Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Stax Soulsville U.S.A. Reviewed


When it was announced that HBO (ahem "Max") would be launching a four part docu series on my favorite 60's soul label I was tickled pink. I always approach musical documentaries with trepidation, I think it's because all too often they employ too many talking heads and spoil the soup (I think we can finally breath easy in the hope that documentary makers have stopped using Bono). Hopes were high!

"Soulsville U.S.A" is loosely based on the INCREDIBLE 1997 book by Rob Bowman and fortunately features no one outside of the Stax organization with the only exception being Bowman himself. The label's story is told through archival footage and photos along with interviews and narration by Stax stalwarts Booker T. Jones, label founders Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton (the latter through old footage), Carla Thomas, David Porter, Issac Hayes, Dave Moore (of Sam & Dave), Steve Cropper, label exec Deanie Parker and last but not least Al Bell who eventually took control of the label and sadly was instrumental in it's meteoric rise and eventual demise. 

Estelle Axton in front of 926 East McLemore Avenue

It is with the inclusion of Al Bell (a DJ who was brought onboard in 1965 originally as a promotions man to raise the label's profile) that the documentary veers off into less about the label and more about Al Bell. It is he who is the most prominent voice in the series leading my old friend Larry Grogan to aptly describe it as "The Al Bell Show, starring Al Bell, as told to Al Bell by Al Bell". Episode 1 "Cause I Love You" deals with the history of the label from it's founding by Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton to the names that made the label big: Booker T and The M.G's (though the later are rarely mentioned outside of "Green Onions" and their work as a backing band), Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave and of course, Otis Redding. Sadly there's nary a trace of anyone else, no William Bell, no Eddie Floyd, no Mar-Keys, no Rufus Thomas or countless others who appeared on the label. Musically this is a "Stax 101" for beginners. The tragic distribution deal with Jerry Wexler and Atlantic records (which unbeknownst to Jim Stewart, for not reading the fine print, gave Wexler and Atlantic the rights to Stax's entire released catalog) is the first of many traumatic incidents in the label's history. There is an extensive and informative section chronicling the famous 1967 Stax U.K. tour with Otis, Booker T and Co. and Sam and Dave as well as Otis Redding's successful appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival. Sadly the follow up was Otis and The Mar-Key's  tragic death and the later assassination of Martin Luther King (and the strife both preceding and following his death in Memphis) which are covered in Episode 2 "Soul Man".   It's here that crucial facts begin to be conveniently not mentioned. The label's re-invigoration by Bell in the late 60's and early 70's with Johnnie Taylor "Who's Makin' Love (the label's strongest selling single at that point in 1968) and the mega stardom of Stax writer and producer Isaac Hayes as a performer are covered in Episode 3 "Respect Yourself" and also briefly covers the disillusionment and eventual departure of crucial musicians like Booker T. and Steve Cropper with Bell's inane scheme of releasing a staggering 28 albums simultaneously while treating the backing musicians like assembly line workers (and no mention of his use of thugs and threats to bring the understandably unhappy musicians to heel) . 

"The company became corporate. A mass production assembly line feeling. That whole concept was so foreign to me I just never accepted it. It was pain added to the other pain for me. I didn't want to leave, I had to leave" 
                                 -Booker T. Jones

Despite the fact that Rob Bowman is frequently featured in the series the producers neglected to use his book as a template and as a result decided to downplay the fact that racial tensions within the label were brewing and a backlash of bias that was coming on hard and fast in the wake of Dr. King's assassination. This claimed founder Estelle Axton as it's first victim (Axton's departure is chalked up to "creative differences" in the series). Her beloved Satellite records shop is closed with her departure and turned into studio space.  Bowman's telling quote of the series after Bell's sweeping reorg speaks volumes:

"Al Bell's decision to expand has great consequences as to record sales but terrible consequences in terms of morale"
                          -Rob Bowman

