The travails of the great Memphis Soul label Stax in the late 1960s could have been enough to have brought an end to a run of success that had begun in 1961. The death of Otis Redding, its most consistent & successful hit maker, in December 1967 was a great shock & sadness for the Stax community already finding themselves at the wrong end of a deal with distributors Atlantic who, as part of a sale to Warner Brothers, retained the rights to all recordings made between 1960 & 1967. Johnnie Taylor’s best selling single “Who’s Making Love” kept the label afloat in the following year then a risky, imaginative strategy to create an instant catalogue saw the release of 27 albums in mid-69. One of these sold millions & ensured the label continued as a force in Soul music. This week 50 years ago there were four Stax 45s on the Cash Box R&B Top 60 & that artist was responsible for two of them.
“Hot Buttered Soul” by Isaac Hayes is a ground-breaking landmark album, just four tracks, lush, stately, insistent orchestration epically stretching Bacharach & David’s “Walk On By” to 12 minutes, Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Got To Phoenix” to 18. From valued studio hand producing & writing along with partner David Porter, the great Sam & Dave hits, sitting in on sessions when Booker T Jones was away at his musical studies, Isaac was now a leading man, “Black Moses”. His monumental soundtrack to “Shaft” (1971) reaching #1 in the US album chart, staying at that position for three months on the R&B listing & the natural headliner for the upcoming “Wattstax”, a showcase for the label in Los Angeles which would attract 112,000 spectators in August 1972. “If talking is the only way – Rap On!”, “Do Your Thing”, a radio version cut down to less than four minutes from the 19 on “Shaft” (there’s a 33 minute version out there) rose seven places to #5 on the R&B chart for 19th of March 1972 but you know that one don’t you so here’s one that was in the charts too.
Isaac Hayes had it together, his groove so creative, confident, effective, prolific & popular. Together with arranger down from Detroit Johnny Allen & his Movement, the group of musicians now working in the Stax studio, a new pulsebeat was found in melodic songs from the Bacharach & David & Soul catalogues while covers of the Beatles & Kris Kristofferson were impressively & successfully “Hayes-ified”. Ike’s latest treatment was possibly a surprise as the original was still on the chart at #12. “Let’s Stay Together” was a new entry on the R&B chart at #41 this week, a mega hit for Al Green from Willie Mitchell’s Hi Studios in Memphis, less than a mile away from the Stax operation at 926 East McLemore Avenue. It may have been a quickly put together & recorded instrumental but its leisurely jazzy course is very, very cool. Paired with the rich “Soulsville”, a vocal track from “Shaft”, that is one hot 7″ vinyl disc. Isaac Hayes changed how Soul music was viewed & consumed, “Shaft” had been the first double album released by an R&B artist. Such renown & success was difficult to maintain but there were gold records to follow from a man deservedly held in the highest regard.
n order to make the deadline for their new catalogue Stax needed to recruit new talent & producer Don Davis quickly established his credentials with his work on the “Who’s Making Love” hit. Don produced albums with Johnnie Taylor, Darrell Banks & Carla Thomas for the expansion, he had been working in Detroit for small labels like Ric-Tic & Golden World, both now bought out by the Tamla Motown giant. It was his contacts in the Motor City that led him to bring former Golden World alumni the Dramatics along with young songwriter Tony Hester into the Stax orbit, allowing them a creative freedom that they would never have received from Motown. The Sensations became the Dramatics in 1965 experiencing line-up changes particularly after an involvement in the 1967 Algiers Motel tragedy when, after a night of rioting in Detroit, three young men including the group’s 18 year old valet, were killed by police. By 1971 the Dramatics were original members Ron Banks, Larry Demps, Elbert Wilkins with William Howard & Willie Ford – the Classic Five.
The group, produced by Hester, supervised by Davis, certainly brought a touch of Motown to Memphis, with five capable lead voices the Dramatics could be compared to the Temptations. Their debut album “What You See Is What You Get” (1971) yielded a title track that became a breakout crossover hit followed by the theatrical, sound-effect laden “In The Rain” (seen here on “Soul Train”), an even bigger success’ another big mover on this week’s chart from 18 to #7. The flourishes of Hester/Davis & arranger Johnnie Allen were less predominant than those of Norman Whitfield, a romantic sweetness was a tip to the new group sound from Philadelphia & the Dramatics had their own thing going on. Further personnel disruption meant that there was no group photo on the second album, again completely written by Hester, & the following one was released as Ron Banks & the Dramatics to differentiate them from a breakaway unit. It is more than ironic that two standout tracks on “A Dramatic Experience” (1973) were the eerie “The Devil Is Dope” & “Beware of the Man (With the Candy in His Hand)” as Tony Hester’s increasingly debilitating drug habit led to less involvement with the group & his death by gunshot at just 34 years of age in 1980. The Dramatics abided, their records had a consistent quality throughout the next decade while other vocal groups faltered. They certainly deserve to be considered in the top rank of 1970s US vocal combos.
Little Milton (James Milton Campbell Jr) had a 20 year long recording career when he found himself at Stax Records though he had been to Memphis before. Raised in Greenville, Mississippi, his first solo tracks were recorded for Sam Phillips’ Sun Records, backed by Ike Turner’s band. On moving to St Louis he & a partner started their own label Bobbin which did well enough to get a deal with the famous Chess organisation in Chicago. It was on Chess’ R&B subsidiary, Checker, that, in 1965, “We’re Gonna Make It”, lovely bit of Blues-Soul positivity, became an R&B #1, Top 30 on the Hot 100. Milton was versatile & popular, there were to be six more R&B Top 20 records (“Grits Ain’t Groceries”, “If Walls Could Talk”), four albums, in the decade but the death of founder Leonard Chess left his label in disarray & Stax were pleased to provide a home for an already established artist.
“That’s What Love Will Make You Do”, Little Milton’s second Stax 45 is at #33 on this week’s chart. The label had previous with Blues players when Albert King was matched with Booker T & the M.G.’s & the Memphis Horns on influential records. This time around Milton’s strong vocal attack was complimented by the production of Don Davis (busy guy!), employing those new studio guys including Lester Snell on keys, drummer Willie Hall & the distinctive punchy horns. There were to be some following 45s before the”Waiting For Little Milton” came around in 1973, a self-produced selection of his own songs & Blues classics that absolutely rocks. “Grits Ain’t Groceries”, a six track live set, recorded in 1972, not released until 1984, makes that night at the Summit Club L.A. seem like the place to be. In 1975 a poor distribution deal with CBS & fewer hits as Disco carried the swing led to Stax declaring bankruptcy. There was, of course a long queue of men with contracts outside Isaac Hayes’ yard, the Dramatics remained under the mentorship of Don Davis while Little Milton recorded more sporadically before, in the 1980s finding himself back in Mississippi with the Malaco label until his passing in 2005. A Bluesman, a Soul man, a showman, a survivor.