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The 25 Greatest Stax on Wax Tracks

Turn him loose

In the 1950s, Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio at 706 Union Avenue, with its stars Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins, was the center of the rock ‘n’ roll universe. As Sun’s influenced waned in the early 1960s, Stax Records opened on McLemore Avenue in Memphis and would become the home for guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Duck Dunn, drummer Al Jackson, Jr., organist Booker T. Jones, as well as songwriters David Porter and Isaac Hayes. Those individuals, as well as the Memphis Horns and the Mar-Keys, were the foundation of the Stax sound, a hard charging, tightly constructed version of soul music.

Here are 25 of the best Stax recordings and releases.

25. “Time is Tight,” Booker T. & the MGs. The MGs knew how to work a simple groove. They showed off through their minimalism. On “Time is Tight,” rhythm section Al Jackson and Duck Dunn hold the bottom steady, while organist Booker T. Jones, and guitarist Steve Cropper glide on top. Listen closely to this 1969 #6 pop hit and you’ll hear elements of Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose.” Mix the two songs and you have the Blues Brothers intro music. Speaking of…

24. “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” Otis Redding. Originally slapped onto the b-side of “Just One More Day,” this accidentally became the bigger hit. He introduced the “gotta, gotta” phrasing here, which was to Otis what “good God!” was to James Brown. This hip shaker went to #11 on the R&B charts.

23. “Born Under a Bad Sign,” Albert King. Written by Stax stalwarts William Bell and Booker T., this 1967 #49 R&B hit has become a blues standard with covers by Cream, Hendrix, and Etta James, among others. Albert, also known as “The Velvet Bulldozer,” smartly lets the MGs and Memphis horns carry as much weight as his left handed, upside down string bending Flying V.

22. “What a Man,” Linda Lyndell. This was a minor R&B hit for Lyndell in 1968 (#50), which was resurrected by Salt-n-Pepa with En Vogue for their 1993 hit “Whatta Man.” Lyndell’s man was special because he knew all the latest dance moves. Salt-n-Pepa’s man rubbed it down and made it smooth like lotion.

21. “Tramp,” Otis Redding and Carla Thomas. “You know what, Otis?” “What?” “You’re country.” That’s all right.” “You straight from the Georgia woods.” “That’s good.” Redding’s rube boy and Carla’s uptown girl spat went to #26 on the pop charts in 1967. Salt-n-Pepa’s producer knew his Stax catalogue. Their 1986 version of “Tramp” was their first Top 40 R&B hit.

20. “Mr. Big Stuff,” Jean Knight. Like Mel & Tim’s “Starting All Over Again,” this wasn’t recorded at Stax, but was released on the label. The original “You’re So Vain,” “Mr. Big Stuff” went #1 R&B and #2 pop, being blocked by “How Can Mend a Broken Heart” by the Bee Gees for the top slot. If you’ve seen They Might Be Giants in the past decade, you’ve heard this song as part of their eclectic pre-performance mix tape.

19. “I Forgot to Be Your Lover,” William Bell. Like Johnnie Taylor, Bell was from the Sam Cooke school of smooth soul music. This 1968 hit about neglecting a good woman only went #45 pop, but went Top Ten R&B. Later sampled by Ludicris on “Growing Pains” and incompetently covered by British soulman Billy Idol as “To Be a Lover.”

18. “Hard to Handle,” Otis Redding. This didn’t have the vibe for a posthumous hit and stalled at #51 on the pop charts in 1968. The Grateful Dead quickly worked it into their setlist, proving that stoned hippies could dance, and The Black Crowes took it to #26 in 1990. When Otis says that he’s a man of great experience, you believe him.

17. “I’ll Take You There,” The Staple Singers. The Staple Singers weren’t shy in the 1960s, recording social protest numbers including “Ghetto,” “Long Walk to D.C.,” and “When Will We Get Paid.” This Muscle Shoals call and response invitation to the promise land gave them their first #1 hit in 1972. Give Drive-By Truckers frontman Patterson Hood’s father David some love for the bass line that carries the tune.

16. “Soul Finger,” The Bar-Kays. The Bar-Kays started as Stax studio musicians and became Otis Redding’s road band. A soul/funk instrumental with a bizarre trilling trumpet, this song get’s the party started. The chants of “Soul Finger” came from neighborhood kids that were hanging out near the recording studio. They were paid with Coca-Colas. Went to #17 on the pop charts in 1967.

15. “Gee Whiz,” Carla Thomas. Carla beat her dad Rufus into the pop charts as a teenager, hitting the Top Ten in 1960. The first hit on Stax record is a lush pop record full of wide-eyed innocence, sounding nothing like the label’s classic soul sound. Carla wouldn’t hit the Top 40 again until 1966’s “B-A-B-Y,” a #14 hit covered in 1985 by fellow Memphian (children by the millions wait for) Alex Chilton.

14. “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” Otis Redding. Otis is known as the premiere artist at Stax, but he only hit the Top 40 ten times in total, four posthumously. This slow tempo ballad written by Otis Redding and Jerry Butler was his first Top 40 hit, peaking at #21 in 1965. An exercise in restraint – you keep waiting for the Memphis horns to blast this into overdrive, but Otis keeps his longing vocal in the spotlight.

