THE GOSPEL OF STAX
Updated: Jul 6, 2020
LEGENDARY LABEL RE-RELEASES LOST CLASSICS, WITH HELP FROM MEMPHIS WRITER
In the early 1970s, Stax Records already was known for soul music that had taken the country by storm. Then the Memphis label decided to release music for the soul—treading into the field of gospel.
It’s this lesser-known era—a time of deep cultural shifts in America—that’s the focus of the reincarnated Stax label’s first-ever digital release of 25 albums from its Gospel Truth subsidiary.
The reissued albums range from the forward-looking, soulful gospel-rock of the Detroit area’s Rance Allen Group and several groups fashioned into funky pre-disco, to the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Operation Push Choir and even the bizarre psychedelic folk of Blue Aquarius.
Good God, the music's all pretty groovy.
Memphis native Jared “Jay B.” Boyd has been studying these mostly obscure records and artists for Stax, writing the notes accompanying the digital albums and the liner notes from the series’ forthcoming singles compilation album, scheduled for September.
Stax was “molding a new sound for gospel that included R&B and included soul, but most importantly, included rock,” said Boyd, a journalist for the upstart Daily Memphian digital news outlet. He's also a DJ and the program manager of a new radio station.
“They were very much aware that this was the sound of the street,” Boyd said. Stax in the 70s was focusing on “the young black person and what they wanted from their music… Stax already had a sense of how it could be done, with The Staple Singers.”
Born in Memphis and raised in the southeast part of town in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it wasn’t until young adulthood that Boyd learned of the major impact of his elder cousin Andrew Love had on popular music. Mr. Love and trumpet player Wayne Jackson were the brilliant Memphis Horns, whose glorious funky brass sound graced countless recordings by Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Al Green and many others in Memphis and Muscle Shoals.
Mr. Love was older and had health problems by the time Boyd's knowledge really came along. “I might have heard he kind of vaguely had known Aretha Franklin, but I wasn’t really able to talk to him about his experiences,” Boyd said.
The summer before he entered the University of Mississippi, Boyd took younger students on field trips to Memphis’ Stax Museum of American Soul where Mr. Love is pictured often. “At that point, I already had a sense of pride—hey, that’s my cousin” and of what “the Stax groove is and what that means.”
Now, Boyd is the co-host of Beale St. Caravan Saturday Night, featuring Memphis music and billed as the most popular syndicated music show on NPR stations nationwide. He also will be the program manager of the new Memphis-music radio station WYXR in partnership with the University of Memphis, The Daily Memphian and Crosstown Concourse.
After Mr. Love passed away during Boyd’s freshman year of college, the young writer made regular trips to one of the best record stores anywhere, The End of All Music on the town square in Oxford, Mississippi. “I tried to buy as many records as I could with him in the notes, and before I knew it, I had a whole lot of records.”
He moved back to Memphis on New Year’s Eve 2019, took the job as a reporter, and “hit the ground running, reaching out to people” in the music world.
Just a month after Boyd's return, his father passed away. One of Boyd's first social outings after his father's passing was to emcee a sacred concert held in a secular space, which for Boyd showed how intertwined those threads of music can be for Black Americans. Reverend Sekou and the Tennessee Mass Choir were performing in a Memphis bar. “It was such a good concert, and I was brought to tears.”
At the show, Boyd “saw a man with his young son and they were sharing this moment. ... This reminds me of why my Dad would take me to Beale Street when I was a little kid… and that every kid doesn’t get an opportunity to play arcade games at Peabody Place… and spill out… (on) to Beale Street. … I went to him and thanked him and I cried with him. That all came together for me in this moment.”
One day last year, Boyd got word that the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who had stood beside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the balcony at Memphis' Lorraine Motel the moment he was shot and killed in 1968, was coming to town for an event and wanted to speak with journalists.
“I wanted to talk to him about Stax. I wanted to write something that would stand out” about the civil rights leader’s visit, Boyd said. So, he grabbed a few sections from his growing Stax record collection and brought them along for the interview.
“I had the (Jesse Jackson) I Am Somebody: The Country Preacher record, Operation Push on Gospel Truth (included in the new reissues), (and) Pushing On: Holy Day/ Memphis U.S.A. on Respect,” Boyd said.
The Rev. Jackson, a native of my hometown, Greenville, South Carolina, is older now, but told Boyd “that Al Bell was very important to him and Memphis was very important to him.” Another thing: “He wanted my records!”
“I need to hold on to those records,” Boyd told the reverend.
Then, Boyd emceed a fireside chat with Booker T. Jones about the Stax legend's new autobiography and wrote an article about Shirley Brown’s 1974 influential Stax-family classic, “Woman to Woman” (on the Truth label, which succeeded Gospel Truth) and former Memphis teacher Anita Ward’s 1979 disco classic “Ring My Bell.”
