Summer of Stax: The ‘King & Queen’ of Memphis Soul

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 1957, Memphis banker and part-time fiddler Jim Stewart founded Satellite Records, a small label dedicated to country and rockabilly. Within five years, the label had shifted its focus to R&B, changed its name to Stax Records, and become the worldwide icon for Southern soul.

Carla Thomas has been called the Queen of Memphis Soul, and not just because she was the most famous female singer Stax produced. Without her, there’s a very good chance that Stax wouldn’t exist at all.

In 1960, 17-year-old Carla and her father Rufus Thomas, a well-known Memphis entertainer, approached Satellite Records with a duet they were hoping to record. Stewart eagerly agreed, banking on the elder Thomas’s local celebrity to sell records. In fact, “‘Cause I Love You” was such a huge regional hit that it drew the attention of the New York-based R&B juggernaut Atlantic Records, which signed a national distribution deal with Satellite (rechristened Stax the following year).

“‘Cause I Love You” performed well, but Carla’s 1960 solo debut single, the self-penned “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes),” was a genuine smash, soaring to #5 on the R&B charts and #10 on the Hot 100. Despite being her biggest pop hit, however, it doesn’t appear on this new compilation.

Instead, Stax Classics skips ahead to 1964’s “No Time to Lose” and 1965’s “Comfort Me,” both heart-rending, horn-soaked ballads. In the span of five years, Thomas had grown up from a teenager singing a goofy duet with her dad to an expert in heartache.

It wasn’t all melancholy and sorrow, however. After 1966’s jazzy, Supremes-esque “Let Me Be Good to You” gave Thomas her biggest hit in four years, she followed with her signature tune: the soulful, joyful “B-A-B-Y” (prominently featured in this summer’s movie Baby Driver). The Top 5 R&B/Top 15 pop hit presaged 1967 as a banner year for Thomas, featuring such stellar singles as “Something Good (Is Going to Happen to You),” “When Tomorrow Comes,” and “Pick Up the Pieces.”

The real success of 1967, however, was King & Queen, a duet album with Otis Redding. The LP was aptly named; starting with his Stax debut, 1962’s “These Arms of Mine,” the impossibly gritty, desperately pleading singer had quickly established himself as the King of Southern Soul. Their combined forces would yield one of the biggest hits of either Thomas’s or Redding’s career: a cover of West Coast bluesman Lowell Fulson’s “Tramp,” reworked into a bickering dialogue between the nagging, materialistic Thomas and the empty-pocketed braggart Redding, set over a funky (and oft-sampled) backbeat.

While Redding started his career as a Little Richard imitator/acolyte (even briefly fronting the Upsetters, his idol’s one-time backing band), he made his name at Stax with raw, anguished ballads like 1963’s “Pain in My Heart,” 1964’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” and 1965’s “Just One More Day.” Even on relatively upbeat tracks like 1964’s “Security” and 1965’s “Respect” (the latter remade/remodeled by Aretha Franklin two years later), Redding demonstrated his propensity for wallowing in misery. This habit earned him the nickname “Mr. Pitiful,” which he borrowed for the title of a 1964 single that would be his biggest hit to date, climbing to #10 on the R&B charts and just missing the pop Top 40.

His real commercial breakthrough, however, would occur the following year, with the epic angst of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” The single, which hit #21 on the Hot 100 and just missed topping the R&B charts, opened the floodgates for such other dual chart hits as 1966’s “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)” and 1967’s “Try a Little Tenderness.” Pop audiences began regularly buying Redding’s records, and soul audiences routinely honored him as the king of soul.

In 1966, Redding issued his version of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” an act of homage/revenge on the band that had appropriated so many of his songs. The following year, he appeared at the influential rock festival Monterey Pop, further expanding his fanbase. Redding’s trips to California — specifically one to Sausalito, across the Bay from San Francisco — also inspired his signature song and biggest hit.

Influenced by the experimentation of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and a desire to stretch the boundaries of the Southern soul sound, Redding penned the relatively low-key, almost folky “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.” Stax was apprehensive about releasing such an uncharacteristic record, but Redding assured them it would be a #1 hit.

He was right. Unfortunately, it would also be the first posthumous #1 hit in the history of the US singles chart. On December 10, 1967, Redding and six others — including four members of the Stax band the Bar-Kays — died in a plane crash. The death of their biggest star, coupled with a bitter split from Atlantic Records, left Stax reeling and forced to redefine itself.

Redding’s death hit his duet partner especially hard. Carla Thomas’s only real single of note after King & Queen was 1969’s “I Like What You’re Doing to Me,” which made the R&B Top 10 and pop Top 50.

Stax Classics also includes a pair of tracks from her final two albums: “I Play for Keeps” (from 1969’s Memphis Queen) and “What is Love?” (from 1971’s Love Means …), which finds her moving in a poppier, Diana Ross-influenced direction. Thomas left the label in the early ‘70s and the music industry as a whole soon afterward. A decade after she put the label on the map and became its first crossover star, Thomas no longer represented what the Stax sound meant in the post-Redding era.

Next week: The musicians behind the scenes at Stax get their moment(s) in the spotlight.

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.