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The Greatest Hit Songs from Stax Records
Stax Records was the home to Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and Isaac Hayes and produced some of the signature soul songs of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The tracks have withstood the test of time and are still vibrant today more than 40 years after they were made. Based in Memphis, the studio produced a sound that was grittier than the more polished and manufactured music coming out of Motown. The horns punched harder, the bass rumbled lower, and the songs had a more organic, earthy feel to them. This musical style was dubbed the Sound of Memphis.
Stax was founded in 1959 as a family business by Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton. The name Stax came about in 1961 from combining the first two letters of their last names. Jim worked at a bank and the studio at first was just a part time endeavor for him, something he messed around with after work. The studio eventually ended up in an abandoned movie theater in Memphis and Estelle set up a small record store where the concession stand used to reside. The other key figure in the studio’s management picture, Al Bell, showed up later, but his visionary guidance led the company to even greater heights, but also to its decline in the 1970’s. It started as a family studio with only a handful of musicians and then over the next 15 years ballooned into a large corporation that was plagued and brought down by lavish spending, poor decisions, corruption, payola scandals, IRS audits, lawsuits, and eventually bankruptcy in 1975.
The Stax history can be roughly divided into two halves, the Atlantic years and the post-Atlantic period. Stax had a distribution deal with Atlantic Records and this larger New York based company also sent down several acts to record in Memphis, the most notable being Sam & Dave. The deal with Atlantic was abruptly terminated when Warner Brothers bought Atlantic in 1968. As a result of this Sam & Dave never recorded at the studio again (and never had another hit). This was also the time Otis Redding’s tragic death and these two events changed Stax forever. It went from being a family business to being more about business and the music lost some of its soulfulness and vibrancy. The songs after this demarcation are a little slicker and less memorable than the ones that came before.
This article lists the Stax songs that managed to crack the top ten on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It was somewhat surprising to find that only twelve songs made the top ten and that only three made it to number one. Also surprising was that Booker T. and the MG's had the most top ten hits with three. Stax had numerous subsidiary labels such as Volt and Enterprise. All songs under the Stax umbrella were considered for this list.
(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay - Otis Redding
#1 US Pop Charts, 1968
"The Dock of the Bay" was recorded in a manic studio session just days before Redding's tragic death in 1967 at the age of 26. Otis was on the verge of super stardom in 1967 when he had surgery to remove polyps on his vocal chords. During his recovery he studied the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album and songs from Bob Dylan, trying to absorb their songwriting styles. Out of this reflective period came "The Dock of the Bay," which represented a change in direction for Redding to a more worldly, sophisticated sound. Co-written with Stax guitarist Steve Cropper, the song distills all of the Otis' experiences and travels into a simple, timeless classic that still resonates today. It starts out with Duck Dunn's churning guitar that mimics the gentle morning surf and sets the reflective mood of the song. It was recorded just days before Otis died in a tragic plane crash and Steve Cropper finished putting together the song after the funeral. When it was released it shot straight to #1. Amazingly, Redding had only one top ten hit in his career.
Theme from Shaft - Isaac Hayes
#1 US Pop Charts, 1971
Isaac Hayes was the creative engine that drove Stax records. For many years he was behind the scenes as part of a great songwriting duo with David Porter that crafted all of the great Sam & Dave hits. Then he decided to take the stage himself with his debut album Hot Buttered Soul in 1969 and he went on a run of creativity and activity that was rivaled only by the Beatles. He was key in developing a more funky style of soul music and also of introducing extended talking introductions or raps to his songs. The tracks ran forever and it was typical for an Isaac Hayes album to have only two 15-20 minute long songs per side. His greatest triumph by far has to be his soundtrack for the movie Shaft, for which he won the 1972 Academy Award for best song. It was released in 1971 and the funky, wacha-wacha guitar introduction, horns, strings, flutes, and female background singers showcase the Hayes creativity at its best. The soundtrack album contains other great numbers like "Soulsville" and "Do Your Thing" and is worth a full listen.
I’ll Take You There - The Staple Singers
#1 US Pop Charts, 1972
The Staple singers were an iconic gospel and soul group that was formed by "Pop" Staples with his children in 1948. They signed with Stax in 1968 and entered a period when they had their most commercial success. "I'll Take You There" was written and produced by Al Bell, one of the chief executives of Stax. He decided to take the Staple Singers to the Muscle Shoals studio to record the song to get away from the bustle of the Stax environment. Bell wrote the song shortly after the death of his brother. The lyrics were inspired as he walked around his parents’ yard after the funeral, the words just came to him, clear as day. The group made the song into a call and response effort and the backing band provided some reggae undertones. It reached #1 on both R&B and pop charts in spring of 1972 and is the signature song for the group.
Soul Man - Sam & Dave
#2 US Pop Charts, 1967
"Soul Man" was the biggest hit for dynamic duo of Sam Moore and Dave Prater, otherwise known as Sam & Dave. The song is an infectious, toe-tapping blend of guitar, horns, and voices. It really showcases Sam & Dave's different vocal styles. Sam Moore has a coarse, nasty growl and Dave Prater has a little bit smoother texture. Sam is the one that yells "play it Steve" to guitarist Steve Cropper. The track was written by the great songwriting duo of Isaac Hayes and David Porter. It was inspired by the race riots going on in Watts and around the country at the time. If the word "soul" was written on the door of an establishment the rioters would pass it by, leaving it unharmed. Hayes heard this on a television news report and it inspired him to write this song. It was released in August of 1967.
