15 Great Stax Records Songs
Today marks the 45th anniversary of the release of The Dock of the Bay, the first album by Otis Redding to be released after his premature death in a plane crash in December 1967. The album’s title track, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” became the first ever posthumous number one song on the Billboard Hot 100 Charts and went on to earn Grammys for Best R&B Song and Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.
Otis spent his entire recording career with Volt, a subsidiary of the legendary Memphis label Stax Records. In honor of the anniversary of the release of The Dock of the Bay we’ve gathered some of the greatest songs to be released on the Stax label before its unfortunate demise in the mid-1970s.
Compared to the polished, pop-influenced soul music produced by its main rival, Detroit-based Motown Records, Stax delivered distinctly Southern soul music that drew upon significant influences from the blues, country music, and especially gospel. This “Stax sound” later became a major influence on the grooving rhythms of funk music in the 1970s. Though it became famous for the work of primarily African-American artists, the label was actually founded by white businesspeople (and siblings) Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, making it an early model for a racially integrated music industry.
In chronological order, here are 15 of our favorite songs from Stax.
1. “Gee Whiz, Look At His Eyes” by Carla Thomas, Gee Whiz (1961)
Carla Thomas was only 15 years old when she first recorded this doo-wop-influenced ode to teenage romance. Charting in the Top 10 upon its national release, the success of “Gee Whiz” led to an appearance on American Bandstand for Thomas and increased attention for Stax. Carla would go on to record at Stax for the next decade, often collaborating with her father, Rufus Thomas.
2. “Green Onions” by Booker T. & the MGs, Green Onions (1962)
Condense everything that made the Stax sound so gritty into one three-minute capsule, and you’ll get “Green Onions.” The label’s most recognizable melody—inspired, allegedly, by Ray Charles—came from Booker T. and the MG’s, Stax’s long-time house band and one of the most racially integrated soul groups of all time. Fifty years later, the chemistry between organist Booker T. Jones and guitarist Steve Cropper still feels like it’s happening live.
3. “Walking the Dog” by Rufus Thomas, Walking the Dog (1963)
If you ever need to be reminded how Stax and Motown are different, here’s a good reference point. “Walking the Dog” has a raw, groovy edge Motown’s Barry Gordy would have never allowed from his pristine, pop-influenced acts. Rufus Thomas, a radio host and mainstay of the Beale Street circuit, was one of the Memphis scene’s biggest personalities. He was also the father of Carla Thomas, The Queen of Memphis Soul.
4. “These Arms of Mine” by Otis Redding, Pain in My Heart (1964)
You can feel the sense of longing growing as this song, Otis’s first hit with Stax, builds to its smoldering climax. This track also shows the collaborative, familial nature of the relationships between Stax artists since it features Steve Cropper, the guitarist for Stax house band Booker T. & the MGs, on the piano.
5. “Hold On! I’m Comin’” by Sam & Dave, Hold On, I’m Comin’ (1966)
Exemplifying the gospel-infused swagger that earned Sam & Dave the nickname “the Sultans of Sweat,” this track was allegedly inspired by Dave Prater’s reply to Isaac Hayes—who co-wrote the song with David Porter—when Hayes urged him to hurry up in the Stax men’s room during a recording session.
6. “Try A Little Tenderness” by Otis Redding, Try A Little Tenderness (1966)
Featuring an arrangement from Isaac Hayes and backing from Booker T. & the MGs, Otis’s version of this song is easily one of the best tracks Stax ever produced. (It was originally recorded in 1932 by British bandleader Ray Noble.) The song provided the soundtrack for the greatest musical moment in any John Hughes film, when Jon Cryer shows off his dancing shoes in 1986’s Pretty in Pink. It’s difficult to hear the song now without being reminded of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s sampling of Redding’s vocals in Watch the Throne’s “Otis”.
7. “Knock On Wood” by Eddie Floyd, Knock On Wood (1966)
Co-written by Eddie Floyd and MGs guitarist Steve Cropper, this song was originally supposed to be recorded by Otis Redding. After hearing Floyd’s version, however, Stax A&R man Jerry Wexler—famous for coining the phrase “rhythm and blues”—convinced Stax president Jim Stewart to release this version.
8. “Soul Man” by Sam & Dave, Soul Men (1967)
This track’s co-writer Isaac Hayes drew inspiration from the markings of the word “soul” painted on buildings that had not been destroyed in Detroit’s 12th Street Riots in the summer of 1967. With Sam & Dave’s raucous vocals and a sharp horn section, the song is a prime example of Stax’s gritty Southern sound.
9. “Tramp” by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, King and Queen (1967)
King and Queen, consisting of duets between Stax stars Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, was the last album Redding would release in his lifetime. Stax president Jim Stewart apparently thought “[Redding’s] rawness and [Thomas’s] sophistication would work” together. The album also features Redding’s recording of the Sam & Dave hit “Knock On Wood,” which is also featured on this list.
10. “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding, The Dock of the Bay (1968)
Co-written by Otis and MGs guitarist Steve Cropper, recording on this track concluded in Stax’s Memphis studio just two days before the singer’s death on December 10, 1967. After writing the first portions of the song on a houseboat in Sausalito, California, Redding continued to develop the song as he toured with Carla Thomas in support of their album King and Queen. Though released after his death, this song was Otis’s largest commercial and critical succes.
11. “Who’s Making Love” by Johnnie Taylor, Who’s Making Love… (1968)
“Who’s Making Love” teeters with a manic energy that brings to mind James Brown’s most exciting moment. Johnnie Taylor’s time on the R&B charts was short lived, but at least he left us with an enduring question: “Who’s making love/ to your old lady/ while you’re out making love?”
12. “Private Number” by William Bell and Judy Clay, Private Number (1968)
With a seductive opening featuring strings, keys and guitar, this sultry duet only reached #75 on the American pop charts but received considerably more commercial succes in the United Kingdom, where it peaked at #8 on the Singles Chart.
13. “Mr. Big Stuff” by Jean Knight, Mr. Big Stuff (1971)
One of the most recognizable hits of Stax’s later years, Jean Knight’s danceable diatribe brought the singer acclaim as the first single off her debut album of the same name.
14. “Theme from Shaft” by Isaac Hayes, Shaft (1971)
However dated phrases like, “Can you dig it?” and “Right on” may seem now, this song won Isaac Hayes the 1971 Academy Award for Best Original Song, making him the first African-American to win that award. The song’s sexy groove, as well as the implied profanity covered up by the back-up singers’ “Shut yo’ mouth!”, caused the song to be censored until the early 1990s.
15. “I’ll Take You There” by The Staples Singers, Be Altitude: Respect Yourself (1972)
“I’ll Take You There” was a product of the late Stax era, released just four years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. had cast a dark, heavy pall on Memphis. Fittingly, the “place” Mavis Staples sang about never materializes as the song goes on—in the gospel spirit, we’ve got to believe it’s waiting. “I’ll Take You There” was also a commercial hit, hitting number one on both the pop and R&B charts.