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A compilation containing every single (a.k.a. 7” or 45) released by a record company in a given time frame is an unpromising prospect. The law of averages dictates that even the greatest labels will bat .500 at best — witness the exhaustive and exhausting multi-volume “Complete Motown Singles” collections — and even a small, stylistically consistent label will have enough musical (and quality) diversity to make for some very awkward segueways.

Yet if there’s a label — and an era — that can hold up by that metric, it’s Stax in 1968. The legendary Memphis-based imprint — famed for its southern-fried soul releases by Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, Booker T & the MGs, Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas, the Staple Singers and many more — was a powerhouse of the era, both musically (see above) and socially, particularly with the Staples’ Civil Rights-themed releases.

However musically formidable, 1968 was an awful, awful year for Stax, its hometown and the world. The label had lost its greatest star and a monumental talent, Otis Redding, along with several members of the powerhouse band the Bar Keys, in a plane crash in December of 1967. It belatedly discovered, in the fine print of its distribution deal with Atlantic Records, that it had signed away the rights to its entire catalog. And in April, Martin Luther King was murdered just blocks away from the Stax building, setting off riots and destruction across the already racially oppressed city. It struck so close to home that singer Shirley Walton was recording a tribute to King when a Stax staffer came in and told her the reverend had been killed — she sang the song, included here, through her tears.

All of the above manifested itself in the music the label released in 1968, as it tried — and succeeded, musically at least — to regenerate in the face of such strong headwinds. The first single it released was Redding’s classic and chart-topping “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay,” and followed it with Sam & Dave’s fiery “I Thank You” (backed with the almost as great “Wrap It Up”). And over a whopping 134 songs and more than six hours, “Stax ‘68” rolls on, mostly like a classic soul compilation, although there are some abrupt diversions into the rock and teen pop on sub-labels like Enterprise and Hip.

Within are a fair number of songs you probably know (Otis, Sam & Dave, Staples), lots of songs you probably didn’t realize you knew (Eddie Floyd’s innovative “Big Bird,” Linda Lyndell’s “What a Man,” famously sampled on the similarly named En Vogue hit), a few great lesser-known tracks (Thomas’ “Memphis Train,”Derek Martin’s “Soul Power”), hot blues from Albert King, some smokin’ instrumentals from Booker T & the MGs and the Bar Keys, and, inevitably, a handful of absolutely dreadful songs, mostly novelty tracks by the likes of the Aardvarks and the Pop Corn Generation.

There are also the musical baby pictures common to such compilations. “Precious Precious” was the first solo single from Isaac Hayes, already an established songwriter, but it’s a jazzy sketch that offers just a hint of the brilliance that was to come from him in the next couple of years. There’s a single from Delaney and Bonnie — whose band was apparently such an irresistible party that a year later George Harrison and Eric Clapton did a tour with them, just for fun — and one from Bobby Whitlock, who performed in that band and later joined Clapton in Derek and the Dominos.

The thematic diversity reflects the times as well. The transition between the pop of the early and mid ‘60s and the harsher turn that contemporary music was taking is particularly vivid here: 1968 was the year of “Revolution” and “Street Fighting Man” and “Think,” but also “Yummy Yummy Yummy” and “123 Red Light.” Thus, the MLK tribute and the Staples’ “Long Walk to D.C.” land alongside songs like the Kangaroos’ comically optimistic “Groovy Day” (“It’s gonna be a groovy day, no hang-ups on my mind”).

Also included are two long and powerful articles: A fascinating and horrifying history of the year’s racial strife in Memphis written by Andria Lisle and Robert Gordon, and one about the label by S-Curve Records founder and music historian Steve Greenberg. Both articles are authoritative and a strong reason to plunk down the cash for this set, and its 7” size allows “Stax ‘68” to function equally as a book and a boxed set.

Stax soldiered on for a few more years, releasing classic music from Hayes and others, before falling into insolvency in 1975. Yet the remarkable resilience it showed is omnipresent in this collection. While the music inside is very much rooted in its era, the text and context of “Stax ‘68” simultaneously shows how far we’ve come in 50 years, and how far there is still to go.

Various Artists
Stax ’68: A Memphis Story
(Stax/Craft/Concord)

 

Album Review: ‘Stax ’68: A Memphis Story’

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