The original version of this is published on Pennyblackmusic.co.uk — check it out.
Ibiza, October 2016: What was left of my library was stacked on a slat-wood shelf awaiting collection; the clothes worth taking were crammed into a scuffed purple nylon suitcase; my car was one signature short of belonging to my ex-boyfriend, who was also adopting my cat.
In a few days I would embark for Memphis, Tennessee, a city I best knew as home of Sun Records. To pass time, I was reading ‘Respect Yourself’ (a loan from my Memphis-based boyfriend).
Robert Gordon’s meticulous account of the rise/fall/slip/slide of Stax Records was the history of an alien land and culture. ‘(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay’ rang a bell, maybe ‘Shaft’, but my knowledge of Memphis soul ended there. Embarrassment at this ignorance was a welcome distraction from more immediate anxieties.
Those anxieties faded but the embarrassment clings; as a born-and-raised Yankee, a music journalist no less, it is shaming to have been oblivious to one of the richest seams of my country’s musical culture. Shaming because – as ‘Respect Yourself’ and history report – it is no accident that Black musicians have been, and remain, ghettoised, denigrated, alienated.
That’s not why anyone should listen to Memphis soul though; not to pay tribute or broaden horizons. Listen to be immersed in music that grabs your gut and nether-parts. Listen to the sound of something at stake. Listen because, as the following 10 songs prove, it’ll turn you on and take you higher.
1. Sam & Dave – ‘Hold On, I’m Coming’
One of Stax’s most emblematic artists, Sam Moore and Dave Prater likely gave ‘soul’ its name with their hit ‘Soul Man’ whose irresistible rhythm, honking horns and gospel-inflected vocals characterised the genre. But it’s the brash, brassy ‘Hold On’ that sticks most in my mind. The playful entendre of the lyrics and opulent arrangements make it as endlessly rewarding as a good single malt.
2. William Bell – ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’
In 2013 the Obamas hosted a celebration of Memphis soul at the White House. One of the luminaries who performed was William Bell, singing a crème caramel rendition of his 1961 debut single, ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’. A plaintive meditation on lost love, thematically, it embraces the blues but the shuffling percussion, Hammond organ and brass adornment mark it as a soul staple.
3. Staple Singers – ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’
Bob Dylan has spoken of his fascination with an early Staple Singers song, ‘Uncloudy Day,’ saying: “it was the most mysterious thing I’d ever heard. It was like the fog rolling in…. It just went through me like my body was invisible.”
The father-daughter quintet of Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples and Mavis, Cleotha, Pervis and Yvonne returned the respect with this stark cover. Released in 1968, following the many violent oppressions of the Civil Rights movement, the Staple Singers’ voices invest Dylan’s words of warning with an implacable knowledge won of hard experience.
4. Ann Peebles – ‘Can’t Stand the Rain’
Royal Studios, the erstwhile home of Hi Records, which birthed this sublime heartbreak soul, still stands proud in south Memphis. About the size and shape of a brick cereal box, it’s a wonder Royal could contain much less capture the power and clarity of Peebles’ unadorned voice as it weaves through the echoing percussion and slow-finger bass crawl of this melancholy gem.
5. Otis Redding – ‘(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay’
Familiarity can make this song easy to not hear, make it easy to overlook its lyrical heft and musical daring. Recorded not long before Redding died in a plane crash, ‘Rolling Stone’ reported that some of his label mates, his manager and even Stax boss Jim Stewart thought it was too great a stylistic leap. Instead, the wistful evocation of blighted hopes and faded promise became a posthumous Billboard number one and million-selling single, fulfilling Redding’s prediction.
6. Al Green – ‘Tired of Being Alone’
The first of a string of gold records Al Green cut at Hi Records, ‘Tired of Being Alone’ is 2:43 of pure sensuality. With deep roots in gospel (there are half-a-dozen churches within a couple blocks of Royal Studios), the best soul music brazenly blurred the line between sacred and sexual. Few did it better than this satin-tongued singer, and rarely better than on this unapologetic pitch for carnal comfort. Though Green went on to become an ordained minister, his catalogue makes a strong case for the devil having the best music.
7. Johnnie Taylor – ‘Who’s Making Love’
It is worth watching the video to fully appreciate the wit and influences of Taylor’s 1968 chart-topper which became the Stax stalwart’s iconic hit. Wearing a sharp green suit and Cuban heels, Taylor looks straight to camera and, like a preacher addressing his flock, begins: “. The rhythm and delivery is pure gospel. The question, rather more earthy, is posed to men who are out catting around: “Who’s making love to your old lady, while you’re out making love?”
8. Albert King – ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’
A transcendent fusion of blues and soul, ‘Born…’ is a perfect example of the musical fertility of Stax Records. Co-written by William Bell and Booker T. Jones, leader of Stax’ house band, Booker T. & the M.G.s, it was a minor Billboard hit on its 1967 release and gained wider notoriety when Cream released a version in 1968. Dozens of artists have covered it since, including Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone, MC5 and Rita Coolidge. One of the most affecting is Bell’s 2016 interpretation on his album, ‘This is Where I Live’.
9. Booker T & the MG’s – ‘Green Onions’
In fewer than three minutes this instrumental, penned by a 17-year-old Booker T., announced the arrival of an epoch-defining musical talent and proved, by the by, that a Hammond organ can rock a party. Anchored by a blues bassline, the Hammond burbles while horns blurt above the simmering musical stew, embodying the genius amalgamation of blues, funk and gospel that is soul.
10. Isaac Hayes & Rev. Jesse Jackson — ‘If I Had a Hammer’ (Live)
In 1972 Stax Records hosted Wattstax, a day-long festival in Los Angeles honouring the rise of Watts from the ashes of the 1965 riots. Isaac Hayes closed his set with the Pete Seeger-pinned ‘If I Had A Hammer’ (also a hit for Peter, Paul & Mary). With the help of Jimmy Jones, Hayes transformed it into a Black power anthem. The track opens with five and a half minutes of Rev. Jesse Jackson, hypnotic as falling rain and electrifying as adrenaline, exhorting his people to pride and strength. As a sinuous, eerie organ melody burbles Jackson cries, “If I had a hammer, I’d ring out justice. If I had a hammer tonight our people would be respected and protected…”.