STAX IN ’68: SOME OF MEMPHIS’ BEST MUSICAL MOMENTS
One of my favorite box sets is Stax ’68: A Memphis Story, a compilation of the legendary label’s dozens of singles and B-sides during a year of profound change at Stax--and for that matter across America and the South.
The Craft Recordings/Stax Records collection won a Grammy Award in early 2020 for Best Liner Notes, which went to record-label executive and writer Steve Greenberg for his section on the music and internal happenings at Stax. But the box set also includes a fascinating look at Memphis during the volatile year, by author Robert Gordon and longtime Memphis music writer Andria Lisle.
Stax Records had a great, cross-racial roster of talent in this era, and some of the label’s best (and best- and lesser-known) soul and gospel tunes came during this year.
In a lengthy conversation with SoulCountry, Lisle discussed the project and her work.
She “came to Memphis kicking and screaming” as a teenager with her parents from the Atlanta suburbs where she’d grown up and become part of the city’s punk-rock scene in the 1980s. Enrolling in Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis), Lisle said she felt lost in the giant classes.
She quit college and started working at Memphis Comics and Records, which then was a local chain, and later at a Kinko’s copy shop. That’s the unlikely place Lisle began to build her local musical connections.
“Nobody had computers or color copiers except us (at that time), so Kinko’s is where I met the Phillips family” of Sun Records fame, along with jazz guitar great Calvin Newborn (brother of pianist Phineas Newborn), “who came in to copy an album cover for some reason,” she said.
Lisle even recalled a customer coming in to make copies of cancelled checks by Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Charlie Rich; the customer’s mother had been a bookkeeper for Sun.
“Everybody was kind of equal, because they all needed copies,” she said. “You didn’t know who was going to walk through the door.”
Moving Among the Music
Lisle then went to work for venerable Shangri-La Records, still one of America’s most interesting record shops, a place still devoted in part to Memphis music. While working at the record store, Easley-McCain recording studio “kind of exploded” as a center for the emerging alternative rock scene, Lisle said. She soaked up the music and met some of the world’s most influential performers.
“It was where I would go after work for beer,” she said. “I would go to Royal or Easley and sit on the couch” and watch recording sessions.
By Royal, she means Royal Studios on Lauderdale Avenue, not far from the original Stax studios. Headed by Memphis trumpeter and band leader Willie Mitchell, who Lisle and many others knew affectionately as Poppa Willie. Royal had been home to many of Hi Records’ famous recordings by Al Green, Ann Peebles, Syl Johnson, the brilliant and troubled singer O.V. Wright, and a host of others.
More than once, she took groups out to visit bluesman Junior Kimbrough in the nearby Mississippi Hill Country. Never all that starstruck, Lisle met many great musicians as people first, neighbors and mentors.
“My dad was a pilot, and he flew Muscle Shoals overnights a lot,” she said. Her father would come home with stories of transporting musical artists, Muhammad Ali or Mickey Mantle.
“He never understood why anyone wanted to go to Muscle Shoals,” Lisle said.
At the record shop, music writers and fans from around the globe would pop in regularly. They’d often make obvious errors when writing about Memphis music, which irked Lisle, who considered the sounds of the city mighty precious.
“They wouldn’t really do their homework,” she said of the music writers. “It was really frustrating to me.”
She started sending pitches to editors herself. Lisle’s break was her story on the late Al Jackson, drummer for Booker T. and the M.G.’s (Stax’s house band) and the Hi Rhythm Section, which was based at Royal and backing Al Green and others for album after album.
Then her friend Robert Gordon published It Came from Memphis, the seminal history of popular music in the city, and he began to pass assignments to Lisle that the newly popular author couldn’t take because of his suddenly busy schedule. “He’s an incredibly lovely human being, him and his wife and kids,” she said. “Robert literally handed off some work to me, or at least encouraged editors to look at me and look at my work.”
Lisle worked for a publishing company, then for a reinvigorated version of the Rooster Blues record label, which reissued blues records by Super Chikan and Magic Slim & The Teardrops, among others. After the label shut down, “I decided to make a living full-time writing,” Lisle said, and she did so for the next decade.
She wrote about music and other topics for The Commercial Appeal, the weekly Memphis Flyer, and the Memphis Business Journal. Those gigs led to work with international music magazines Wax Poetics, Mojo, Living Blues, Paste, The Guardian newspaper, the Center for Southern Folklore and others.
She started writing liner notes for Rhino, Birdman Records, and other labels. She had her own record label, Sugar Ditch, with Luther Dickinson and Gina Barker, and handled the liner notes for some friends’ bands.
