The final chapter of The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles collection (subtitled Volume 3: 1972-1975) is, in some ways, a cynical commercial ploy. After all, this 10-CD, 213-song opus will cost you big bucks at your friendly neighborhood music store, yet it contains only a bare handful of hits. Still, the package has a purpose beyond attracting the dollars of completists who already purchased the first two sets, because it records the decline of a seminal American musical style as it fights and finally succumbs to the inexorable march of changing fashion.
The history of the imprint in question brims with triumph and tragedy. Stax inked a distribution deal with Atlantic, a larger and more powerful label, in 1960, and in the years that followed, the relationship between the two companies produced some of the finest tunes of the period. Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, Booker T. and the MG's and many others flourished under the arrangement. But by 1968 things began to go sour: Redding died in a plane crash just as he was about to achieve superstar status, and bickering between Stax and Atlantic execs resulted in a severing of their business dealings. Stax temporarily survived the loss of its biggest star as well as its entire back catalogue (which wound up in Atlantic's hands) by launching a slew of new stars. But although the Soul Children, the Dramatics, the Emotions, Jean Knight and others made some fine music and achieved considerable sales success, they didn't reach the heights of their predecessors. Moreover, the work of artists such as Sly and the Family Stone left some of the sweeter offerings from these talented artists sounding resolutely old-fashioned. Stax had established an approach that served it well, but it became something of a liability as the Sixties became the Seventies.
Of course, that wasn't immediately evident--and in retrospect, it's easy to understand why Stax stayed the course. For instance, the year 1971 was a good one for the company, thanks in large part to "Theme From Shaft," a wonderfully twisted Isaac Hayes number that took the industry by storm and eventually won an Academy Award for Best Original Song in a Motion Picture (the superfunky Hayes accepted the trophy from actor Joel Grey, who looked terrified simply to be in his presence). But Hayes followups such as "Do Your Thing" and an instrumental version of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together," included here on disc one, didn't set the world on fire. In the meantime, Stax failed to make celebrities out of a potpourri of unfamiliar artists--Sons of Slum, Hot Sauce, Black Society, the Leaders, Harvey Scales and many, many others.
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This pattern repeated itself over and over again through 1975. Albert King, represented here by fine singles such as "Breaking Up Somebody's Home" (disc three) and "Crosscut Saw" (disc nine), never experienced a popular breakthrough. The Staple Singers refined their soulful signature, but tracks like "City in the Sky" (disc eight) too closely resembled earlier smashes. And while Johnnie Taylor, Little Milton, Eddie Floyd and Rufus Thomas kept producing enjoyable efforts, their projects were increasingly relegated to the lower end of the R&B charts. The Top 40 began to elude most traditional soul singers at Stax and elsewhere. As the early stirrings of what would become disco began to be felt, only Al Green and a few others were able to keep on keeping on.
During this period, Stax was also under attack from other quarters. According to Rob Bowman, whose exhaustive liner notes grace Volume 3, company bigwig Al Bell was put through the wringer by the IRS, which suspected him of embezzlement (he was cleared of all charges in 1976). Likewise, the label escaped punishment from a payola probe centered in Newark, New Jersey, but fighting it sapped the company of much of its strength. These struggles, coupled with a hostile takeover attempt by CBS, eventually pushed Stax into a bankruptcy filing. By mid-1976 the corporation was officially declared dead.
Heard today, however, Stax's last gasps come across as far more entertaining than they seemed upon their original release. In fact, the mix of ballads, midtempo romancers and stompers is awesomely consistent. Sure, many exhibit a severe shortage of original ideas: "It Ain't Easy," by the Bar-Kays (disc five), is a fairly blatant ripoff of early Bill Withers, while "Highway to Heaven," from Ron Banks and the Dramatics (disc eight), keeps threatening to mutate into Ben E. King's "Stand by Me." But the professionalism, the craftsmanship, the toil and the undiminished passion of these soulsters keeps shining through. "Crossing Over the Bridge," by Inez Foxx (disc five), made no impression on listeners to early Seventies R&B radio, which was then dominated by Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder at the height of their creativity, but it certainly makes one now.
No one will mistake much of this material as classic. But listen to the more than eleven hours' worth of music contained herein and you'll be reminded that even lesser examples of the Memphis Sound were pretty damn good.