This remarkable five-disc package commemorates the politically and racially volatile year of 1968 and the entire body of 120 singles issued by the iconic Stax label that year in Stax ’68, A Memphis Story. We’ve all heard many of t these songs before, but in addition to getting them in one package, serious music buffs and historians will save the 56-page booklet that sheds light on how the tragic events – Otis Redding’s death in late ’67, the controversial sale of Stax by Atlantic, Dr. Martin Luther Sing’s assassination, the riots that followed, the sanitation strike, and the political activism of the Stax artists. More than anything perhaps, it demonstrates the resolve of Stax to survive during this turbulent period.
The five-disc box set contains the A and B sides of every single released under the Stax banner in 1968, including the company’s sub-labels. The book contains in-depth liner notes by Andria Lisle, Robert Gordon, and Steve Greenberg, as well as rare and previously unseen photos. Some tracks are by soul legends (Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers, William Bell, Booker T. & The M.G.’s, Johnnie Taylor) and some come from the deeper Stax catalog, and lesser-known artists (Linda Lyndell, The Soul Children, The Mad Lads).
The release coincides with two important exhibits presented by the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis, Tennessee (more on these exhibits later). Stax was also working overtime to reinvent itself in the wake of Otis Redding’s untimely December ’67 passing and the dissolution of a deal with Atlantic Records that gave the label perpetual rights to Stax’s back catalog. When the deal ended, Stax also lost one of their leading artists, Sam & Dave, who were signed to Atlantic, but released their music on Stax. Redding’s iconic “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay” and Sam & Dave’s “I Thank You” were the label’s first singles of ’68. The former showed how much Redding was evolving and how much Stax (along with the rest of the world) had lost with his passing. The latter, like “Dock of the Bay,” was a huge hit on both the Pop and R&B charts, underlining Sam & Dave’s crossover potential. Both were essentially the artists’ Stax swan songs.
Without those two major artists Stax could easily gone under but Instead they persevered. Eddie Floyd’s “Big Bird” was written about Floyd’s attempt to fly to Redding’s funeral, but the song’s rock elements foreshadowed the label’s decision to broaden its scope to psychedelic rock and Motown-style sounds. Shirley Walton’s gospel-tinged “Send Peace and Harmony Home” had been written by Al Bell, Eddie Floyd, and Booker T. Jones, as a dedication to Dr. King, and as a reaction to the escalating tension in the city. In the middle of the recording session, word arrived of his murder, and a teary-eyed Walton delivered what became an ode to the man’s message in the aftermath of his assassination.
“Long Walk to D.C.” was conceived as a tribute to King’s March on Washington, but by the time The Staple Singers cut it for Stax in ’68, it was equal parts Civil Rights anthem and eulogy. The Soul Children’s “Give ‘Em Love,” had a vibe more pop-friendly than funky, indicative of Motown influences. The psychedelia of Dallas rockers Southwest F. O. B.’s “Smell of Incense” (featuring future pop titans England Dan & John Ford Coley) on Stax subsidiary Hip showed the R&B hub’s willingness to rock a bit.
Many will find the more obscure names as the attraction of this set. Yet, the breadth of even the familiar artists is stunning. They include, besides those already mentioned: Bar-Kays, Johnnie Taylor, Wiiliam Bell, Mable John, Rufus Thomas, Isaac Hayes, Albert King, Delaney & Bonne, Bobby Whitlock, Carla Thomas, and Booker T. & The MG’s. Beyond just the music though, the booklet is one of the most valuable assets in this package.
For those fortunate enough to travel to Memphis in October and November, these two important exhibits at The Stax Museum of American Soul Music are a must: a} The Sound of ’68 documents life inside Studio A at Stax Records as seen by Don Nix, an early member of the Stax family who later became a songwriter, producer, and solo artist for the label, and Alan Copeland, the drummer for a Memphis garage band, The Poor Little Rich Kids. b) The Give A Damn! Music+ Activism shows the label’s commitment to political activism, community engagement, and social justice in the years following Dr. King’s death. It features never-before-seen artifacts, including Isaac Hayes’ 14-foot long, custom-made office desk, stage clothing worn by Johnnie Taylor and Isaac Hayes, rare photos and documents, short films, music, and original artwork contributed by Shelby County students.