“I still have thousands of records,” Lisle said, including ones she had “bought in the early 1980s, and the (liner) notes were almost as important to me as the music. It gave me clues to who made the music and what the story was behind the record.”
There were all kinds of adventures in freelance journalism. “I was afraid to turn down any writing jobs. … I remember going to Ann Peebles and Don Bryant’s house,” Lisle said of the former soul music icons at Memphis’ Hi Records. “Don made all these clocks out of like driftwood and they were so cool… I said, I want do a story about this!”
“One of the proudest (moments) I’ve felt was… when I walked into Royal and… there was this hallway that led down to the offices,” she said, and there were “framed articles, and they were by me.”
An Eclectic Array of Projects
The Seattle-based label Light in the Attic Records then contacted Lisle through a friend and asked her to write liner notes for the reissue of one of Jim Sullivan’s lost albums. The singer actually disappeared in New Mexico in 1974 and has never been found.
“I knew the record, but I didn’t know Jim’s story,” Lisle said. “I also felt a lot of responsibility, because a lot of people really cared about Jim Sullivan.
“Liner notes are different than an article because they kind of live on in perpetuity,” Lisle said, “but you’re never going to tell the full story” because more is discovered or even recorded by an artist well after the release, whether the artist is alive or dead—or missing.
Her next liner notes project was writing for Light in the Attic’s reissue of the rare (and fascinating) self-titled album by hippy-soul artist, Lou Bond, released in 1974 on the Stax subsidiary, We Produce.
“I knew Lou. He was very much a fixture of midtown Memphis where I live and work,” Lisle said. “I had a neighbor who had like been best friends with Lou and had done multiple performances with Lou.”
Bond, whose “To The Establishment” has been sampled by Outkast and Mary J. Blige, sang remarkably frank about issues of the day, recalling The Bar-Kays 1967 hit on Stax, “Do You See What I See?,” a rock-and-soul movement that preceded funk…”Why Must Our Eyes Always Be Turned Backwards?,” in reflecting that some Americans were “fussin’ about the busin’.”
“He was such an enigma,” said Lisle, who considers Bond’s album as a sort of “the soul version of the Big Star album, except he never got That 70s Show” to use a song as its theme.
Bond was abandoned as a child and raised by another Memphis family, Lisle said. The singer died in 2013.
“He was always really gentle with me,” Lisle said. “He would get kind of agitated about the music business… It was difficult for him sometimes to talk about.”
Lisle then wrote the liner notes for Wendy Rene’s vinyl album, After Laughter Comes Tears: Complete Stax & Volt Singles + Rarities, 1964-1965, also for Light in the Attic and featuring the much-sampled title track (Alicia Keys, Wu Tang Clan). Lisle spent time with and interviewed Wendy Rene (born Mary Frierson) for the liner notes. Unfortunately, Rene, who had also recorded on Stax as a member of The Drapels, suffered a debilitating stroke just after the album’s 2013 release and she died the following year.
While she didn’t write the liner notes for the reissue of soul singer John Gary Williams’ little-noticed, self-titled soul album, Lisle holds it up as another lost Stax classic from the same era.
Williams, the innocent-sounding young lead singer of Stax’s The Mad Lads in the 1960s, followed the lead of Marvin Gaye’s social consciousness and protest music, with the 1974 single, “The Whole Damn World Is Going Crazy,” featured on Never to Be Forgotten: The Flip Side of Stax, 1968-1974, Light in the Attic’s box set of 7-inch vinyl singles, including some extremely rare tracks.
“That song, it’s just so prescient,” Lisle said of “The Whole Damn World Is Going Crazy.”
“Hearing the frustration in their voices and for their desire to be living in a peaceful place. They’re so ahead of their time,” she said. “That’s such a weird era to think about, and with Stax in particular, there are so many parallel threads.”
“That was so satisfying, to hold that box in my hands,” she said. For the set’s release, Lisle and a friend at the Stax Museum of American Soul celebrated with a Record Store Day “crawl” that included Shangri-La and another fantastic Memphis store (and label), Goner Records.
Lisle had grown to know some of the legendary Stax artists since her days at Memphis Comics: She’d met Rufus Thomas in the cafeteria line at Piccadilly, and driven his daughter, the great singer Carla Thomas, home from an awards show. Donald “Duck” Dunn, Booker T. & the M.G.’s venerable bassist, was her friend Melissa's uncle, and Willie Hall was the drummer in her friend Scott Bomar’s band, the M.G.’s rehash called the Bo-Keys.
She worked with Gordon and Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom) on the documentary, Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story for PBS. Lisle also wrote a tribute to Dunn for NPR upon the bassist’s passing.
Returning to ‘68
The Stax ’68 project began for Lisle in early 2018 when she found herself between stints at The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, where she worked until recently as an exhibitions and film curator.
