Stax in the ’70s

Concord Records has been reissuing the Stax Records catalog since acquiring it in 2004, but if it’s releasing them in a systematic way, the system has eluded me. Nonetheless, I scored a yahtzee one day last week when Rufus Thomas’ Do the Funky Chicken (1969), the Dramatics’ Whatcha See is Whatcha Get (1971) and Shirley Brown’s Woman to Woman (1974) arrived in the mail. The three together point toward the demise of Stax in 1975 as they represent a label losing its signature sound as Al Bell attempted to expand the label’s footprint in the market. But all are excellent, particularly the Thomas and Dramatics’ albums.

Rufus Thomas, Do the Funky Chicken (Stax Records)Do the Funky Chicken has more in common with randy party records than anything by Sam and Dave or Otis Redding. Lyrics are often little more than something to sing while the band grooves on (“Soul Food”), and sometimes less than that (“Old McDonald Had a Farm” – yes, the children’s song). Thomas’ role in his music is to get the party started, whether by starting dances (the title cut, the JB-like non-LP “Itch and Scratch”) or breaking out old favorites such as “Sixty Minute Man” or his rewrite of “Hound Dog” – “Bear Cat.” Thomas isn’t superfluous to the album, though. He phrases his lines sympathetically with the ridiculously funky band and becomes yet another instrument working to make people dance. Lyrically, the album borders on novelty, but there’s nothing novel about its southern funk.

Dramatics, Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get (Stax Records)The Dramatics’ Whatcha See is Whatcha Get is the true gem of the bunch. Bell signed the Temptations-like Detroit vocal group, and the album sounds like nothing Stax had released before. Producer Tony Hester (under the name Don Davis) created cinematic, kinetic tracks that made everything sound urgent and meaningful, even songs such as “Get Up and Get Down” and “Hot Pants in the Summertime.” Strings added melancholy undercurrents, while singers Ron Banks and William “Wee Gee” Howard had high-impact styles that added a physical dimension to the songs (most famously, the mouth noises and “HAAAA!” that punctuate the title track). There’s still a deeply funky core to the tracks, but Hester built a contemporary sound that included a lot of reverb (on voices and Dennis Coffey’s fuzzed-out lead guitar) and, on the shimmering “Hot Pants in the Summertime,” a jazz flute. The album’s very much of its moment, but its also sophisticated, urban music with songs and performances that hold up beautifully.

Shirley Brown, Woman to Woman (Stax Records)Woman to Woman‘s very much of its moment too as Shirley Brown fumbles with the onset of a feminist consciousness. In the spoken word intro to the title track, she tells her romantic rival about how she’s the breadwinner in the couple. “The clothes on his back – I buy them / the car he drives – I pay the note every month,” she says. She’s economically empowered, but she sings about how emotionally bound she is to the man who fools around on her. It’s an early 1970s version of blues, and variations on that trope dominate the album. She’ll go on without her guy if she absolutely, positively, really, truly has to, but she’ll put up with the pain and confusion of staying together if he’ll let her because she’s so in love. It’s a stance that Brown shares with Aretha Franklin, but it’s not the only thing they share. Both started singing in church, and Brown’s voice and phrasing are very similar to Franklin’s, so much so that she cut “Ain’t No Way, “Respect” and “Rock Steady” as test recordings for Stax. The tracks are included here, and while they’re not upgrades on Aretha’s versions, they’re very credible alternatives. “Respect” and “Rock Steady” are particularly funky and powerful, so much so that no vocal acrobatics on Brown’s part can win the listener’s attention back from the locomotive funk.

Stax co-founder Jim Stewart oversaw the Shirley Brown sessions, and Woman to Woman is the only album in this bunch that features members of the MGs – the rhythm section of Duck Dunn and Al Jackson – but it doesn’t sound like Stax in its heyday. It’s not as far afield as Whatcha See is Whatcha Get, but it’s a sign that the label didn’t mean quite what it once did. As these albums demonstrate, though, it was still a mark of quality.