CAN'T GET AWAY FROM THIS DOG
A LITTLE SOMETHING EXTRA
Stax Records, which folded ingloriously in 1976 after being rent by internal tensions and financial mismanagement, was more than the purveyor of some of the most magnificent pop music ever recorded. It represents today, as it did during its 60s heyday, the goal of every record producer or promoter with a dream--the independent record company that grasped the grail.
The grail, of course, proved elusive--perhaps illusory. But while the dream lasted Stax was a cornucopia of excellence. It virtually defined hard soul in the 60s: the music, the stance, the entire attendant culture. The company started life in 1957 when Jim Stewart, a mild-mannered Memphis bank clerk with a passion for country music, launched Satellite Records to push a C and W song, "Blue Roses," by local deejay Fred Byler. In 1958 Stewart's sister, Estelle Axton, joined the company; but it wasn't until 1960, after they'd moved their fledgling operation into the abandoned Capitol theater on East McLemore Street, that history began to be made.
East McLemore was a thoroughfare in an economically deteriorating neighborhood going from white to black. Here the straitlaced, enterprising white bank clerk and his sister gathered around them an unprecedented mix of musicians both black (Booker T. Jones, Lewis Steinberg, Curtis Green) and white (Chips Moman, Steve Cropper, Estelle Axton's son Packy) to make records. Such a thing was unheard of in Memphis in 1960. Black blues and R & B had existed--and cross-pollinated--with white country music there for decades, but white and black musicians seldom appeared on the same stage; there was a fanatical underground of young white hipsters listening to R & B groups like the "5" Royales and the big bands of Ben Branch and Bowlegs Miller, but the club scene was strictly segregated and community leaders were issuing dire warnings to white parents about the "savage" influence "Negro records" were having on their children.
Out of this unlikely and revolutionary mix of races, talents, and individuals came a music that not only transformed the way young America sang and danced but soon gave rise to a social vision unprecedented in the entertainment industry--a vision of racial harmony, a transcendent fusion of the secular and the spiritual that, it was hoped, would eventually lead to nothing less than universal salvation through music. And if some of those sentiments seem naive or even dangerously disingenuous in these all-too-knowing times, it may be more a measure of how far we've fallen than an indictment of the vision itself.
Fantasy Records has now released four CDs consisting primarily of previously unissued outtakes and alternates from the recording careers of four of Stax's most important artists: Rufus Thomas, daughter Carla Thomas, William Bell, and Otis Redding. The magnificent breadth of talent and artistic expression that characterized Stax is on full display in these retrospectives.
Rufus Thomas was already a Memphis legend by the time he came to Satellite--soon to be Stax (for "Stewart" and "Axton")--in 1960. A veteran of the southern minstrel-show circuit, he was an all-around entertainer--singer, comedian, dancer--as well as a popular local emcee and hip-talking deejay on WDAI; he'd cut "Bear Cat," one of the great sides to come out of Sun Records, in 1953. He came to Satellite to cut a duet with his daughter, a jaunty little tune he'd written called "Cause I Love You." It made some noise in the southern markets, and Carla soon returned to record "Gee Whiz," her first solo effort, a musical adaptation of a poem she'd written while still a teenager. When "Gee Whiz" hit both the pop and R & B top-ten lists in early 1961, both Carla Thomas and the record company were on their way.
In some ways Carla Thomas's development, from skilled purveyor of adolescent love songs to full-flower adult talent, mirrors the development of Stax itself. But unfortunately there's an aimless feel to the way Hidden Gems has been programmed; sophisticated ballads and energetic dance numbers from her mature period are interlaced with early adolescent weepies that are historically interesting but haven't aged well. The first track, "I'll Never Stop Loving You," is a late one, from about 1967. It has a Motown-like backing provided by producer Don Davis, who was brought into Stax in the late 60s and imposed a musical vision on the company that many observers--including Carla Thomas--feel robbed the Stax sound of its grit.
