Summer of Stax: Gospel Stars Convert to Memphis Soul-Funk

We’re celebrating the 60th anniversary of Stax Records with a look back at some of the most iconic artists who called the label home. To commemorate the occasion, Concord Music Group and Rhino are partnering to release Stax Classics, a slew of collections and reissues from Stax’s legendary vaults. Over the next five weeks, Summer of Stax will delve into the stories of these legendary artists and their most essential recordings.

In 1968, Stax was reeling from a double blow that threatened to kill the label. First, the death of Otis Redding in late 1967 left Stax without its most beloved and prolific artist. Second, Stax officially severed its relationship with Atlantic Records, losing a valuable distribution partner and some of its biggest stars (including Sam & Dave and Wilson Pickett). Picking up the pieces afterward required finding not only new talent to fill the vacancy but a new sound to meet the changing times.

Last time, we discussed Isaac Hayes, one of the big three stars of Stax’s second era. Hayes was recruited from within the Stax ranks as a songwriter/producer/musician turned recording artist. The other two stars of the new era, however, were drawn from the world of gospel.

One was a newly signed (though already well-known) family group that had been cutting records for nearly two decades. The other was a former protégée of Sam Cooke who had already recorded a couple of minor hits for Stax but was just starting to come into his own.

The Staple Singers — singer/guitarist Roebuck “Pops” Staples and various combinations of his children Cleotha, Pervis, Yvonne, and Mavis — had started performing in churches in their native Chicago in the late ’40s, eventually becoming national recording artists and stars on the gospel circuit.

In the ’60s, the group’s affiliation with the Civil Rights Movement gave them greater exposure, and they began recording secular (though still inspirational) music to reach a wider audience.

When the Staple Singers signed with Stax in 1968, top executive Al Bell took a personal interest in turning the group into full-blown R&B stars. Their first two albums for the label, 1968’s Soul Folk in Action and 1970’s We’ll Get Over, find the group transitioning between the pop-friendly gospel they had been recording in the mid-’60s and the more secular sounds of their ’70s hits. Tracks like “Long Walk to DC” and “We’ll Get Over” translate the motivational uplift of traditional spirituals to the Civil Rights era, while the New Testament allusions of the Band’s recent rock hit “The Weight” afford the Staples a smooth transition from gospel to pop.

The group began picking up momentum with their 1971 LP The Staple Swingers, which switched out brother Pervis for sister Yvonne, brought in Al Bell as producer, and shifted recording from Memphis to Muscle Shoals. The album produced their first major chart hit, “Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom Boom),” which made the R&B top 10 and the pop Top 40.

They did even better later that year with “Respect Yourself,” a #2 R&B and #12 pop hit. Together, these two singles initiated a new style for the Staple Singers: a funkier and groovier sound paired with lyrics that, if not expressly religious, were nevertheless positive and inspiring.

The zenith of this era of the Staples, both artistically and commercially, would be their next single in 1972. “I’ll Take You There,” penned for the group by Bell himself, wedded the call-and-response gospel format with a loose, bluesy, improvisational sound. Its lyrics don’t explicitly reference heaven, but they describe a paradise where there “ain’t nobody cryin’ / ain’t nobody worried,” and befitting the Staples’ social consciousness, there “ain’t no smilin’ faces / lying to the races.” “I’ll Take You There” was a blockbuster hit, topping both the pop and R&B charts and earning the group its first international success.

Follow-up single “This World,” a driving rock-‘n’-roll number referencing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” was also a solid hit, if not quite the world-beater that its predecessor had been. The Staples’ next release was a live version of “Oh La De Da” that had been recorded at Wattstax, the wildly successful 1972 benefit concert in Los Angeles that has been called the “Black Woodstock.” Both singles made the R&B Top 10 and pop Top 40, but their next, 1973’s inspirational “Be What You Are,” showed signs that their popularity was starting to slip.

Fortunately, they recovered with their follow-up single, 1973’s “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me).” Essentially a lower-key, more melodic rewrite of “I’ll Take You There” (the call-and-response refrains even have the same rhythm and number of syllables), it also topped the R&B charts, as well as climbing into the pop Top 10.

“Touch a Hand, Make a Friend,” released in 1974, also follows the template set by “I’ll Take You There,” albeit less explicitly. Both it and its follow-up, the Stevie Wonder-ish gospel-funk of “City in the Sky,” made the R&B Top 5, although the latter only charted in the lower reaches of the Hot 100.

