Summer of Stax: The Stars Behind the Scenes

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.

As with their Northern rivals at Motown, Stax’s distinctive Memphis soul sound was derived from the relatively small pool of musicians and songwriters/producers the label kept in-house. But while Detroit’s Funk Brothers encompassed dozens of studio musicians, Stax’s house band was a much tighter four-piece group that played on virtually every recording during the label’s classic years. And unlike the anonymous, often uncredited Motown band, the Stax counterpart regularly recorded under its own name, earning hits in its own right.

In fact, it was the formation of Booker T. and the MGs that cemented the unique Stax sound. Before the group formed in 1962, various Memphis-area musicians, including guitarist Steve Cropper and keyboardist Booker T. Jones, had played on sessions at Satellite/Stax in the early ’60s. Whittling the studio band to a tight four-piece — Cropper and Jones, plus bassist Lewie Steinberg and drummer Al Jackson — Stax ensured that every record it pumped out bore an instantly recognizable audio signature.

The label boosted its house band’s brand by issuing instrumental records under the MGs’ name. The group’s 1962 debut album, Green Onions, became the first LP ever released on the Stax label. (Previous albums by the Mar-Keys and Carla Thomas had been put out by Atlantic.) Its title track was an unexpected blockbuster, topping the R&B charts and climbing to #3 on the Hot 100. With its stable groove, jazzy Hammond organ, and shards of blues guitar, “Green Onions” was both a calling card for the MGs and an encapsulation of the sound that would be called Memphis soul.

The MGs followed the success of “Green Onions” with two soundalike singles in 1963, “Jellybread” and the self-explanatory “Mo’ Onions,” though neither came close to replicating the success of the original. A pair of 1964 singles included on Stax Classics, “Tic-Tac-Toe” and “Soul Dressing,” find the MGs switching gears slightly, though still retaining their trademark groovy sound.

It was 1965’s horn-drenched “Boot-Leg” that gave Booker T. and the MGs their next big hit — although Booker T. himself didn’t appear on the record at all, as the young musician was deep in his studies at Indiana University. Instead, the keyboard parts were handled by another Stax regular: a songwriter, producer, and musician named Isaac Hayes.

By the time of “Boot-Leg,” original bassist Lewie Steinberg had been replaced by Steve Cropper’s former bandmate in the Mar-Keys, Donald “Duck” Dunn, inaugurating the classic MGs lineup that would persist for nearly a decade. During this period, in addition to “Green Onions” and their stint as the Stax house band, the MGs would be recognized for their unusual integrated racial makeup — Jones and Jackson were black, Cropper and Dunn were white — as well as their imaginative, genre-blind covers.

Stax Classics includes two examples of the latter. A remake of the R&B standard “One Mint Julep” (from the MGs’ 1966 album And Now!) interpolates the fuzzy, laconic guitar riff from the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The other, 1967’s breezy yet funky instrumental cover of the Young Rascals’ “Groovin’,” gave the MGs one of the biggest hits of their career, soaring into the R&B Top 10 and just missing the pop Top 20.

While none of their subsequent singles would ever top “Green Onions,” the period of 1967 to 1969 would prove to be a remarkably successful one for the MGs. In addition to “Groovin’,” the MGs would earn several substantial self-penned hits, including 1967’s “Hip Hug-Her,” 1968’s “Soul Limbo,” and 1969’s “Time is Tight.” The last of these would become their biggest hit since their first, coasting into the Top 10 on both the R&B and pop charts.

The MGs’ chart success would begin to fizzle out by the end of the decade, however. The group only earned one more moderate hit, 1971’s “Melting Pot,” before Cropper and Jones left the group in reaction to upheaval at their label. Much as with Carla Thomas, artists who had been integral to Stax’s success in the ’60s no longer had a place at the Stax of the ’70s.

While the new decade may have signaled the end of Booker T. and the MGs, it proved to be the dawning of a golden age for their colleague (and “Boot-Leg” collaborator) Isaac Hayes. During the ’60s, the MGs, plus Hayes and his writing/producing partner David Porter, had formed Stax’s “Big Six”: nearly every Stax release from the mid-’60s through the end of the decade featured at least some, if not all, of the sextet.

