Various Artists – Soul Explosion | Album Review

Various ArtistsSoul Explosion

Stax Records

LP #1 – 14 Tracks/37:41

LP #2 – 14 Tracks/39:39

This two album collection comes with very little information other than small photos of the artists on the inside of the gate-fold cover, along with a complete tracklist. What listeners need to know is that 1969 was a pivotal year for the Stax label. The previous year they had severed ties with Atlantic Records, and because of a onerous contractual obligation, the label no longer had it’s biggest stars, including Otis Redding. So co-owner Al Bell set out to rebuild the label, signing new artists while embarking on an ambitious schedule of releases designed to flood the market, issuing over twenty-five albums in just a few months, a true “Soul Explosion”.

Available for the first time in fifty years on vinyl, and also now digitally, the first album of the set features several of the label’s new hit-makers, starting off with Johnnie Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love”. Booker T and the MG’s, the musical foundation for countless Stax recording sessions, are featured on their version of the theme from “Hang ‘Em High, “ a Clint Eastwood western and the cool instrumental, “Soul Limbo”. Eddie Floyd impresses on his two tracks, with “I Never Found Me A Girl (To Love Me Like You Do)” being a stone soul classic. The Bar-Kays had been around for three years, working sessions and getting tutored by Booker T and his bandmates, Steve Cropper, Donald “Duck’ Dunn, and Al Jackson. Their instrumental “Copy Kat” shows that they were becoming quite adept at their craft, before the group was virtually wiped out in the plane crash that also killed Redding.

Another highlight comes from Jimmy Hughes, using his sweet and tender voice to make “I Like Everything About You” a track that you will keep returning to for another listen. Carla Thomas does her best on “Where Do I Go,” a song from the Hair musical, then Albert King gets things back on track with his trademark stinging guitar licks on”Cold Feet”. One unusual track, “Smell Of Incense,” comes courtesy of Southwest F.O.B., a band from Texas that was part of the label’s unsuccessful venture into the rock arena. The smooth vocal harmonies of the Mad Lads, a group formed in Memphis, are featured on “So Nice”. William Bell and Judy Clay turn in a righteous duet on “Private Number” before Mavis, Pops and the rest of the Staples clan take us to church on “Long Walk To D.C.”. Listeners unfamiliar with Ollie Hoskin’s gritty vocals are sure to be impressed with his performance on Ollie & the Nightingales hit, “I’ve Got A Sure Thing”.

The second disc has additional tracks by the same artists, some of which were exclusive to the collection. Taylor gets sentimental on “Save Your Love For Me” while Hughes rock the blues on “Peeped Around Yonder’s Bend,” another standout cut. Carla Thomas delivers a robust performance on “Book Of Love”. After hearing the vocal magic of the Mad Lads on “These Old Memories,” the rendition of the classic “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” by Southwest F.O.B. sounds dated, with a brief sax solo the lone shining moment.

The flip side has the rare “Hot Hips,” a rousing cut from the Bar-Kays with the horns blasting away over an insistent guitar vamp. “Heartache Mountain” is another rarity from Ollie and the Nightingales, centered on Ollie’s pleading cries. Taylor returns on “Twenty Years From Today,” serving up another reminder of his superior talent as a singer. Listeners will be puzzled to understand why Floyd’s “It’s Wrong To Be Loving You” was exclusive to this release. Clay gets a track to herself, putting her husky voice to good use on “It’s Me,” while Booker T. switches from organ to piano for an understated turn on “Booker’s Theme”. Albert King finishes things off with “Left Hand Woman,” making it clear that his mistreating woman needs to do right by him, the arrangement owing a debt to Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman”

To further celebrate the Stax legacy, Craft Recordings released thirty titles in digital format for the first time in June of this year as part of the Black Music Month. The goal is to create another “Soul Explosion,” inspired by the events of 1969 that transformed Stax Records into a label that will continue to be revered through the ages. The Soul Explosion release is a teaser, a beginning primer meant to entice listeners to dig deeper. The quality sound and outstanding performances throughout are sure to do just that.

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