Even the least committed soul fan knows about Stax Records and its gutsy, down-home Memphis sound. This music lit up the 60s and early 70s thanks to singers such as Otis Redding, Johnnie Taylor, Isaac Hayes and Rufus Thomas, and its hits fuelled the movies The Blues Brothers and The Commitments in the 80s and 90s. But while soul soloists such as Otis, Carla Thomas and William Bell were the cornerstone of the label’s success, a number of Stax vocal groups also deserve mention. Indeed, Stax and its subsidiaries boasted some of the greatest vocal groups of its era, cutting heartfelt and sophisticated records that made you dance and put you firmly in the shoes of their singers, letting you know how it felt to be young, gifted and black in the 60s and 70s. As the label celebrates its 60th anniversary, we’re going one louder than the usual Top 10 and giving you a Top 11 Stax vocal groups you should hear.
The Staple Singers
A family quartet led by singer-guitarist Roebuck “Pops” Staples, and featuring his children Mavis, Cleotha, Pervis and Yvonne (that makes five – Pervis and Yvonne swapped places twice), The Staple Singers were the social conscience among Stax vocal groups. Their sound was earthier and rawer than that of most vocal groups of the late 60s and 70s. While solo acts who started in gospel were legion, entire vocal groups who switched from the spiritual to the secular were scarcer. The Staple Singers never left the church: they took the feel into the soul arena, scoring huge hits and reflecting the way life changed for African-Americans of their era.
The group began recording in the 50s, making fine sides for Vee-Jay, United and Checker, and their blend of gospel and folk grew popular in the Civil Rights era, with songs such as ‘Uncloudy Day’ gaining an underground listenership. While it is often said that the Staples “went secular” when they signed to Stax in ’68, they’d already demonstrated their facility for funky pop in ’67 with a hard-groovin’ cover of Steven Stills’ ’For What It’s Worth’.
Their debut Stax album, Soul Folk In Action, was ambiguously titled to draw in a variety of fans and featured versions of The Band’s ‘The Weight’ and Otis’ ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay’, as well as the politicised ‘Long Walk To DC’. The Staples really hit their stride in ’71 with The Staple Swingers, which included uplifting songs such as ‘Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom-Boom)’ and ‘Give A Hand – Take A Hand’. Mavis Staples’ lead voice had authority yet sounded sexy without her even trying. That same year’s Be Altitude: Respect Yourself was even better, packed with deeply felt performances such as ‘I’ll Take You There’ and ‘Respect Yourself’. Be What You Are (1973) was another masterpiece, and featured their anthem ‘If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)’, which rode a lilting reggae rhythm. When Stax’s empire crashed in the mid-70s, the group continued to develop, hitting with a glorious cover of Talking Heads’ ‘Life During Wartime’ in 1985. They found gospel where it had previously seemed absent, and put a rootsy feel into everything they did.
Selected track: ‘Respect Yourself’ (1972)
The Dramatics were a superb vocal quintet from Detroit – a place with no shortage of vocal groups. They cut records that ranged from the thrilling to the finger-snapping, recording at United Sound in their hometown with producer Don Davis, who’d given Stax’s Johnnie Taylor a massive hit with ‘Who’s Making Love’ in 1968. It was a tad irregular for Stax artists not to record in the south, but what really separated The Dramatics from the other vocal groups during soul’s peak period was their stage show. They lived up to their name, acting out their songs with grace and dynamism (their original name had been The Dynamics). Luckily, they had powerful music to act out.