She reached out to her friends and contracts for some freelance work to get by. One of her calls was to Robert Gordon, who by then had written Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion.
“Do I have a project for you!” Lisle recalled him saying; it was research and writing for the Stax ’68 box set. “He asked me to kind of go through the headlines in the Tri-State Defender for what was happening aside from the sanitation strike in 1968.”
The collection and Lisle and Gordon’s article within it are as much about Memphis and America during that fateful year as about the music—and what an astonishing array of music that Stax released in those 12 months alone. Some of the songs were recorded and released before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis on April 4th, and some after it.
“When I started digging into the archives, it was just really surprising. Like even in Memphis, what we’re taught about is the sanitation strike,” she said, “but there were so many strikes happening in Memphis. There was almost a post office strike, there were hospital strikes, there were waiter and waitress strikes,” along with “boycotts of white-owned shopping centers in black neighborhoods.”
“Everything else has been overshadowed by the sanitation strike as far as history goes, but that was just one thing that was happening in Memphis at the time,” she said.
There were musicians who wanted to make bold statements in their music, but there also were “the musicians who wanted to use music as a way to not have to think about all of that,” Lisle said.
“You saw what Isaac Hayes was doing, you saw what John Gary Williams was doing. Musicians were people first, and they were people who were very frustrated with how they’re being treated,” she said of those two artists’ growing Black Power activism. Williams even was later convicted of being an accomplice in the fatal attack of a policeman.
“I’m even embarrassed by some of the pieces I wrote in the early 2000s,” Lisle said. “Rufus Thomas told me how awesome it was (at Stax), but he knew that was something white people like me probably wanted to hear.”
Gordon reminded her, however that “we’re not writing about the music. We’re writing about Stax and we’re writing about Memphis,” Lisle said.
In 1968, there was the late Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay,” released just after his death in December 1967. There were new songs by Rufus Thomas (Carla’s father who had originally recorded on Sun), Sam and Dave’s hits “Wrap It Up” and “I Thank You,” some of William Bell’s best songs, and new hits from Booker T. and the M.G.’s.
The year also marked some of The Staple Singers’ first releases on Stax, which I’ve always thought is some of their most moving work, including their album Soul Folk in Action with producer Billy Sherrill (who later worked with Tammy Wynette, George Jones and many others in Nashville). The stirring “Long Walk to D.C.,” one of their best, and “Got to Be Some Changes Made,” were singles that came several years before the Staples’ greatest commercial successes on Stax, the Muscle-Shoals recorded “Respect Yourself,” “I’ll Take You There,” “Come Go With Me,” and others. The Staples had performed regularly at King’s rallies and knew him personally.
It was also the year of the Stax debut of electric bluesman Albert King (Stevie Ray Vaughan’s main influence), Muscle Shoals singer Jimmy Hughes, the quartet The Soul Children, and bluesy singer Johnny Taylor, with his soul classic “Who’s Making Love?” Stax ‘68 also includes some of the label’s more playful, weird and adventurous moments as it forayed into teen pop, rock ‘n roll, and even country.
“Stax was definitely with the times, and despite the tragedy that befell Otis and the Bar-Kays, there was still so much fertile ground for Memphis,” Lisle said.
Movement in the Music
Perhaps the most moving track on the Stax ‘68 collection and a lesser-known single that never made the charts, Shirley Walton’s “Send Peace and Harmony Home,” was recorded at the very moment of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel. The motel, just a couple of miles from the Stax studios and was where Cropper, Redding and others would hang out and write songs and visiting black artists stayed while in Memphis.
Greenberg writes that the session with Walton wasn’t going well. Stax songwriter Homer Banks burst into the studio and reported King had been shot. That day, Walton sang:
“Tell me, what did we do wrong
Seems like all the love is gone
Please help man to see the light
Send them back, make things alright
Winding, winding road
Send peace and harmony home
Winding, winding road
Send peace and harmony home.”
Greenberg quotes Stax executive and songwriter Al Bell as having seen Rev. King in Memphis only a week earlier, telling him he’d written that new song for him, with Eddie Floyd and Booker T. Jones.
For Lisle, the legacy of King’s murder in Memphis has haunted the city ever since. But Memphians and others are wrong to blame city’s woes on the assassination rather than racism at the root. “I’ve heard since I’ve lived here, that if only King hadn’t been assassinated in Memphis… we could be (more like) Atlanta,” she said.
But with the election of white, racist Mayor Henry Loeb III, who refused to relent against the sanitation and other public strikes in the city, contrasted with Atlanta’s election of the more moderate, Jewish mayor Ivan Allen, Lisle said.