Aside from the chronological problems, this disk gives a fine portrait of Carla Thomas as both fledgling and mature soul artist. "I Wonder About Love" was one of several hits she wrote while still a teenager; the production is appropriately youthful and jaunty. Although Thomas was in college when she recorded this, it sounds for all the world as if a high school girl were singing it. "Little Boy," also from the same early period, drips with prepubescent sentiment, yet "Goodbye My Love" (1961) is actually more forward-looking than some of her later sides (Packy Axton contributes a delightful yakkety-yak sax break in the middle).
It's on tunes like "Loneliness" that the classic Carla Thomas fusion of romanticism and womanly strength comes to the fore. The sound is fuller, the lyrics and production more adult-oriented, and even though the melody line meanders a bit it sounds refreshingly mature. "(Your Love Is a) Life Saver" is even better, with a sophisticated backing that accelerates into an almost funk-blues groove, over which Thomas purrs with a Diana Ross-like sexiness.
Thomas never lost her early taste for lush romanticism, but she's at her best when she lets herself surrender to genuine emotional fervor. "Sweet Sensation" features the fully realized Carla Thomas, sounding churchy in front of a sparse but powerful backing. This may have been a demo--there are no horns and it has a raw, garage-band feel that's atypical of Stax but brings a welcome whiff of primal emotion to the song. "If It's Not Asking Too Much" is laced with uncharacteristic bitterness, couched in a minor-key arrangement. "That Beat Keeps Disturbing My Sleep" is the most adventurous offering here, a tale of lost love that's also an almost surrealistic celebration of rhythm--the essence of the African American musical tradition. Such moments, when Thomas puts her no-nonsense soul stylings into an imaginative musical context, provide a compelling portrait of the way Stax brought out the best in its artists.
Rufus Thomas, an indefatigable hustler, stayed around after his daughter's success to cut some sides for himself. In the process he created a body of work that remains remarkable in its combination of antic tomfoolery and soulful commitment. Can't Get Away From This Dog is a full-force, blast-to-the-funnybone portrait of the man, a master of the novelty soul song.
Thomas is probably best known for his series of "dog" songs, and they're represented here, sometimes gloriously. "Walking the Dog," his monument, is less energetic than in the version that was released and became a hit in 1963; it's also less amusing, as Thomas doesn't engage in the doggie-come-here whistling that was a centerpiece of the hit. And the enigmatic "Can Your Monkey Do the Dog" is also obviously a song in the process of being born; it's taken at a slower tempo than the 1964 release and Thomas scats rather than sings several verses. But on its own terms it still cooks relentlessly, and most every other dog tune here is a gem. "Can't Get Away From This Dog" (with an "Ah, ooh" intro that recalls Alvin Cash's "Twine Time") is a slow-popping, funky dance tune with a bit of scat mugging thrown in. "Stop Kicking My Dog Around" may be the best of the litter. It was written by Sam Cooke (although Thomas gets authorship credit here), which might explain the underlying plaintiveness that gives this up-tempo number a welcome emotional depth.
Thomas, the old medicine-show trouper, could pull off the most outrageous clowning and never descend into Tom-ism. This is especially evident on "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny," a paean to antebellum plantation life. Thomas (who's quoted in the liner notes saying disingenuously "I just liked the song") sings it in a nostalgic croon, complete with a churchy organ intro that eventually kicks into a funky groove. His stilted phrasing reveals the barbed irony underlying the entire project as he sings "There's where I labor so hard for ol' Master / Day after day in the fields of yellow corn / No other place on earth do I love so sincerely . . . " Yeah, right.
Especially interesting is Thomas's revamping of standards he learned treading the boards with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and other black entertainment companies in the 30s. "Last Clean Shirt" is given a smooth, jazzy arrangement that makes it sound almost contemporary; conversely "A Story That's Never Been Told" is a loping blues with a primitive close-harmony backing that makes it sound especially archaic. "Strolling Beale No. 1," another blues, is a tribute to Memphis's legendary thoroughfare, graced by a yodel like Sam Cooke's. These aren't the most substantial pieces in the set, but they provide a fascinating glimpse into Thomas's roots.
