported by a sample of Hayes’ arrangement of “The Look of Love,” is the only number from this album that Jay-Z regularly performs.

A proud legacy? You’re damn right.