He wanted to unearth more about Stax gospel, but also the entire Memphis soul story and find remaining artists who are part of that legacy, “to get their truth while I can,” Boyd said.
The mystery continues
Boyd knew former longtime Stax Records publicity director Ms. Deanie Parker, who serves on The Daily Memphian board of directors. He asked Ms. Parker about the gospel albums, but like Rev. Jackson she couldn’t offer much. (Stax had released a slew of albums during those years.) Ms. Parker did recommend Boyd to write the notes accompanying the Stax gospel reissues.
One of Ms. Parker’s favorites among the label’s gospel acts, was the Rance Allen Group, the Detroit band that’s front and center among the reissues. One of gospel’s best all-time singers (with his window-shattering high notes) and an influential guitar player who Boyd calls “funky as hell,” Allen and his brothers Tom and Steve became gospel’s version of Booker T. and the MGs, producing and playing on their own three albums among the Stax reissues, but working with others, as well.
On the group's self-titled 1971 debut album, one of the new reissues, Rance Allen and his brothers turn The Temptations’ hit from the same year “Just My Imagination” into “Just My Salvation.” “Dear Lord, hear my plea. Don’t ever, don’t ever take your love from me,” Allen pleads. If his singing doesn’t convince you, you may be lost for sure.
The social messages of the 1970s show up on many of these albums, as well. On “I Got to Be Myself,” from the Rance Allen Group's 1973 album Brothers (its reissue is set for August), Allen sings over a funky synthesizer hook that would fit fine on a Stevie Wonder or Bill Withers album and could easily have been an R&B hit:
“I can’t change my color, I can’t change my skin…
I’ve been like this since time began…
I’ve got to be myself, I can’t be like anybody else.”
The Marion Gaines Singers have two albums among the Stax reissues. Their song “The Man” is “about a preacher being able to push his addiction, and his Daily Bread is being in church” so that he can “be addicted to these good habits,” Boyd said. The Michigan group also re-imagines Isaac Hayes’ “Do Your Thing” from the Shaft soundtrack, into dancefloor-ready gospel funk.
For his research, Boyd also sought out Ms. Mary Peak Patterson, who worked at Stax during the gospel era.
“We went to the main library and… I handed her every record that I had,” Boyd said. “She recognized the Rance Allen records. She had really no idea what Blue Aquarius was… But she definitely had a reaction to Clarence Smith—(she was like) oh yeah, I remembered that record ‘cause the guy had his shirt off,” he said. (More on Smith's album below.)
Ms. Patterson recalled a great deal about working with Dave Clark. Longtime Stax president and co-owner Al Bell had hired her and veteran radio promotions expert Dave Clark to lead the Gospel Truth label, and Stax creative director Larry Shaw contributed album artwork and hip marketing materials.
“She was like, Mr. Shaw took a real care for these records. … They all had a real strong artist’s direction, a creative direction. They did get great accommodations for travel, by bus or train … art direction and outfits,” Boyd said.
Essentially, Clark “bought tapes from labels (and) punched ‘em up with remixed editing and engineering, and put their marketing behind it,” Boyd said. Clark “had goodwill with gospel radio stations.”
“Stax at a certain point was concerned about creating a holistic amount of goods for the black human being and the things we need to get by. We need church on Sunday morning, just like we need Johnnie Taylor singing to us on Friday night … (and Stax artist) John Kasandra with his rap,” Boyd said. “They aren’t songs about scripture, they aren’t songs about church. They’re songs about life.”
Some of the gospel artists toured with major Stax acts—Isaac Hayes or Johnnie Taylor, Boyd said. Then there was Wattstax, the 1972 festival that attracted 100,000 to the Los Angeles Coliseum, where the Rance Allen Group and gospel singer Louise McCord performed.
McCord’s 1972 record, A Tribute to Mahalia Jackson, among the new reissues, “Better Get a Move On,” written by Stax staff writer Bettye Crutcher and should have been a gospel and soul classic.
It “might be my favorite song that came out of spending my time with these” records,” Boyd said. “I’m a really big fan of Bettye Crutcher… the arrangement, the vocal treatment of the Wattstax performance… floors me every time.”
“I called Ms. Crutcher about it,” he said. “She was really delighted that anyone (remembered it). It felt like a unique record to her. … She really did light up when I mentioned ‘Better Get a Move On.’ She kind of sang it.”
Some artists involved with the original recordings are still alive. The problem is tracking them down. I asked about the namesake leader of The Howard Lemon Singers, who have two albums among the new reissues.