Known these days as a funky dance master, Rufus Thomas here demonstrates a surprisingly smooth way with a swing tempo. He won't be confused with Cleanhead Vinson on "Cherry Red," but he adapts his greasy immediacy to this old Vinson/Cootie Williams vehicle with delightful aplomb. Thomas also reestablishes himself as a bluesman with offerings like "44 Long," which is harsher than his usual fare--still fun-loving but with a hint of danger around the edges.
Ultimately, though, Rufus Thomas is one of the great clown princes of soul. On this disk he takes a few things straight, most notably his duets with Carla ("We're Gonna Make It," "Don't Mess Up a Good Thing," "Reconsider Baby"), but the most memorable moments are when he greases up the funk and wraps his fun-loving soul around a tight Stax horn arrangement. He transforms "Barefootin'" from a New Orleans flag waver into driving Memphis soul; "I Want to Hold You" is notable both for Thomas's steamy delivery and for bassist Duck Dunn's imaginative pattern, which sounds like a precursor to War's famous "Cisco Kid" bass line; "Wang Dang Doodle" is a romping take on the Willie Dixon standard, with a strong dose of New Orleans second-line exuberance added.
These days most people associate the Stax sound, or at least the male Stax sound, with the passionate imprecations of artists like Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and Rufus Thomas. But there was a sweet side to Stax, and it was elegantly personified by the smooth-voiced William Bell, an artist to whom understatement was more important than histrionics. But for all his elegance, Bell brought total emotional commitment to his material. "She Won't Be Like You" is a heartbreaking ballad laid over a jaunty pop-soul backing; it's all the more effective for the dignified sense of resignation Bell brings to it. "Let's Do Something Together" goes down so smoothly that you hardly know until it's over that it's a song of spiritual epiphany, with joyously optimistic lyrics drenched in lush harmonies that wrap up the fate of the world in a love song. "All That I Am" begins with a deceptively low-key acoustic-guitar intro, but Bell builds into sublime emotional surrender. In "Wait" he coaxes his voice into a high, pleading croon, while the churchy "That's My Love" sounds like a hymn rather than a gospel rave-up. This song showcases Bell's gift--which he shares with most great pop singers--of taking the most trivial or bathetic lyrics and imbuing them with meaning.
Especially notable here, though, are the harsher and more declamatory numbers. Listening to this disk one realizes that Bell's usual style was a matter of choice, not necessity. "Forever Wouldn't Be Too Long" is couched in a harder soul arrangement than one usually associates with Bell, and he testifies strongly--it almost sounds as if songwriters Isaac Hayes and Dave Porter had Sam and Dave in mind when they wrote this. Likewise "Sacrifice" is a hot soul cooker, with echoes of the Four Tops' "Sugar Pie Honey Bunch" mixed in.
Even more surprising is Bell's winning way with the blues. "Quittin' Time" is a no-nonsense blue-collar blues song of hard work and hard partying, and Bell grinds along in its urban groove with surprising intensity; "You Got Me Where You Want Me" is a chug-chug-chugging blues, remindful of the Big Boy Crudup standard "Mean Old Frisco," augmented by a soul bridge. Again, Bell immerses himself in the song's blues feel, belying his reputation as a black artist who sang almost white.
Yet the essence of William Bell is his passionate commitment to understated emotions. "We Got Something Good" is somewhat reminiscent of Bobby "Blue" Bland's "That's the Way Love Is," but Bell makes it his own, delivering it with a melodious, soulful commitment. The gem of the set is Bell's remarkable cover of Carole King's "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," a song usually interpreted as an adolescent cry of sexual nervousness and guilt. Bell delivers it in a tender gospel croon and transforms it into a testament to hard-won romantic wariness; here it's the song of a seasoned lover once wounded and thrice shy. Unreleased until now, it stands alongside such Bell standards as "You Don't Miss Your Water," a timeless, eloquent testimonial to the enduring legacy of William Bell.