Green Onions - Booker T. and the MG's
#3 US Pop Charts, 1962
"Green Onion" was recorded in 1962 during an aborted session to make a radio jingle. The singer showed up drunk and vanished early before the work was done. Not wanting to waste the time, the Stax studio musicians started messing around and came up with the Peter Gunn-like riff of this song. The rest, as they say, is history. The backing band, consisting of Booker T. Jones on organ, Steve Cropper on guitar, Al Jackson Jr. on drums, and Lewie Steinberg on bass became Booker T. and the MG’s and became the Stax studio house band. The song perfectly captures the Stax sound, which had a darker, rougher, more brooding tone than the cheerful, polished music being produced at rival Motown studios. It was released as the B-side of the 45 single, but the DJ’s wanted to play it instead of the A-side because of it’s funky, sinister sound. The studio couldn’t get the records made fast enough to keep up with demand after it was released. The MG for the group was taken from the British sports car named after Morris Garages.
Who’s Making Love - Johnnie Taylor
#5 US Pop Charts, 1968
This is the first big Stax hit after the split with Atlantic and represents a slight departure in musical style for the studio. It was produced by Don Davis, who played guitar for Motown before starting his own studio. Davis was brought to Memphis by Al Bell to help bring a more pop oriented sound to the studio. Davis recognized a Marvin Gaye quality to Johnnie Taylor and teamed with him on this hit song. It was written by Stax writers Homer Banks, Raymond, Jackson, and Bettye Crutcher and it had been rejected by several other artists before being picked up by Davis and Taylor. “Who’s Making Love” is more polished than anything that had come out of Stax before and set the tone for a new musical direction. Steve Cropper plays guitar along with Don Davis and Raymond Jackson (a rarity for Stax to have more than one guitar on a song). Isaac Hayes also contributed horn arrangements. It became the biggest selling song to date at Stax, selling over 2 million records and reaching #5 on the pop charts.
Time is Tight - Booker T. and the MG's
#6 US Pop Charts, 1969
Just like with the previously mentioned "Green Onions," you may not be familiar with the title of this track, but I'm sure you've heard it. "Time is Tight" is another instrumental hit from Booker T. and the MG's and was made for the soundtrack to the movie Up Tight!, which was scored by organist Jones. The 1968 movie is about a group of black revolutionaries in Cleveland that are betrayed by one of their own. Because of its eerie, funky, soulful groove this song was also prominently featured in the Blues Brothers movie. It's a song that is impossible to dislike. Duck Dunn replaced Lewie Steinberg on bass and can be seen in the video below.
I Thank You - Sam & Dave
#9 US Pop Charts, 1968
The last big hit song for Sam & Dave before Stax split with Atlantic Records. Sam & Dave worked for Atlantic, but they they were not able to generate much success while recording in New York. Jerry Wexler at Atlantic decided to send the duo down to Memphis to record feeling the Stax sound was a better fit for their style. Sam & Dave hooked up with the song writing team of Isaac Hayes and David Porter and this team went on a tear of producing great hits. Unfortunately, Atlantic took Sam & Dave back when the split occurred in 1968, which ended this legendary partnership with the Hayes-Porter songwriting team. The B-side to the single was the equally great "Wrap It Up," which the Fabulous Thunderbirds made into a hit in 1986.
Hang 'Em High - Booker T. and the MG's
#9 US Pop Charts, 1968
"Hang 'Em High" was originally written for the Clint Eastwood movie of the same name by composer Dominic Frontierre, but Booker T. and the MG's had a top ten hit with an R&B flavored remake in 1968.
If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me) - Staple Singers
What is your favorite Stax hit song?
#9 US Pop Charts, 1973
"If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me)" is another Staple Singers song that cracked that top 10. It was written by the Stax team of Banks, Hampton, and Jackson who also wrote "Who's Making Love" by Johnnie Taylor.
Walking the Dog - Rufus Thomas
#10 US Pop Charts, 1963
Recorded in the fall of 1963 during a visit by Atlantic producer Tom Dowd, who was sent to Memphis to help fix some of Stax’s recording equipment. Rufus Thomas wandered into the studio on the last day of Dowd's visit and announced he had a song. In two quick takes they recorded it and Rufus left just as casually as he arrived and headed home for dinner. The result of this impromptu session was “Walking the Dog,” a funky number that features Steve Cropper on guitar. The song was a smash and quickly jumped to #10 on the US pop charts.
Gee Whiz (Look At His Eyes) - Carla Thomas
#10 US Pop Charts, 1960
"Gee Whiz" was one of the first big hits for Stax Records. Carla Thomas was the daughter of Rufus Thomas and was one of the early stars at Stax. She was a prodigy and was beautiful, smart, talented and could sing with the best of them. Everyone at the studio was in love with her. Carla was only seventeen at the time she recorded this song, but she had written it earlier in her 10th grade notebook at school, where she was always writing poems and short stories. “Gee Whiz” highlights Carla’s delivery, which really makes the song along with the strings and backing vocals. It reached #10 on the US pop charts three months after it was released in 1960. Carla had another hit with the song "B-A-B-Y" in 1966. It reached #14 on the charts.