Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Stax marks 50 years of great music

If you remember Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from Shaft,” the Staples Singers’ “Respect Yourself,” Eddy Floyd’s “Knock on Wood,” Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay,” Booker T. and the MGs’ “Green Onions” and the Mar-Keys’ “Last Night,” you would have enjoyed a concert last month in Memphis commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Stax record label.

It seemed as if almost all of the label’s surviving artists showed up for a stirring concert at the Orpheum Theater (Redding, unfortunately, died in a plane crash 40 years ago). For nearly three hours, you could hear ’60s and ’70s soul and a little gospel hosted by rapper Chuck D. and “American Idol” judge Randy Jackson.

The concert was a benefit for the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which is built on the site of an old movie theater that served as a Stax studio and record shop on McLemore Avenue in Memphis.

The museum is an impressive showcase for Southern black music and history, and anyone who likes soul should make the trip to Memphis.

Jim Stewart, who founded the label with his sister, the late Estelle Axton, did not attend the concert. (Stewart and Axton had combined the first two letters of their last names for the company’s name.) Also absent was Al Bell, an Arkansas native who ran Stax in the last decade of its existence, before it went bankrupt in 1975.

The concert was organized by Stax’s longtime publicist, the ever-cheerful Deanie Parker, who had recorded a couple of singles for Stax when she was still in high school in the early 1960s.

Isaac Hayes, the headliner for the evening, shuffled out in a cape toward the end of the concert and sang his hits, including “Walk on By” and “The Theme from Shaft,” and he conducted a small orchestra for part of the performance for an enthusiastic sellout crowd.

Hayes hasn’t aged much since the 1970s, but he looked like he’s slowed down a bit, maybe from the discomfort of arthritis or some other ailment, or maybe he was smarting from being dropped from Comedy Central’s “South Park” cartoon program, where he’d done a voiceover for several years. But because he’s a Scientologist and the show had skewered Tom Cruise, another Scientologist, the church had told Hayes to move on.

The program’s creators recently killed off his character, dumping him off a cliff and disfiguring his face, and I suspect Hayes wasn’t amused.

He still looks like the black Moses and is still a charismatic entertainer (his “Presenting Isaac Hayes” CD is one of our Stax favorites), but he was far from the only big-name attraction: Booker T. and the MGs did their obligatory “Green Onions,” and trumpeter Wayne Jackson of the Mar-Keys stepped up and did “Last Night,” and there was still plenty more.

Otis Redding’s sons, Dexter and Otis III, performed with gusto, which would have pleased their dad, who died in a plane crash in 1967 at the age of 26. To think he’d only be 66 today and probably making great records. Otis’ boxed CD set “Dreams to Remember” from Rhino, as well as live recordings at the Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles are worth checking out.

Still looking great after all these years, Camden’s own Mable John sang a couple of numbers, including “Your Good Thing (Is About to End).” Mavis Staples of the Staples Singers, whose solo career is still going strong, sang “Respect Yourself” and a couple of other of the group’s hits.

William Bell (“I Forgot to Be Your Lover”), Edddie Floyd (“Knock on Wood”), Angie Stone (“Woman to Woman”) were among the other performers, plus the Soul Children with J. Blackfoot and young talent that Stax has signed now that the label has been revived under new ownership.

Gospel singer Rance Allen pretty much stole the show with his tent-revival performance. A veteran of the gospel circuit, he recorded for a Stax subsidiary. Allen is a big fellow — he’ll tell you he’s built for comfort — and was a crowd favorite.

He came back onstage with a couple of rousing finales with all the performers, who sang the Staples’ “I’ll Take You There” and Redding’s “Dock of the Bay,” two songs that helped shape modern music.

Of course many great Stax artists are no longer with us: Little Milton died a couple of years ago, but you can listen to his “Walking the Back Streets” CD. Other late greats missing were Pops Staples (all the group’s Stax releases are terrific), as well as Rufus Thomas (“The Best of Rufus Thomas: Do the Funky Somethin’” from Rhino), although his daughter Carla (“Gee Whiz” from Collectables) still performs occasionally.

Also missing was Albert King, who grew up in Forrest City and Osceola but passed away in 1992 and is buried in Edmondson (Crittenden County) off I-40. His records apparently keep selling well since Stax continues to reissue them. They’re almost all first-rate. Some carry the Atlantic logo since Stax leased its best stuff to Atlantic, but almost all were recorded in Memphis and rank among the best blues of all time, quite an achievement for a label that was famous for soul.

His “King of the Blues Guitar” gets a top rating in the “Penguin Guide to Blues Recordings.” A previous but shorter version of that CD is called “Born Under a Bad Sign” with wonderful liner notes by Deanie Parker. All the hip white kids bought the record in the late 1960s and it has the immortal lines, “If it wasn’t for bad luck, you know I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” Cream and other rockers copied the song and made millions off King’s genius.

There are at least 15 of his Stax/Atlantic records in circulation (including several live recordings in San Francisco and Montreaux, Switzerland), making him one of the most prolific of all the Stax artists, surpassing Otis Redding, who died just as he became a superstar, and Isaac Hayes, who was still at his zenith when the company went under.

King (real name Nelson) made several fine records before and after his Stax years. He’s heard on “Door to Door,” his earliest singles recorded on the Parrot and Chess labels in the 1950s and also includes previously unissued Chess singles by the great Otis Rush from 1960.

Albert’s “Complete Bobbin and King Recordings, 1959-63” includes the rest of his earliest releases, when he developed his soulful singing style and powerful guitar playing, but was still under the influence of B.B. King (no relation, despite Albert’s claims to kinship, although they were both born near Indianola in the Mississippi Delta). Albert would develop his own signature style, and we’ll put him up there with B.B. and Freddy King in the blues pantheon. No wonder his fans call him King Albert.

You might also enjoy “In Session” with Stevie Ray Vaughan, recorded in a Canadian TV studio in 1983 but not issued till 1999.

Albert’s later work is featured on “Blues from the Road” (Fuel), a double live CD that’s out of print and is selling on eBay for $50 and more. At times he and his band didn’t make that much money in a single night.

Visit his grave sometime in Paradise Grove Cemetery in Edmondson and leave him a small bottle of Jack Daniels with some change.