Hayes and Porter had made their name by writing and producing nearly all of Sam and Dave’s hits, including “Hold On! I’m Comin’,” “Soul Man,” and “I Thank You,” as well as several singles for Carla Thomas (most notably “B-A-B-Y”) and Mable John’s R&B smash “Your Good Thing (Is About to End).”

Hayes had also hoped to make it as a performer, but the poor sales of his debut album, 1968’s Presenting Isaac Hayes, seemed to have scuppered his chances. After Stax severed its relationship with Atlantic later that year, however, the Memphis label unexpectedly discovered that the rights to its back catalog reverted to its former partner.

To make up for this valuable loss, Stax’s co-owner Al Bell ordered that all of the label’s artists, including Hayes, release a new album in 1969. On the surface, Hayes’s contribution, Hot Buttered Soul, seems too eccentric to have ever been considered a potential hit. It consists of only four songs, bookended by a pair of remakes of popular adult contemporary hits stretched to epic lengths: a 12-minute version of Burt Bacharach & Hal David’s “Walk On By” (previously a success for Dionne Warwick) and a nearly 20-minute take on Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (made famous by Glen Campbell).

Yet Hot Buttered Soul was a genuine smash, topping the R&B album charts for 10 weeks and becoming one of Stax’s biggest-selling albums ever. Edited versions of “Walk On By” (under five minutes) and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (a mere seven minutes) made the Top 40 on both the pop and R&B singles charts.

They also introduced Hayes’s unique style: sophisticated orchestration with a funky undercurrent, prominent female backing vocals, Hayes’s velvety baritone and frequent lapses into spoken word (the album version of “Phoenix” opens with an eight-minute monologue). Both these singles are represented on Stax Classics, as well as the nine-and-a-half minute album track (and the lone Hayes composition from the LP) “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic.”

Hayes followed up his Hot Buttered Soul hits with a series of likeminded singles, including 1970’s “I Stand Accused” (written and originally recorded by Jerry Butler), 1971’s “The Look of Love” (another Bacharach-David composition), and “Never Can Say Goodbye” (previously a hit for the Jackson 5). The last of these was Hayes’s biggest hit to date, climbing to #5 on the R&B charts and #22 on the Hot 100. His next project, however, was destined to blow it out of the water.

At one point, Hayes had hoped to star in Gordon Parks’s film Shaft as the title character, whom he would famously summarize as “the black private dick that’s the sex machine to all the chicks.” Instead, Hayes ended up composing and recording the film’s score, in the process contributing one of the most successful and most influential soundtracks ever.

Hayes’s Shaft, the first-ever R&B double album, topped both the pop and R&B charts and still stands as Stax’s best-selling LP. Its lead single, the endlessly imitated and parodied “Theme from Shaft,” not only climbed to the top of the Hot 100 but also won Hayes an Academy Award for Best Original Song — making him only the third African-American to be awarded an Oscar and the first to win in a non-acting category.

Stax Classics includes all three of the vocal-based tracks from Shaft: “Theme from Shaft,” “Do Your Thing” (a #3 R&B/#30 pop hit), and “Soulsville.”

While most of Hayes’s pre-Shaft singles had been covers, he returned to focusing on his own songwriting in the aftermath, earning hits with 1973’s “Joy” (edited down from the 15-minute album title track) and 1974’s “Wonderful.” He also worked on a couple other soundtracks — including the Hayes-starring Three Tough Guys, from which Stax Classics pulls the instrumental “Run Fay Run” — but none with remotely the impact of Shaft.

Hayes left the foundering Stax in 1974. Unlike many of his former labelmates, Hayes continued to have some success after Stax, but never quite matched his early ’70s heyday. Two decades later, he took on the role of Chef on South Park, earning a surprise UK #1 in 1998 with his in-character song “Chocolate Salty Balls.” Even “Theme from Shaft” had only gone to #4 overseas.

Next week: Former gospel stars get funky.

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.