This year marks the 60th anniversary of legendary Memphis-based record label Stax Records. Compared to the polished, pop-influenced soul music produced by its main rival, Detroit’s Motown Records, Stax delivered distinctly Southern soul music that drew upon significant influences from the blues, country and gospel music. 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.
Although Stax endured a tumultuous past (partnerships with Atlantic Records and poor distribution through CBS Records complicated label relations before acquisitions by Fantasy Record and later Concord Records ultimately saved it), the label remains home to a rich collection of classic soul. And since Concord obtained the imprint in 2006, Stax has been the purveyor of new sounds from artists like Angie Stone, Ben Harper and Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats.
To celebrate six decades of Stax Records, parent label Concord collaborated with Rhino to release a series of greatest hits collections from 10 of the label’s biggest stars—Otis Redding, William Bell, Johnnie Taylor, Carla Thomas, Booker T. & The MGs, The Dramatics, Albert King, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes and The Staple Singers. Throughout this anniversary year, Concord and Rhina also plan to reissue classic albums on vinyl. From those beloved artists and more, here are 20 of the best songs ever released on Stax Records.
“Soul Finger” is one of those funky soul jams that just revels in its own absurdity, starting right off the bat with a riff on “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in its opening seconds. It’s a nonsense ditty of virtuoso trumpet performance, punctuated simply by shouts of “soul finger!” that have no particular ties to reality or context. According to the liner notes of the complete Stax/Volt singles, those shouts actually came from “a chorus of neighborhood children who had been loitering outside the studio,” who were invited inside and paid for their time in Coca Cola. The jubilant, trumpet-driven melody is one of pure joy and celebration, having since appeared in numerous films, from Spies Like Us to Superbad. It’s just fun for the sake of fun. —Jim Vorel
A slow burner and one of the best tunes that songwriting team Isaac Hayes and David Porter ever crafted, mixing the roof-raising spirit of gospel with the greasiest soul groove. The pleading lovelorn lyrics were giving that extra oomph by vocal ensemble The Soul Children, a trio of ladies that could bring together that combination of sweet, mournful and sensual as well as anyone signed to Stax. That helped propel this single to near the top of the R&B charts (No. 7) and even knocked them into the Billboard Hot 100, topping off at No. 52. —Robert Ham
One of the earliest Stax singles, the Mar-Keys’ “Last Night” basically served as an advertisement for the fledgling label: “Hey, this is our house band and they’re excellent. Come record with us!” Considering that over time the band consisted of key writers and players who would ultimately shape much of Stax’s sound and history, this call rang true. “Last Night” is based around a tight 12-bar blues arrangement with an organ and sax groove. You’ve probably heard it more times than you know and assumed it was Booker T. And The M.G.’s, which isn’t totally off, as they shared members and duties as a label backing band with the latter. While the Mar-Keys never rose to popularity like many of Stax’s other artists, they were strong behind the scenes as a catalyst and invaluable component of Southern soul music. —Emile Milgrim
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. —Lane Billings and Logan Lockner
Few other songs in the Stax catalogue prove that past is prelude as definitively as “In the Rain.” The natural soundbed of rain softly builds into a striking, echoing guitar lead that rumbles through the body like a thunderclap. Additionally, the buzzing saxophones and plucked string arrangements compliment the song’s hypnotic mood without treading into maudlin, novelty gimmickry. Listening in retrospect, it is still remarkable how all those elements can still sound agelessly dynamic. —Zane Warman
“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?” —Lane Billings and Logan Lockner
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. —Lane Billings and Logan Lockner
With a seductive opening featuring strings, keys and guitar, this sultry duet only reached No. 75 on the American pop charts but received considerably more commercial succes in the United Kingdom, where it peaked at No. 8 on the singles chart. —Lane Billings and Logan Lockner
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. —Lane Billings and Logan Lockner
The triumphant, three-cheers-for-love chorus of “What a Man” is immediately recognizable thanks to the second life it was given by Salt-N-Pepa and En Vogue’s sample, but for decades the song was first the singer’s swan song. Built around in-studio improvisations from Stax house musicians, Lyndell’s howls and ad-libs carry both her upbringing as a gospel choir singer and her burgeoning career opening for the likes of James Brown and Ike & Tina Turner. After the song began to make waves, however, Lyndell began receiving death threats threats from white supremacist groups for associating with black musicians. Jarred, Lyndell stayed out of the music business for the next 25 years. It wasn’t until she wasn’t until the success of “Whatta Man” in 1993 that she came out of retirement. —Zane Warman
Wendy Rene only appears as a blip in the massive Stax catalog. Her singles (both solo and with The Drapels) never caught on in the ‘60s and she never went on to record a full album, instead backing other Stax artists and ultimately dropping out of the music business after only a few years. She was supposed to be on that plane with Otis Redding, but stayed behind. No one could have anticipated that “After Laughter,” her 1964 single that received a lukewarm reception at best, would become a pinnacle of American soul music years later. Essentially re-introduced to the world via Wu-Tang Clan’s “Tearz” in ’93, Rene found out about its use through one of her kid’s friends who heard it on the radio. A well-deserved retrospective of her music was released by Light In The Attic in 2012 and original copies of the “After Laughter” single now go for hundreds online, if you can even find one. Rene passed in 2014 from a stroke, but not before finally being recognized as the soul music icon she aspired to become as a teenager. —Emile Milgrim
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. —Lane Billings and Logan Lockner
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. —Lane Billings and Logan Lockner
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. —Lane Billings and Logan Lockner
Despite being released by Atlantic (who had an infamous distribution deal with Stax), Wilson Pickett’s “In The Midnight Hour” was recorded at Stax, co-written with Stax powerhouse guitarist Steve Cropper and featured Stax’s other go-to session guys Donald “Duck” Dunn and Al Jackson Jr. on bass and drums, respectively. Pickett was previously a gospel singer and attempted the storied “cross-over” in the early 60’s with lackluster results. Then in 1965 “In The Midnight Hour” happened, setting a standard for the R&B that followed and contributing to the still-developing framework of rock ‘n’ roll. The song’s innocently suggestive lyrics and catchy rhythm (due to Atlantic president Jerry Wexler’s suggestion based on a popular dance step at the time) took Pickett from aspiring secular musician to R&B legend. Pickett would have other hits throughout his career, but “In The Midnight Hour” is the one most fans and critics consider not only his best, but one of the best songs of all-time. —Emile Milgrim
“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 No. 1 on both the pop and R&B charts. —Lane Billings and Logan Lockner
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. It sure did. —Lane Billings and Logan Lockner
Released in 1967 when this half-brother of B.B. King was already on his way to blues infamy, “Born Under A Bad Sign” wasn’t Albert King’s best-selling single of his long and storied career, but it was one that would have the greatest overall impact. The simmering tune wherein King laments his fate was given a particularly vicious snap thanks to the work of Booker T. & The M.G.’s, his backing band for the session. Smooth as can be, he laid out the case for his misery, almost resigned over the fact that the fates continue to conspire against him. The song would continue to resonate throughout the years as it became part of the standard blue repertoire and, thanks to King’s rugged guitar work, would inspire crossover titans like Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan. —Robert Ham
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. —Lane Billings and Logan Lockner
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 successes, and thereby one of Stax’s. —Lane Billings and Logan Lockner