Back at the end of 1991, Atlantic’s Complete Stax/Volt Singles 1959-68box set was one of the most impressive undertakings of its kind. Over nine CDs, it was comprised of every A side (and a few choice flips) released by Stax and its subsidiary Volt during the company’s first decade. These were the years that the company’s distribution was handled by Atlantic. The 1968 split came about when Atlantic was sold off to Warner / Seven Arts (which eventually became Time Warner) and the distribution deal ended with Jim Stewart’s company striking a deal with Gulf and Western. The nature of the contract with Atlantic meant that Stax lost the rights to all its material over this period, effectively having to start with a completely clean slate. This is the reason that the subsequent two boxes covering the period to 1975 were the only ones issued on the Stax label (now owned by Concord Music).
Anyway, this is something of a digression. The problem with the original box was always its price which, at more than sixty quid, was always going to limit its market to the die-hards and the wealthy. The good people at Rhino Records have remedied this problem by issuing each of the nine CDs as stand-alone discs retailing at mid price. Each has between 25 and 29 tracks, chronologically ordered, and comes with a sixteen page booklet replete with details of the 45s and copious notes.
Among all the great southern soul classics by the likes of Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, William Bell, Carla Thomas and the like are some real curios – particularly in the early volumes. Like Motown, Stax became a specialist soul label more by luck than design. The pop and novelty tunes by the likes of Macy Skipper, Nick Charles and Cheryl and Pam Johnson didn’t sell (which considering how utterly rotten some of these sides were, is no surprise at all – there are a few songs so bad that they must be ripe for a cult audience!). The Mar-Keys, Booker T & The MGs, Rufus and Carla Thomas did, though, and the label gradually found its sound. Think Stax now, and what comes to mind are the gritty, horn-driven soul shouters and the stately southern ballads. But there was a great deal more variety than that, ignoring the early attempts at pop. Lesser known acts suchas Deanie Parker, the Cobras and the Astors recorded some excellent material which sits well with the familiar hits, and there are examples of high energy beat instrumentals, sweet group soul and almost Motown-esque pop-soul.
These CDs are packed with great tunes and are highly recommended. It’s like buying the box in installments!