Crucially no mention is made of Al Bell's employment of two unsavory characters of criminal background in the form of Dino Woodward and Johnny Baylor (Baylor was later stopped in an airport in 1972 shortly after the epic Wattstax concert with an enormous sum of cash and a check from Stax for $500,000 in his possession which put Stax on the both the I.R.S. and F.B.I's radar ), nor is there any mention of the physical violence the musicians were threatened with by these unsavory elements. Bell is frequently portrayed in the series as a hapless victim of institutional racism, a well meaning soul caught in a web of unscrupulous contracts and business dealings with the horribly run Farmer's And Mechanics Bank and a disastrous deal with CBS that made the equally horrific deal with Atlantic in the 60's (covered in Episode 2) look minuscule. In truth Bell may have been an unfortunate victim in the case of the Farmer's And Mechanics Bank scandal and the CBS dilemma but his allowing the foxes to guard the hen house backfired, disastrously (also conveniently not mentioned was the paying of Baylor a cool $2.9 million dollars for one year's work in 1972). 

Dino Woodward (left), unknown and Johnny Baylor (right)
at the Stax Xmas party, 12/20/68.

Stax bounds back in Episode Three "Respect Yourself" with Issac Haye's career taking off and his "Shaft" score winning a Grammy in 1972 for Best Motion Picture Soundtrack and the label promoting the highly successful Wattstax gig in August of '72 with a huge roster of artists performing (clips of The Bar-kays, Issac Hayes and Carla Thomas and Rufus Thomas from the event are aired). However it's all downhill from there (as chronicled in Episode 4 "Nothing Takes The Place Of You") with mounting problems from CBS when Clive Davis (who forged the distribution deal with Stax) is unceremoniously canned and Stax's products are nowhere to be found in stores as CBS sits on them. Again it's Al Bell blaming his woes on everyone but himself. Al Bell may have talked the talk of "black power" but the end of the day it was green that really mattered. 

Al Bell pointing the finger at everyone but himself.

Stax (and Bell's) wild ride comes to a resounding halt when the bailiff's turn up to shut down a slimmed down Stax (having done a too little too late housecleaning/mass lay-off in the wake of the CBS debacle) after the Union Planter's Bank loan to save the label is foreclosed. Bell chalks it up to the white Memphis establishment declaring war on a successful black run enterprise (curiously NOT at the height of their success), never once mentioning about any of the shady dealings and fast and loose bookkeeping going on at the label. But if there's a loser in this story it's Jim Stewart, who, when the label is about to be swallowed up by its creditors sweeps in with his life savings an a valiant attempt to keep the wolves at bay despite being pushed out of the label by this time. It didn't work and Stewart wound up destitute and lost his house as a result but somehow remains proud and dignified of what he was able to accomplish. Depressing footage of a decaying Stax marquee and building being gutted in 1989 are it's epilogue and there's no mention of the label's subsequent takeover by Fantasy records in the late 70's OR the reconstruction and replication of the original building in it's original location. I guess there wasn't time for that during "the Al Bell show". 

******The Author is gratefully indebted to Rob Bowman's incredible book "Soulsville" which was instrumental in completing this post******

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Deram Records Top 10

1. THE MOVE-"Night Of Fear" Deram DM 109 1966

The Move got a reputation of being a slick 5 piece soul music floor show with syncopated dance moves and the band's four vocalists standing across the stage in a line doing obscure gems like Gladys Knight's "Stop Get A Hold Of Myself" or Joe Tex's "You Better Believe It". But when brought in as one of Deram's earliest signings their musical style shifted to originals penned by lead guitarist Roy Wood and the soul covers were left at the door of the recording studio (though they were still on the soul train both on air for BBC sessions and their live repertoire). Roy wrote their debut, "Night Of Fear" with it's distinct "War Of 1812" intro lick, something he said came from his parents love of classical music. It was coincidentally used the previous year by Ike and Tina Turner on their Loma 45 "Tell Her I'm Not Home", something a band with deep appreciation of soul music might well have been familiar with. Regardless it's an amazing track about nightmares (though of course everyone thought it was about a bad acid trip), punctuated by some amazing harmonies and resident mod fashion plate on bass Ace Kefford who adds the possibility of "trippier" elements at play when he soulfully croons "Just about to flip your mind, just about to trip your mind" in a Steve Winwood-esque style the bridge. The band's tight four part harmonies are the proverbial cherry bomb on top.

