Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre, series, or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: Stax Records
Why it’s daunting: In the 1960s, Stax Records blazed the trail for sweaty, funky Southern soul, pioneering an earthy sound that was rougher and more immediate than the glossy productions of Phil Spector or Motown. Founded by brother and sister Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, whose last names combined to give the label its name, Stax—and Volt, its subsidiary imprint—both produced voluminous, sprawling outputs, and once you get past the major players, you’re likely to confront a sea of unfamiliar names. Soul aficionados prize Stax’s raw, potent sound, but guessing where to start is like trying to eat barbecue without getting your hands dirty.
Possible gateway: Stax 50th; Stax/Volt Revue Live in Norway 1967 (DVD)
Why: As intoxicating as individual recordings by any number of Stax artists can be, you want to start with a collection that gives you a sense of how they interrelate. The story of Stax isn’t just the story of Otis Redding, Sam And Dave, or Booker T. & The M.G.’s, it’s about a place and time, and a rotating cast of characters, many of whom grew up within walking distance of Stax’s recording studios, a converted movie theater on Memphis’ McLemore Avenue. It’s one thing to marvel at the sheer volume of indelible music that the label released, particularly during its peak years from 1962-68, and another to realize the extent to which that music was the product of a small group of preternaturally talented musicians, singers, and songwriters. Booker T. & The M.G.’s—guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, and drummer Al Jackson, Jr.—weren’t just one of Stax’s best-known groups, they served as the de facto house band. Cropper and Jones also wrote many of the label’s hits, along with David Porter and Isaac Hayes. (The lattermost became a Stax artist in his own right.)
There are innumerable compilations dedicated to Stax soul. Stax 50th offers a generous and expansive selection, covering ’60s highlights as well as the slicker sound of Johnnie Taylor and the Staples Singers, who came to the fore during Stax’s second decade. It’s probably too much for neophytes, but if you’re the type who likes to jump in at the deep end, the nine-CD Complete Stax-Volt Singles, 1959-68 is a mind-blowing experience. But the best way to get a sense of Stax’s collective might is to watch it in action in this concert recording. In front of an ecstatic Scandinavian crowd, the Stax Revue features Booker T. & the M.G.’s, the Mar-Keys, Arthur Conley, Eddie Floyd, Sam And Dave, and Otis Redding. The energy builds from one act to the next; by the time Redding hits the stage, it’s close to insanity. (Even Redding’s famed Monterey Pop set doesn’t entirely measure up, although it’s better filmed.)
Next steps: For its first decade, Stax’s focus was on singles, not albums, which means you’re free to track down best-ofs or boxed sets for whoever strikes the most resonant chord. Be sure to seek out lesser-known artists like Rufus Thomas (the ambassador of Memphis soul) and his daughter Carla, as well as William Bell and Eddie Floyd, whose appeal stretches well beyond their signature hits (“You Don’t Miss Your Water” and “Knock On Wood,” respectively.)
Exceptions to the rule: Otis Redding, who has been especially well-served by the revived Stax’s reissue program. The two-disc set of Otis Blue and Otis Redding Sings Soul includes “Respect”—Redding’s composition, although even he deferred to Aretha Franklin—and Redding’s reading of Sam Cooke’s epochal civil-rights anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come.” King And Queen, an album of duets with Carla Thomas, is inessential but massively enjoyable, especially on the trash-talking “Tramp.”
Booker T. & The M.G.’s McLemore Avenue is one of the great treasures buried in Stax’s voluminous catalogue. The cover, with the four M.G.’s crossing the street in front of the Stax studio, is an explicit nod to The Beatles’ Abbey Road, which McLemore Avenue covers almost in its entirety. Rather than just running through the album, Booker T. Jones rearranged the songs into three medleys, the longest stretching more than a quarter of an hour. It was a fiercely ambitious move for a label built on the principle that no song should run longer than three minutes, and selling the idea to his bandmates wasn’t easy for Jones, who in addition to being Stax’s resident Beatles fan, had been taking days away from cutting hits to get a degree in music composition. But the strain doesn’t show, and the scope of McLemore Avenue reveals how much further the label could have gone had the tragedy of Martin Luther King’s assassination—which took place at a motel where the studio’s staff frequently adjourned for meetings—destroyed the utopian atmosphere.
Where not to start: The 1000 Volts Of Stax series (2000 Volts, 3000 Volts, etc.) is, by design, for collectors only. And while the label’s later years have their proponents, they don’t measure up to the initial burst of inspiration. The Wattstax festival, memorialized in a concert film and three-CD soundtrack, is as much a tribute to the label’s steadily inflating sense of self as an attempt to inspire the black community of Los Angeles’ blighted Watts neighborhood. There’s gold in Stax’s later years, but you have to sift through more dust to find it.