13. “Respect Yourself,” The Staple Singers. The original check yourself before you wreck yourself, “Respect Yourself” was the band’s second Top 40 hit, following “Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom Boom),” which was not an advertisement for McDonald’s, into the charts in 1971. Written by Luther Ingram and Mack Rice as a shout out for decorum in the black community, it pains me to report that Bruce Willis had a bigger hit with this than the Staple Singers did. America, respect yourself.

12. “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” William Bell. Hey, look back at #23. Bell did more than sing, although he did that very well on R&B hits “Private Number” and “I Forgot to Be Your Lover.” This 1961 effort was a minor hit during Stax’s infancy in 1961, but would later be popularized by Otis Redding and The Byrds. As the man says, you don’t know what you got, ‘til it’s gone.

11. “Wrap It Up,” Sam and Dave. The b-side of “I Thank You,” later a hit for ZZ Top, “Wrap It Up” wasn’t a single, unless you count the 1986 version by the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Isaac Hayes wrote it, the Memphis Horns provided the hook, and you just can’t go wrong with those vocals and that rhythm section.

10. “Green Onions,” Booker T. & The M.G.’s. The band’s first release, with its sweet spot groove and Booker’s Ray Charles inspired Hammond organ playing, went all the way to #3 on the pop charts. The MG’s knew better than anybody what to play and what not to play, which must make them the Ramones of 60’s Southern soul music.

9. “Who’s Making Love.” Johnnie Taylor. Taylor was born in Crawfordsville, Arkansas, unlike me, and replaced Sam Cooke in the Soul Stirrers in 1957. It was over a decade later when the philosophical Taylor reached #5 with this number about a player being played. He had interesting takes on monogamy, knowing it was “Cheaper to Keep Her” and that a married man needed to “Take Care of Your Homework.” He topped the charts in 1976 with “Disco Lady,” which was bad, but not as bad as the Memphis originated “Disco Duck.”

8. “Walking the Dog,” Rufus Thomas. Here’s some weird pop trivia – Rufus was the first, and only, father to debut in the Top Ten after his daughter debuted in the Top Ten (Carla’s “Gee Whiz”). The World’s Oldest Teenager was a fixture on the Memphis entertainment scene for decades – hosting amateur shows, working in radio, and recording for both Sun and Stax. This canine dance craze went #10 in 1963 and would later be covered by The Rolling Stones, Johnny Rivers, The Sonics, Mitch Ryder, Aerosmith, etc., etc., etc.

7. “Theme from ‘Shaft’,” Isaac Hayes. Isaac was a bad mother at Stax, working with Dave Porter to compose many of the classic Sam and Dave hits. One of the highlights of the Stax Museum in Memphis, my personal Vatican, is the 1972 El Dorado Gold Cadillac that Hayes pimped out with fur lining, a television, and a refrigerator. Hayes transitioned from the traditional Stax sound to a 1970s early contemporary soul sound similar to the work that Curtis Mayfield was doing at the time. To tell them apart, Hayes was the one wearing the gold chain vest.

6. “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” Sam & Dave. Inspiration can come from unusual places. According to Stax legend, songwriter Dave Porter, not to be confused with this duo’s Dave Prater, was on a restroom break from recording and an impatient Isaac Hayes told him to hurry up. Dave responded with this song’s title. Sam Moore’s tenor and Dave Prater’s baritone meshed surprisingly well for two men that absolutely hated each other. A #21 pop hit and a #1 R&B hit in 1966.

5. “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” Otis Redding. I had trouble deciding where to place this Steve Cropper/Otis Redding composition that is a standard and a classic and a #1 hit and a song that I never want to hear again. Inspired by a stay at Sausalito, California, which sure does have a pretty view of the Richardson Bay.

4. “Soul Man,” Sam and Dave. In 1967, a five-day race riot broke out in Detroit that left 43 people dead and 467 injured. “Soul Brother” was spray painted on black owned businesses in an attempt to spare them from damage. The images from the riot inspired Isaac Hayes to develop the concept of “Soul Man,” a song about overcoming meager beginnings. A #2 pop hit in 1967 and later the signature song for the Blues Brothers.

3. “Knock on Wood,” Eddie Floyd. Floyd was a member of the Detroit R&B group The Falcons, whose hit “You’re So Fine” went to #19 on the pop charts in 1959. He went to Stax to work as a songwriter. Steve Cropper reversed the intro that he wrote for “In the Midnight Hour” to develop the opening chords for “Knock on Wood.” Floyd’s superstitious hit went #28 pop and #1 R&B. It would later top the pop charts when transformed into a disco number by Amii Stewart.

2. “In the Midnight Hour,” Wilson Pickett. Steve Cropper and Wilson Pickett composed this number Memphis’s Lorraine Motel, now part of the National Civil Rights Museum, in 1965. Jerry Wexler convinced the MG’s to emphasis the second beat in the drum line, to replicate how teenagers of the era were dancing. “In the Midnight Hour” propelled the Wicked Pickett into stardom, going #1 R&B and #21 on the pop charts.

1. “Try a Little Tenderness,” Otis Redding. Originally recorded as a big band number by the Ray Noble Orchestra in 1932 and covered by Aretha Franklin in 1962. (A bit ironic since Otis wrote Aretha’s signature song, “Respect.”) Isaac Hayes arranged Redding’s version, a #25 pop hit, which begins with sparse instrumentation and ends with Otis being pushed by Booker T. and the Memphis Horns as he passionately belts out his instructions to “LOVE her, SQUEEZE her.” Tenderly, of course.

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