Stax ’68: A Memphis Story – Stax/Craft CR0013 – (69:13, 60:07, 69:04, 68:22, 68:04) – 5 CD box set of all Singles released by Stax Records in 1968 – ****1/2

(Various Stax Records artists, including: Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Eddie Floyd, Johnnie Taylor, William Bell, Isaac Hayes, Booker T & The MG’s, The Staple Singers ,Albert King, Delaney and Bonnie, Sam & Dave)

1968 was a year that will go down in history for historic events in the United States. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4th, and just two months later, Robert Kennedy was killed in Los Angeles. Riots were common place, and in Memphis the sanitation and postal strikes were on the forefront that led to King’s murder.

For Stax Records, headquartered in Memphis, it was a year that had profound effects on its survival. Its leading artist, Otis Redding, age 26, had passed away in a plane crash, a month before. It then found out that the label had signed away its rights to royalties from its roster to Atlantic Records, who were distributing Stax’ catalog. The label’s main surviving artists, Sam and Dave, were enticed to leave Stax. It was a year from which they had to struggle to survive.

Stax Records had a reputation of both its white and black management working well together, to foster a rare successful Southern business model. The loss of its main artist, and royalty streams, could easily have derailed the label. However, they pulled through with a production crew, that included the members of Booker T and The MG’s (Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, and Duck Dunn); Isaac Hayes and David Porter; and Al Jackson, Jr.; to both grow and remain strong for several more years.

To celebrate and honor the label, Stax has issued an historic five CD box set composed of every 45 RPM single issued in 1968, both “A” and “B” sides. In addition, there is a 56 page hardbound book, with historical essays both on the racial divide in Memphis at the time, as well as how Stax moved forward as a label during this trying time period.

This box set has 134 tracks and clocks in at over six hours. Not content to issue only soul music moving forward, Stax branched out in pop, psychedelic, blues, and country idioms with their subsidiary labels – Arch, Volt, Hip, Enterprise, and Magic Touch. Unfortunately, with just a few exceptions, that experiment was not successful. Some of those 45s ( i.e. Fresh Air, and The Popcorn Generation) are painful to listen and do not hold up well. But give credit to owner, Jim Stewart, and VP, Al Bell, for soldiering on to be true to their vision of being a creative, soul based label to rival the best from Detroit, and Philadelphia. Having Isaac Hayes, David Porter, Steve Cropper, and Booker T. on board, helped keep a pulse on what would appeal to a public whose tastes were being pulled into new directions.

There is something for everyone on this box set. Whether it be Otis’ final hit “Dock of the Bay,” blues tracks from Albert King; emerging stars, Eddie Floyd and Johnnie Taylor, and even two jazz tracks from trumpeter, Eddie Henderson, it is easy to see why Stax Records remained relevant for so long.

There are also eye (and ear) openers from lesser known groups like Ollie and The Nightingales’ “I Got a Sure Thing” that features vocalist, Ollie Hoskins singing on a track that has more “grit” than Motown. The Staple Singers are featured throughout the set, and their social consciousness is a good fit for Stax.

Several artists have limited appearances like The Mad Lads do-wop harmonies on “So Nice,” and “Make Room” that will bring to mind Smokey Robinson’s Motown numbers.

The Soul Children (“I’ll Understand”) and The Epsilons (Philly soul influenced “The Echo) stand out as praiseworthy.

A constant throughout this set is the talent and influence of Booker T and The MG’s, both as instrumentalists, and as an ace production talents. Steve Cropper and Booker T knew what would sell, and kept the horns, occasional strings, and vocals tight. Before Isaac Hayes broke out on his own, he partnered with David Porter, as a production team that kept Stax in business.

The trials and tribulations of Stax’ white artists are also apparent. Where Delaney and Bonnie’s southern soul talents blended well at Stax, a white artist like Linda Lyndell, whose voice fit right in, struggled to be accepted in such a racially charged time. However, The MG’s could cover The Beatles on “Hard Days Night” and the spaghetti western theme “Hang ‘Em High,” as they provided the contagious soul that crossed all boundaries.

Stax Records fans can do no wrong purchasing this attractive box set, that at a seven inch size is a perfect fit on a table or desk. Christmas is coming. Show Stax Records a well deserved bit of love…

For a complete tracklist, please see the Stax Website.

—Jeff Krow

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