The group's danceable “Let Him Come In” from the album I Am Determined features a female lead vocalist (perhaps Esther Smith) and a big horn section, and the band on the track featured Lester Snell and Willie Hall from Isaac Hayes' group, playing an endless groove. (At last report, Lemon, now the music director for a congregation in West Palm Beach, Florida. The church website says Lemon had worked as a probation officer in Michigan before retiring to Florida.)
Disco in church
Besides the distinction of being pictured shirtless before a colorful stained-glass window, another new reissue, Clarence Smith’s Whatever Happened to Love, “has the remarkable distinction of being the only Gospel Truth recording to originate from in-house sessions with Stax producers, engineers and affiliated players,” Boyd writes.
Groundbreaking Stax engineer Josephine Bridges was involved in the project. She was co-founder of the Stax subsidiary We Produce Records, the label that brought us obscure albums by Lee Sain and Lou Bond, both of whom sing backup to Smith, Boyd said.
As Boyd writes, the Clarence Smith album leads off “with the slow-burning title track, he cries out to find the answer to sorrow, dejection, poverty and abandonment.” Smith also sings an almost unidentifiable, danceable version of the spiritual, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”
Smith “as far as we know was from Memphis. We don’t really know what happened to him.” But Smith “was adamant about removing his shirt for the cover, according to label leadership,” Boyd writes.
Lou Bond recorded his self-titled, lone, hippie soul-album album for the We Promise label, then vanished from music. Seattle’s Light in the Attic Records reissued Bond’s album a few years back. In writing the notes for the reissues, Boyd relished making these connections.
“Lou Bond was there. That’s weird,” Boyd said. “Which leads to the question: Was this record meant to be on Gospel Truth, or was it mean to be on We Promise and they shuttled it over to the new gospel side? Why is it the only record with the South Memphis Strings on it?”
Some of these soul-aficionado mysteries have died with the little-known artists themselves, but Boyd tried to track down other musicians involved in these obscure releases.
On the album by The Gospel Artistics, a Washington, D.C.-area group of multi-instrumentalists and singers, as Boyd points out. On the lead track, “Lord, Is It I,” the group revives doo-wop sounds like those of The Dells or The Coasters. The rest of the album ventures into more swinging, jam-rock territory, Boyd writes.
Drummer Levon McNeill from the group is still active, Boyd said. “I reached the band leader” who works with McNeill but hasn’t yet made further contact, he added.
There’s even a Stax moment for Chicago’s Rev. T.L. Barrett and his Youth for Christ Choir. Best known for the bouncing track “After the Rain,” which surely was a direct influence on prince and many masters of funk and has seen his recordings incorporated into Kanye West’s creations. Then, the Rev. Barrett and his choir made what’s become a rare album on Gospel Truth, produced by Gene Barge of Chess Records fame, Boyd points out.
On another reissue from the Stax gospel collection, the Rev. Maceo Woods and The Christian Tabernacle Concert Choir strike gospel gold on the beautiful “Hello Sunshine,” the singing preacher harmonizes with a female lead vocalist and sounds like some of soul’s grittier soul singers like Denise LaSalle and Johnnie Taylor.
The light, “It’s been gone such a mighty long time,” the singers tell us.
For Boyd, exploring these records and the Stax legacy has become one of his life’s central artistic callings.
It’s just like “Ms. Parker’s interest in me and my work. I’m honoring her the same way,” Boyd said. “I have a responsibility to not let what they’ve done pass.”
“We’re all connected,” he continued. “This entire tapestry is extremely interesting to me, and I take reverence to living history now.”
He’s grown to know other young talents and living legends of Memphis music along the way—including The (Sensational) Barnes Brothers, who sing “in the legacy of their parents who sang before them,” Boyd said.
And then there’s former Bar-Kays bassist James Alexander, who turns out was a friend of Boyd’s late father. Mr. Alexander avoided the fate of Otis Redding and his bandmates because it was his turn to take a commercial flight (the whole group wouldn’t fit on Redding’s plane). It reportedly fell to Mr. Alexander to identify the bodies of his friends. He then rebuilt the Bar-Kays with lone crash survivor Ben Cauley into an early funk-rock band that backed Isaac Hayes on the Oscar-winning “Theme from Shaft” and had R&B hits into the 1980s.
Mr. Alexander named his son, hip-hop and R&B mega-producer Phalon “Jazze Pha” Alexander (T.I., Ludacris and others) to honor his best friend Phalon Jones who was killed in the crash.
It’s connections like this that drive Boyd’s passion, reflected in the new Stax gospel collection.
Boyd even spent time with veteran Hi Records songwriter Don Bryant, whose wife is the great singer Ann Peebles, as Bryant prepared to release his new album on Fat Possum Records.
“It’s an allegiance to telling Memphis’ (story) the right way, and it’s an allegiance to help these artists,” Boyd said, “to tell about their legacy now.”