2. FRIENDS-"Mythological Sunday" Deram DM 198 1968

Friends were a studio only concoction featuring former Ivy League member John Carter and probably a who's who of session musicians. "Mythological Sunday" was the flip side of the insipidly dreadful "Piccolo Man", probably the label's worst offering after the dreadful "I Was Kaiser Bill's Batman". Led by an eerie Mellotron that weaves together a gentle pop psych harmony number that sounds like a '68 Moody Blues outtake, it's a slow build.  The bridge sweeps in with a pop psych opus comprised by everything under the studio sink with harpsichord, majestic/soaring harmonies, piano etc. The number fades out and returns with an ominous solitary organ chord drone and war sound affects as a somber regimental march comes closer and closer with the military chorus singing: "If a million men went off to fight a war in foreign lands and fifty thousand came back home with blood upon their hands, would any soldier that was left come back to fight once more if he could know before he died what he was fighting for" before drifting back off an ending with the Mellotron notes that begin the track.

3. DAVID BOWIE-"The London Boys" Deram DM 107 1966

Forget "My Generation", "The London Boys" was THE archetype 60's mod anthem. It was, and still is......and much more. Originally recorded when Bowie was signed to Pye, the powers that were rejected the track because of it's lyrics about taking pills. His new label Deram, actually signed him after hearing the track and it was utilized as the flip of his debut Deram release "Rubber Band". From it's somber, glum beginning warble to the lifting full throttle cabaret ending (which David Robert Jones delivers like the Frank Sinatra of modernism) the number is a masterpiece. Restrained by a simple bass/organ backing with strains of brass (muted trumpet and woodwinds) the song builds as the pitch of Bowie's plight reaches it's full descent. Lyrically poignant and proud despite the "against all odds" scenario of hopelessness and failure faced by the song's young protagonist, "The London Boys" ages well. Bowie thought so too and re-recorded it for his aborted (and later posthumously released) LP "Toy" and performed it live several times in the early 2000's (usually sticking to the original arrangement) .

4. TINTERN ABBEY-"Beeside" Deram DM 164 1967

This two sider is for me, the DEFINITIVE British 60's psychedelic 45. "Beeside" begins with a faint piano that descends in volume until banished by a burst of slowed down cymbal flashes and a tapestry of Mellotron. Then there's some Macca '66-'67 style bass and backwards guitars before the ethereal lead vocals begin. The whole track is a mindblast, there's so much going on it it musically while the lead singer sings about pollination in a piece that at times musically reminds me of the majesty of the classic piece "Carnival Of Animals". And in the timely British pop psych tradition there's some muted  regal trumpet during the chorus that meshes really nicely with the Mellotron. This is British 60's psychedelia encapsulated accept no substitutes or imitations.

5. DENNY LAINE-"Say You Don't Mind" Deram DM 122 1967

"Say You Don't Mind" is one of those classic Deram releases that broke new grounds (The Move, Cat Stevens, Bowie, Tintern Abbey etc).  From it's renaissance evoking woodwinds, strings and rocking backing track it should've been a number one.  No doubt it was probably kept away by some tripe like Engelbert or The New Seekers.  But you can say this, there weren't many people doing this "string section" bit this early on in Deram's roster, which is sad because Denny Laine never really reaped the rewards he should have from this concept.  "Groundbreaking" I think one of the "Disc & Music Echo" clips I have somewhere said upon it's release.  Denny's voice is strong and hits some notes few could get away with, though Colin Blunstone did a wonderful reworking as a single in 1972. Rumor has it that he recorded an entire LP worth of material at the time, but the only thing that was forthcoming was one more single by him for the label eight months later. 

6. VIRGIN SLEEP-"Secret" Deram DM 173 1968 

We profiled Virgin Sleep's lush debut "Love" in one of our earliest posts (see here). Five months later in January 1968 they returned with this, their second and unfortunately final Deram single, this time with legendary producer/arranger Keith Mansfield providing some stunning orchestral backing. With it's extremely heavy orchestral intro, thundering drums and this high pitched note that is either a flute or some angelic vocals (or both) it's a Brit psych pop magnum opus. Eventually there is a discernible flute as well and in the ultimate "toy town psych" tradition there is a host of mentions of numerous nursery rhyme friendly animals making it a veritable barnyard of psychedelia all concerning the animals and the ability or inability to keep the "secret" ("butterflies sailing in the breeze, go tell it to the queen of the bees now she knows...spider spinning it's web of silk watching the ducks down by the mill, he'll keep the secret until he's ready.."). 