Otis Redding's Remember Me will probably be hailed as yet another blast of the vaunted Redding genius. I've always considered Redding overrated, however. He certainly had a winning way with a ballad, and there's no denying that his personality--sober, dignified, dedicated to excellence and professionalism--elevated Stax and 60s-era soul to new levels. But his up-tempo rave-ups tended toward the overwrought, and even his fabled romantic pleading could become cloying if he wasn't held in check.
Remember Me showcases this enigmatic superstar at his best and worst. "There Goes My Baby" should come across as the type of ballad Otis was born to sing, but here he lays a lugubrious vocal over a desperately pumping rhythmic backing. "Trick or Treat" is a prototypical Redding burner, but it's marred by his constricted voice and blocky phrasing and forced into self-parody by his compulsive repetition of a phrase ("ya know, ya know"). He sounds as if he's trying to summon a passion he couldn't realize through vocal means alone.
On the other hand, ballads like "Remember Me" remind us why Redding was reputed to melt women's hearts and bring out the misty romanticism in men. His sweet, quavering vibrato carries with it an underlying intensity that could redeem the most trivial of lyrics. Likewise on the Little Richard classic "Send Me Some Lovin"' he achieves a desperation almost worthy of Percy Sledge, augmented by his own full-bodied romanticism.
Redding was an inveterate experimenter, and some of the cuts here qualify as interesting failures. In "The Boston Monkey" and "Come to Me" he attempts to force a scream almost like James Brown's or Little Richard's out of his tender pipes (around Macon, Georgia, Redding was initially known as a Little Richard imitator). But even Redding's exploratory spirit can't explain his grievously mishandled cover of Sam Cooke's "Cupid," a number that should have been a natural for him. This cut only accentuates the painful differences between a very good singer (Redding) and a great one (Cooke). Cooke sang it with a mellifluous effortlessness, while Redding's diction sounds forced; he can't seem to pull off the long melody lines with any smoothness whatsoever.
Much more satisfying are early ballads like "Little Ol' Me," which also features Johnny Jenkins and Steve Cropper on guitar. Redding's trembling vocal style is just coming to realization here; to me his early ballads are among his best work, much less mannered than what came later. Even an unfinished demo like "Pounds and Hundreds" showcases his voice at its unforced best.
Of interest to Redding aficionados will be the protean versions of songs that eventually became hits. Takes one and two of ("Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay" aren't exactly revelatory, but it's fun to hear the studio banter and Redding's playful seagull imitations. More instructive is the alternate take of "Respect," half-hysterical and overwrought in the manner of his later live recordings; for better or worse that sweat-drenched emotiveness was not the result of a fevered immersion in the moment but a carefully worked-out style. Likewise "Try a Little Tenderness (Take 1)" is churchier here than on the released version, with some lovely sax, but that extended "Got ta! Got ta! Got ta!" rave-up fade-out is just too much. Wilson Pickett could get funkier with a grunt than Otis could with an entire song's worth of arm waving and carrying on.
Yet a fully realized effort like the ballad "Gone Again" almost redeems some of the excess and sloppiness elsewhere; lyrics that would have been laughably maudlin in anyone else's hands work here. "Open the Door" is a lovely, pleading work that manages to be heart-ripping and elevating at the same time, but the real find is "I've Got Dreams to Remember," an alternate take to the version released on the posthumous Atlantic LP The Immortal Otis Redding. Sparse and slow, with only an organ and gently chorded guitar providing the ghostly backing, it's as heartbreaking an experience as any in the Redding canon. His voice tightens and unwinds in turn, that patented quiver penetrating to the heart of loneliness; the result is an almost transcendent sadness and longing. If Redding had made only this one song, his legacy as a ballad master would be intact.