When Stax folded in 1975, the Staple Singers moved to Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom Records. They immediately scored a #1 hit with Mayfield’s “Let’s Do It Again,” a song far more secular and sexier than anything they had recorded for Stax. While they continued appearing on the R&B charts for a decade afterward, however, the Staple Singers never recovered the level of success that they had achieved at Stax.

While the Staple Singers continued to emphasize inspirational messages in their secular recordings, their fellow gospel veteran at Stax had long since traded the spiritual for the sensual. Johnnie Taylor started his career in the ’50s as a member of the Highway QCs, a gospel group co-founded by Sam Cooke a decade earlier.

Taylor followed in Cooke’s footsteps again a few years later, replacing the elder singer in the Soul Stirrers when he left gospel for a career in pop. When Taylor himself decided to go secular in the early ’60s, he signed to Cooke’s SAR Records. He failed to make much of an impression, however, before Cooke’s death in 1964 led to the label’s collapse.

Taylor resurfaced on Stax soon afterward, earning moderate success with bluesy ballads like 1966’s “I Got to Love Somebody’s Baby” (a #15 R&B hit) and 1967’s “Somebody’s Been Sleeping in My Bed” (which made the Hot 100 and the R&B Top 40). It wasn’t until 1968, however, with the recording of the funky, upbeat “Who’s Making Love,” that Taylor truly broke through. The song explored infidelity, a recurring topic in Taylor’s discography, but in a lighthearted, clever way, reminding the cheating man to consider “who’s making love to your old lady / while you were out making love.”

The novel approach of “Who’s Making Love,” as well as Taylor’s devilish charisma, resulted in a smash, topping the R&B charts and making the pop Top 5. Its follow-up, 1969’s similarly-themed “Take Care of Your Homework,” helped establish Taylor as “the Philosopher of Soul.” Perhaps “the Moralist of Soul” would have been more accurate: his hits routinely railed against adultery, divorce, and mistreatment of one’s partner, but always in a humorous and sexy style that made him sound more like a raunchy best friend than a lecturing preacher.

Sometimes Taylor was the guilty party, as on 1970’s “Steal Away” or 1974’s “We’re Getting Careless With Our Love.” Sometimes he was the philosopher on the sideline offering advice: warning a friend to spend more time with his lady (or else) on his second R&B #1, 1971’s “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone,” or winkingly pointing out that sticking out a relationship beats paying alimony on 1973’s “Cheaper to Keep Her.” Either way, Taylor could seemingly do no wrong: all of these singles, plus many more, were Top 5 R&B hits that crossed over into the pop Top 40.

Taylor’s appealing charisma, roguish good looks, and gritty but sophisticated singing voice also made him a natural for more straightforward love songs. He could croon a sweet, romantic ballad like 1973’s “I Believe in You (You Believe in Me),” his third R&B number-one, or rasp out a funkier tune like 1969’s “Love Bones,” in which he complains to his foreman that all his overtime is keeping him from sexing his lady. Taylor also proved with his electrifying 1969 cover of the Parliaments’ “(I Wanna) Testify” [retitled “Testify (I Wonna)”] that he could reclaim another group’s hit for his own, and with 1970’s “I Am Somebody Part II” that he could set the loverman persona aside and deliver a forceful, empowering social statement.

Taylor’s versatility helped keep his star afloat after the end of Stax. In fact, he earned his biggest hit after leaving the label with 1976’s R&B/pop #1 “Disco Lady,” the first-ever single to be certified platinum. Even as his soul-pop stardom began to wane, he continued to make appearances on the R&B singles charts until 1990. He even released a chart-topping blues album in 1996.

As with the Staple Singers, Taylor’s ability to slide between various musical genres and levels of spirituality — as demonstrated before, during, and after his stint at Stax — ensured a certain degree of career longevity and built-in fanbase.

Next week: Two Stax cult figures born under a bad sign.

About Sally O'Rourke 205 Articles
Sally O’Rourke works in an office and sometimes writes about music. She blogs about every song to ever top the Billboard Hot 100 (in order) at No Hard Chords. She has also contributed to The Singles Jukebox, One Week // One Band, and PopMatters. Special interests include girl groups, soul pop, and over-analyzing chord changes and lyrics as if deciphering a secret code. She was born in Baton Rouge and lives in Manhattan. Her favorite Nugget is “Liar, Liar” by The Castaways.