7. TEN YEARS AFTER-"The Sounds" Deram DM 176 1968
"The Sounds" should have been the A-side. Forget any blues pretensions or 20 minute Slim Harpo covers, "The Sounds" is a full on freakbeat gas from start to finish. Curiously it reminds me a bit of Dennis Couldry's "I Am Nearly There" (UK Decca F 12734 issued the same month) with it's downtrodden, morose vocals with lyrics of mental confusion brought on by "the sounds". Is it about paranoia? A bad trip? A man who has just about had enough of life?  You decide. There's occasional bluesy but blistering guitar licks that burst out while the main verses feature a subtle organ and almost Gregorian chant backing vocals that gloomily plod along like a freakout dirge and it just builds and builds. The organ gets funkier and sound affects slowly start to pile on creating a brilliant cacophony of paranoia and confusion. It stops abruptly and slowly creeps back in for a few seconds. Positively trippy, man.

8. THE 23RD TURNOFF-"Michael Angelo" Deram DM 150 1967
Out of the ashes from Liverpool beat latecomers The Kirkbys (pronounced "Kirby's", thanks Amanda!) lead singer Jimmy Campbell rebranded and relaunched them as The 23rd Turnoff (named after a Liverpool exit on the Motorway, if liner notes to a See For Miles comp LP are to be believed), though apparently Campbell is the only member actually participating in the recording. The lush orchestration and incredibly generous use of phasing are perfectly in keeping with the times as are the regal trumpet trills (is that a piccolo trumpet perhaps?) and an organ going through a Leslie speaker. The lyrics are equally profound ("why should it be that a man such as me who cares not for money and fame, shouldn't be rich with God's natural gifts to have something to show at the end of life's game"). And as was the case with Tintern Abbey, we got but one brilliant single out of them and then nothing.

9. THE EYES OF BLUE-"Supermarket Full Of Cans" Deram DM 114 1967

"Gettin' kind of hung up baby, wondering what you're gonna do...." intones the beat group styled lead singer of The Eyes Of Blue. From their rep back home in Swansea as blue eyed soul purveyors you would expect a lead singer aping Otis Redding. Nope. But that's where the charm of these fellas comes in. Their musical backing is full on high class and probably would have (or maybe might have?) moved the floors at Wigan Casino with with it's precision piano and vibes. But it's the fact that the lead singer is not singing in a soulful way that mimics a black American that makes it work! The number's strength is also due in no small part thanks to in house producer Noel Walker (also responsible for work with fellow label mates and soul loving Welshman Amen Corner). It's 101 mph delivery and the catchy vibes and enthusiastic punctual shouts of "Hey!" before the chorus are positively infectious as are the Action styled falsetto backing vocals. This was their second and  last single on Deram before jumping to Mercury and going prog the following year. Yuck.

10. THE PYRAMID-"The Summer Of Last Year" Deram DM 11 1967

"I just passed through the place where the sea was warm and clear, and the sun, and the sun was always hot in the summer of last year...", or so went the pastoral harmony pop and sole release by The Pyramid, who were discussed in one of our earliest posts (here). The band's harmonies are pure Californian/West Coast that would do the Association proud but they also bring to mind The Who's backing vocals on say "In The City" or "Glow Girl". There's subtle organ and some heavy fuzz bass (care of one John Paul Jones) and incredible knob twiddling by Denny Cordell (responsible for other Deram acts Beverely and Denny Laine) but it's those layers of vocals and harmonies that keep bringing me back again and again. Pop over to the link above for the original post to read memories of the single's recording by original member Mike Lease.

All label scans c/o of

Sunday, May 5, 2024

More U.K. Obscurities On U.S. Labels: The Merseybeats "Last Night"


THE MERSEYBEATS-Last Night/See Me Back U.S. Fontana S-1950 1964

Liverpool's Merseybeats released five singles in the U.S. on Fontana, this was their third issued here in November of 1964 (it was previously issued in the U.K. the month before where it was their fifth single).

