One of the biggest ironies of the golden age of soul is that Detroit’s black-owned Motown Records made its mark targeting the whitebread mainstream, while Memphis’ Stax Records—founded by the white brother-and-sister team of Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton (“Stax” is a combo of their last names)—staked its fortunes on the gloriously unfiltered sounds of the black South. The labels’ slogans rejected these approaches: Motown called itself “Hitsville U.S.A.”; Stax proudly went by “Soulsville U.S.A.”
To date, the Motown story gets more play, both because of the label’s crossover success and because its history makes for a better yarn: Enterprising black entrepreneur Berry Gordy takes talented kids from the projects and turns them into international superstars who are still relevant today—to music snobs and American Idol fans alike. (If you need more background, make sure Dreamgirls, the fictionalized account of the label’s rise and fall, is in your Netfix queue.)
Stax, however, has a more complicated backstory. In its ’60s heyday, the label gave the world a blast of seminal soul talents, including Otis Redding, whose textured croons made instant classics of “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)”; Sam and Dave, the duo nicknamed “Double Dynamite,” whose “Soul Man” gave the Blues Brothers a reason for being; and Carla Thomas, the college student whose early hits “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes)” and “B-A-B-Y” helped create the kingdom where Aretha Franklin would later reign as queen. But things weren’t always so good on the business side. The label changed hands a number of times and ultimately went bankrupt in 1976 after a series of bad deals and tax problems.
Recently, the label was resurrected by the Concord Music Group, which is celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Stax by, among other things, reissuing the soundtrack to Wattstax, the documentary that captured the label’s 1972 concert in South Central Los Angeles, which benefited neighborhoods torn apart by the late-’60s riots. Modeled after Woodstock, the concert—which drew more than 100,000 to the Los Angeles Coliseum—stands as one Stax’s hallmark accomplishments. But the event’s musical significance has always been questionable, and this newly expanded, remastered edition does little to change this impression.
Part of the problem with Wattstax is that it came after Stax had already lost many of its signature talents: Redding died in a 1967 plane crash, and Sam and Dave left the label due to contract dramas. So the album fails as a rich representation of the classic Stax era. Thomas shows up for five cuts and still thrills with her awe-girled girlish charm. But there’s a sense that something from the old days is missing.
Compounding this problem is that the label’s late-era stars aren’t particularly well represented on the album. Black Moses Issac Hayes only gets one cut, “The Theme from Shaft,” which only represents a sliver of the range of Hayes’ musical output. The Staple Singers, the contemporary-gospel family outfit that was scaling the charts with “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There” deliver five numbers, including one where they sing “I like the things about me that I once despised,” summing up the racial pride that was at the crux of the event. But while lead singer Mavis Staples is in fine voice with her rousing rasp, the backing vocals sound uncharacteristically weak. The rest of the Wattstax lineup includes too many new signees like The Newcomers, who turn in joyless Jackson 5 knockoff “Pin the Tail on the Donkey.”
But even though the album doesn’t showcase Stax at its best, there are still amazing moments to be found scattered amongst the abundance of overlong instrumental introductions and party jams (Do we really need Rufus Thomas, “the world’s oldest teenager” and Carla’s dad, to show us how to do both the “Funky Chicken” and the “Funky Penguin?”). Wattstax works best as a sampling of the two impulses that came together to create soul music, that uniquely African-American meld of the spiritual and secular. This set leans toward the sanctified side, perhaps because Stax was developing a gospel imprint at the time. The Emotions, the family act that would find its greatest success with “Boogie Wonderland,” offer an epic rendering of faith-in-hard-times staple “Peace Be Still”; Detroit’s Rance Allen, who sings like The Temptations’ Eddie Kendricks with his shiny pants on fire, blazes through two cuts with his self-named group; and Louise McCord sings, shouts, growls and moans with such force that her funky “Better Get a Move On” is the album’s strongest cut. On the other side of the spiritual/secular divide, Frederick Knight and David Porter sing movingly about the kind of love trials that have people crying out to the Lord. But, as wonderful as these performances are, they can’t carry the weight of the entire collection, which remains mostly an uneven dispatch from the foot soldiers of soul.