Three More Stax Winners from Concord Music

17 Sep

I have always been a huge STAX fan. The big hits have been easy to find. Collections of the label’s most popular tunes have long been available. Top tier artists like Otis Redding, Booker T and the MG’s, Isaac Hayes, and the Staple Singers  have received a great deal of attention – and rightly so. But bubbling just beneath the surface are other fine artists deserving of a retrospective.

The Dramatics’ WHATCHA SEE IS WHATCHA GET is a fine album and an ideal introduction to the group’s sound. You can tell that they were experimenting with a variety of musical styles. The Four Tops & Temptations are perhaps the most obvious sources of inspiration. The Dramatic’s don’t always hit the target, but when they found their groove the results were unquestionably groovy. The title track remains amazing, while tracks like “In The Rain” and “The Devil is Dope” run the gamut from cool to downright freaky. “Hot Pants In The Summertime” is a terrific lost track that has found its way onto my iPod.

Shirley Brown is best known for her hit “Woman to Woman.” But there’s so much more. Her voice is reminiscent of Aretha Franklin … and that alone is a massive compliment. It was only the lack of more potent material that kept her from becoming a bigger name. You might consider Shirley a “one-hit wonder.” Dig a little deeper and you will prove yourself wrong.  

Rufus Thomas, on the other hand, is sort of the “Clown Prince” of Memphis soul. Was he a serious artist? No. Was he a great entertainer? Yes. Did his songs make you want to both laugh and move your feet? Yup. “Do the Funky Chicken” is a great example of Rufus’ appeal. There are a few clunkers here. Or should I say (in the case of “Old McDonald”) cluckers??? But that’s why God invented the fast forward button. Just go ahead and savor the chicken — and toss away the bones.

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — In 1968, on the heels of the label’s severance from Atlantic Records, Stax Records president Al Bell decided to initiate a massive 28-LP release program that would auger the label’s return to the top. The initiative fostered a new generation of Stax hitmakers including the Dramatics and Shirley Brown. And, it proved an artistically and commercially fertile time for Stax veteran Rufus Thomas.

On September 13, 2011, Concord Music Group, as part of its Stax Remasters series , will reissue Rufus Thomas’s Do the Funky Chicken, the Dramatics’ Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get and Shirley Brown’s Woman to Woman — each featuring a chart-topping title track. All three reissues feature 24-bit remastering, rare bonus tracks, and new liner notes to frame the recordings in historical context.

Rufus Thomas: Do the Funky Chicken: Although Rufus and his daughter Carla Thomas had given Satellite Records (precursor to Stax) its first hit in 1960, followed in turn by Rufus’s solo hit “Walkin’ the Dog,” his star had faded by the late ’60s. The self-proclaimed “world’s oldest teenager” (age 51 in 1968) found inspiration in 1968 when he recorded Eddie Floyd’s “Funky Mississippi,” backed by Booker T. & the MGs and the Memphis Horns, for an album that never saw the light of day titled May I Have Your Ticket Please? A year later, Thomas entered the studio again — this time with his son Marvell Thomas on keyboards and members of the Bar-Kays — to record “Do the Funky Chicken.” The song was a smash, reaching #5 R&B and #28 Pop. Rufus was back on top, and the album Do the Funky Chicken was hailed as a career highlight. The follow-up, a two-sided hit of the menacing voodoo funk of “Sixty Minute Man” backed with the gospel-inflected “The Preacher and the Bear,” made it to #42 R&B. The reissue is rounded out by “Funky Mississippi,” “Funky Way” and “Itch and Scratch,” the last recorded not at Stax but rather at Jackson, Mississippi’s Malaco Studios. Stax historian Rob Bowman contributed liner notes.

The Dramatics: Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get: In diversifying the A&R focus of Stax, Al Bell brought in Detroit producer Don Davis to work with core artists Carla Thomas and Johnnie Taylor. He brought with him a Motor City vocal group called the Dramatics. Davis turned to fellow Detroit producer and songwriter Tony Hestor to work with the group. Hestor wrote a great song with “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get” and crafted an extraordinary arrangement as well. Annotator Bowman writes, “The slight Latin feel fit the first wave of disco like a glove while the use of claves and congas combined with a fuzzed lead guitar line and seraphonous strings and horns.” The chemistry of artist, song, and arrangement drove the record all the way to #3 R&B and #9 Pop in the summer of 1971 on the Volt label. The follow-up was “In the Rain,” of which then-lead vocalist Ron Banks recalls, “We looked at each other and said, ‘Whoa, that’s a smash.’ And for once we were right.” The song went to #5 Pop. The Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get reissue contains no fewer than nine bonus tracks including charting hits “Fell for You” and “Hey You! Get Off My Mountain,” both recorded in Detroit instead of Memphis. The closer “Hum a Song (From Your Heart)” was produced at Atlantic South Criterion Studios by the legendary production triumvirate of Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd, and Arif Mardin.

Shirley Brown: Woman to Woman: “Phenomenon means having your first single, ‘Woman to Woman,’ sell a million in its first eight weeks,” wrote Stax employee Deanie Parker in her liner notes for Shirley Brown’s Woman to Woman album, released in 1974 on Stax’s Truth imprint. The East St. Louis native came to Stax by way of Albert King, who’d discovered her when she was all of 14. When matched with the powerful James Banks, Eddie Marion, and Henderson Thigpen composition “Woman to Woman,” Brown hit a nerve with female listeners. In a spoken intro, Brown said: “Hello, may I speak to Barbara? Barbara, this is Shirley. You might not know who I am, but the reason I am calling you is because I was going through my old man’s pockets this morning. And I just happened to find your name and number.” After presenting her case, Brown sang earnestly about not letting anyone else “break up my happy home” because “I love that man and he’s mine.” The song notched #1 R&B and #22 Pop. A follow-up, “It Ain’t No Fun” by Fredrick Knight, charted #94 Pop. Songs by Knight, Sir Mack Rice, and the late Jerry Ragovoy round out the original album release. The reissue contains five bonus tracks by writers Carolyn Franklin, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and Stevie Wonder. After Stax’s closure, Brown signed to Arista and with Stax’s co-founder Jim Stewart and Bettye Crutcher producing, reaching #15 with “Blessed is the Woman (With a Man Like Mine)” and has more recently recorded for Malaco.

About Stax Records: Stax Records is synonymous with Southern soul music. Originally known as Satellite, the Memphis company was founded in 1959 by Jim Stewart and his sister, Estelle Axton, and took its new name in 1961 from the first two letters of their last names. Among the many artists who scored hits on Stax and its Volt subsidiary during the ’60s were Rufus and Carla Thomas, Booker T. & the MGs, Sam and Dave, Johnnie Taylor, Albert King, and Otis Redding. Redding’s death in 1967 signaled the end of the first Stax era (to which Atlantic retains distribution rights). Subsequently the company spawned a new crop of hitmakers, among them Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, the Dramatics, and Shirley Brown. In June 1977, a year-and-a-half after Stax went bankrupt, the company’s masters were purchased by Fantasy, Inc. Concord Music Group purchased and reactivated Stax in 2004 to release both new soul recordings and catalog reissues.

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