"Last Night" is the epitome of the "beat ballad" with an incredible duet between bassist Johnny "Gus" Gustafson and singer/guitarist John Banks. Delivered with muted acoustic guitars and a jazzy guitar lick and a very spirited hand clap percussion it's melodic, moody and magnificent. 

"See Me Back" was written by Crane and Gustafson and employs their double edged vocal attack on top of a hard rocking delivery that really makes it work thanks to the edginess they bring to it. 

Both tracks are available on the thoroughly comprehensive 2021 Grapefruit two CD collection "I Stand Accused" which collected everything the band and it's members recorded in the 60's. 

Hear "Last Night":

Hear "See Me Back":

Thursday, May 2, 2024

U.S. Soul/R&B/Jazz/Blues 45's For May

1. REUBEN & THE CHAINS-"Answer These Questions" Peacock 1938 1965

Starting out with some bluesy guitar licks this number incorporates some strong harmonies amid a mid tempo soulful delivery with some great call and response vocals forging a bridge between doo wop and uptempo soul/r&b.

2. TEDDY AND THE FINGERPOPPERS-"Soul Groove Pt. 1 (&2)" Arctic 143 1968 

Starting with some deep bass evolving into a party atmosphere with crowd noises, a deep bass/drums lock on the groove and wailing vocals  this number is a non stop party that's so catchy they couldn't contain it on just one side!

3. SAM BUTERA-"Love Bandit" Coliseum 45-2710 1968

Louie Prima sideman Sam "The Man" Butera get's "with it" and cut this interesting take on Johnny "Guitar" Watson's love bandit and proves that at 41 you can still be funky! The kitschy female backing vocals sweeten the deal, though Sam can barely keep it together for laughing through most of it. Where Las Vegas meets Muscle Shoals....

4. BABY HUEY & THE BABY SITTERS-"Monkey Man" St. Lawrence 1002 1965

Not to be confused with The Maytall's number of the same name this number is 1/3 frat rock (dig the combo organ and Kingsmen style guitar chord progressions), 1/3 soul and 1/3 gritty rock n' roll (that guitar solo is PURE Dave Davie's '64 vamping). Wild!

5. FREDDIE SCOTT-"Run Joe" Shout S-220 1967

One of my favorite Freddie Scott 45's is this killer version of Louis Jordan's "Run Joe" (covered by Stranger Cole two years prior). It's full on "party" atmosphere with lots of "audience participation/exhortations" adds to the mood of this full tilt 100 mph stormer with hard hitting drums, horns and stride piano.

6. EDDIE HOLMAN-"You Know That I Will" Parkway P-106 1966

Eddie Holman has a slew of amazing mid 60's releases and this is probably my favorite. The incredible music backing has a heavy Motown slant with hard hitting drums and bluesy piano propelling Eddie's high falsetto notes adding to it's dance floor accessibility.

7. CHOKER CAMPBELL'S BIG BAND-"Come See About Me" Motown M-1072 1964

This stunner of an instrumental reading of the Supremes hit "Come See About Me" is interesting because it sounds like the basic track for the original but with multiple layers of extra horns that give it an almost house band orchestra meets marching band feel. Kitschy without being campy!

8. ALBERT WASHINGTON AND THE KINGS-"You Gotta Pay Your Dues" Fraternity 1967

This slow burner (with guitar care of Lonnie Mack) has a beautiful churchy Hammond with some wonderful bluesy licks and a soulful Gospel vocal delivery that brings to mind Sam & Dave meets Larry Williams and Johnny "Guitar" Watson adds to the full on "soul testimonial" delivery.

9. DEE EDWARDS-"You Say You Love Me" Tuba 1706 1963

This number reminds me a lot of Mary Well's "The One Who Really Loves You" but with some cool high falsetto backing vocals and an interesting backing with some kitschy organ, congas and a muted "lounge soul" feel.  Priceless.

10. TY HUNTER-"Bad Loser" Chess 1893 1964

This underrated mid tempo smoker b-side falls somewhere between a sophisticated Ben E. King side (dig the slick brass arrangement) meets the soulful sides of the early Radiants (especially the backing vocals when they hit the falsettos).