“It’s terrible that Dr. King’s blood was shed here, but we started the ball rolling on that years earlier,” she said.
Even more recently, Lisle wrote the notes for Stone Crush: Memphis Modern Soul, a Light in the Attic collection to be released on April 3, 2020. The album features 18 rare local recordings from mid-1970s to mid-1980s acts, including side projects of members of the Bar-Kays and even singing dentists. She said the eclectic project features Bar-Kays side projects, a singing dentist, and songs that resemble the Minneapolis Sound to come later.
She’s optimistic about Memphis’s artistic future.
“Today, we have a creative class of young African Americans… who are now choosing to stay here, and Memphis is such an exciting place in 2020 because there’s just so much happening in… music to visual arts… to movie making,” she said, noting her lens is that of a white woman of relative privilege. “A lot of that is led by black talent, and it’s really exciting to see that.”
“Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”: Otis Redding’s ubiquitous and posthumous No. 1 smash, was completed by guitarist and songwriter friend (and Booker T. and the M.G.’s member) Steve Cropper as he grieved. I never tire of this song, a blend of Southern soul, blues, country--and something new. Redding called the song his “new” style.
“I’m a fan of ‘Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.’ It’s not my favorite Otis song, but when it (the box set) opens with this song and you think about how Otis’s life ended, it’s a powerful moment,” Lisle said.
Her favorite Redding song? “Respect,” which Redding wrote and recorded in 1965 for Stax’s Volt subsidiary. Aretha Franklin’s magisterial version, backed by the Muscle Shoals Sound musicians from down the road in Alabama, came in 1967.
On Stax ’68, there are appearances by Ollie and the Nightingales, later to have some Philly Soul hits in the 1970s with producers in Philadelphia, and lead singer Ollie Haskins in singing the 1980s hit, “Breakin’ (There’s No Stopping Us).”
“I love ‘Assassination,’ which he recorded for Chalice,” Lisle said of Haskins’ earlier and lesser-known gospel iterations, on the subsidiary Chalice label. Performed by The Dixie Nightingales, the song about President John F. Kennedy’s killing, ends abruptly with the shocking sound of a gunshot.
Lisle also loves William Bell’s incredible “I Forgot to Be Your Lover.” One of the singer-songwriter’s finest moments, later sampled by Snoop Dogg and others because of its irresistible country-blues guitar licks and Bell’s church-house style singing, the 1968 single song “always, always, always takes my breath away,” Lisle said.
“I never hear that song and don’t hear something new,” she said.
Indeed, Bell is represented well on the collection. One of my favorite all-time grooves, Bell’s duet with Judy Clay, “Private Number,” reflects on a man returning from the Vietnam War, backed by Booker T. and the M.G.’s. Bell’s ode to Otis, “A Tribute to a King” is also here.
Rufus Thomas, one of Stax’s original artists and a former Memphis DJ whose first hit was on Sam Phillips’ Sun Records (“Bear Cat,” a response to Big Momma Thornton’s “Hound Dog”), is represented on Stax ’68 with “Memphis Train and “Funky Mississippi,” no matches for his “Walking the Dog,” covered by the Rolling Stones.
One of the lesser-known tracks here is Derek Martin’s “Soul Power,” a lost classic, despite an over-the-top performance from Chicago singer Martin, usually a crooner. The track resembles Eddie Floyd’s “Big Bird” in its mix of soul, black power and rock ‘n roll guitars and beat that foreshadowed the funk of Parliament and Funkadelic a few years later, Greenberg points out.
“Big Bird,” from the man who famously sang “Knock on Wood” for Stax, was a soaring tribute to the Otis Redding, with Cropper’s electric guitars, the pumping Memphis Horns, and a driving beat from Al Jackson of the Booker T. and the M.G.’s that showed Stax’s house musicians could rock as well as groove. Greenberg writes how Floyd began writing “Big Bird” when trying to get home from Europe for Otis Redding’s funeral in Macon, Georgia.
The Bar-Kays’ 1968 instrumental version of label mates The Mad Lads’ greatest accomplishment, “I Want Someone,” represented a new step for the group after the deaths of band members, who were Redding’s backing musicians accompanying him when their plane crashed into Lake Winona near Madison, Wisconsin, on Dec. 10, 1967.
The Mad Lads themselves are here, too, although I prefer the cuts from their earlier, more traditional soul album.
One of Stax’s funkiest tunes ever recorded was by white R&B singer Linda Lyndell: “What a Man,” only a minor soul hit in 1968, made it No. 1 on the pop charts for Salt ‘N Peppa with En Vogue, some 26 years later. Lindell was threatened by black audiences in the era just after King’s death and quit the music business for many years after.