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Stax Records

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of Stax Records (originally named “Satellite Records” at its founding). Although this label had less than 20 years as a productive force of original music, the influence of the sound forged there would reverberate through R&B, funk, soul and rock n’ roll. Some notable artists affiliated with Stax include The Mar-Keys, Rufus Thomas, Otis Redding, The Staple Singers, Sam & Dave, Albert King, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes and Booker T. & the M.G.’s.

Initially operating out of a garage in Memphis, Tennessee, the label was founded in 1957 by Jim Stewart. A professional fiddle player, Stewart originally focused on his familiar genres of country, rockabilly and pop music. In subsequent years, Stewart’s sister Estelle Axton invested in the fledgling company and the combination of “Stewart” and “Axton” would form the label’s new name of “Stax”.

Satellite released their first record in 1958, the R&B single “Fool in Love” by The Vel-tones. While promoting this single, Stewart met with Memphis DJ Rufus Thomas. Along with his daughter Carla, Thomas would be the first artist to record at the new Stax recording studio, located in a converted theater in South Memphis, TN. The resulting single, “Cause I Love You” by Rufus & Carla, was also important as the first Stax record picked up for national distribution by Atlantic Records. This set up a business relationship which let Stax focus mainly on the recording side and much less on the distribution side of the business.

The studio’s sloped floors in the converted theater created unique acoustic properties, a happy accident which created the unique and signature Stax sound on multiple hit songs through the 1960s. Keyboardist Booker T. Jones soon became a regular session musician at Stax and recruited other session musicians to form Booker T. & the M.G.’s, a group which not only backed other artists as the Stax “house band” but also recorded numerous hit singles in their own right and were involved in virtually all of the hits coming out of Stax through the mid and late sixties.

In 1965, Stax and Atlantic formalized their distribution agreement (it had pretty much been a “handshake” agreement). Although the label continued to accelerate towards its peak in 1966, the 1965 agreement would ultimately prove to be devastating to Stax’s business. When Atlantic Records was sold to Warner Bros. In 1967, Stax lost the master tapes and any rights of reproduction for all the music distributed by Atlantic between 1960 and 1967.

The misfortune continued as Otis Redding and several members of The Bar-Kays were killed in a plane crash in December 1967. The following year Stewart sold his shares in Stax and Axton followed suit a few years later. Despite a frenzy of new releases in the late sixties  and early seventies and the recording of three new albums at Stax’s studio by Elvis Presley, the label declined through the early seventies and filed for Chapter 11 in 1975.

Stax 60 logo

In May 2017, the Stax Classics series was launched as a collaboration between Rhino and Concord. This ambitious collection currently consists of ten compilation albums, each one focused on a classic Stax artist, with more collections to be released in the near future.

William Bell
Booker T and the MGs
The Dramatics
Isaac Hayes
Albert King
Otis Redding
Sam and Dave
The Staple Singers
Johnnie Taylor
Carla Thomas

 

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Chuck Berry in the 1950s

This past week the world lost an original music legend and rock pioneer when Chuck Berry passed away at age 90. A native of St. Louis, Berry began performing at a young age and would have various stages of his musical career with differing levels of success. Some of these stages met their terminal end as Berry spent one of several stints in prison throughout his adult life. Good and bad, Chuck Berry was original and inspirational for about the final seven decades of his life.

During these many decades now (and probably for many decades to come), the exact point of origin of rock n’ roll has been disputed. Whatever the exact place in time, it is clear that the decade of the 1950s saw the fusion of traditional styles along with the adoption of new technologies to make new weird and wonderful sounds which would soon converge under the umbrella of this new popular genre. With this, there is little dispute about Berry’s role in developing this new sound.

Entering the decade, Berry was a young husband and father who played in bands around St. Louis to earn an extra source of income to supplement his full-time industrial work. Berry gained much influence from blues musicians like T-Bone Walker and Ira Harris and soon entered into a long time collaboration with piano player Johnnie Johnson of the Johnnie Johnson trio. Here, Berry got his first exposure to country music, which he fused with his blues background to the extent that some referred to him as the “black hillbilly”. To this end, Berry drew influence from country artists like Jimmie Rodgers and, on top of this unique musical mixture, Berry began to develop a distinct stage persona by incorporating unique dance moves, which helped accelerate his live popularity.

In 1955, Chuck Berry migrated to Chicago and struck up a professional relationship with blues legend Muddy Waters. In turn, Waters referred him to Leonard Chess of Chess Records as Berry prepared to be the next blues star at Chess, but was surprised when Chess was more interested in a traditional country fiddle tune called “Ida Red”, which Berry had adapted. In the recording session, Berry recorded the song with new lyrics and the title “Maybellene”. The result was a million selling mainstream pop song, which sparked Berry’s career and initiated the his most commercially successful era.

During the year 1956 Berry released several more singles, with the most successful being the song “Roll Over Beethoven”, as well as contributed several songs to the soundtrack for the film Rock Rock Rock. Then in 1957, Berry finally released his debut album After School Session which included twelve tracks completely written by Berry himself, a very rare accomplishment for rock artists of the era. By this time, Berry was on national tours with top artists like Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Carl Perkins and the Everly Brothers, which brought him exposure in multiple markets as well as on television. One Dozen Berrys was his second all-original LP, released in 1958, and then he released on called Chuck Berry Is On Top, an apt title for Berry’s position at the end of 1950s.

However, the next of several legal downfalls had a crippling effect on Berry’s career trajectory. He was convicted for transporting a teenage girl across state lines and eventually served a year and a half in prison in 1962 and 1963. Through most of the decade of the 1960s, Berry was more successful as an influence (to popular rock/pop groups like the Beatles, Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys) than as a first-person musical artist. Although he did return to slight commercial success in the early seventies, Berry would spend the long expanse of the rest of his life mainly as an undisputed rock legend.

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Elvis’ Christmas Album

Buy Elvis’ Christmas Album

Elvis Christmas Album by Elvis PresleyReleased during the height of Elvis Presley‘s initial popularity, the original 1957 release Elvis’ Christmas Album found popularity both initially and through the subsequent decades. This fourth studio album by the eventual “king of rock and roll” consists of a mix of traditional Christmas and contemporary Gospel songs and spent four weeks at the top of the American Pop Albums chart and found repeated success in several subsequent reissues and formats.

Following his initial recordings with Sam Phillips at Sun Records, Presley signed with RCA at the beginning of 1956 and released his self-titled debut in march of that year. Here, along with his Presley’s initial appearance on national television shows, sparked a meteoric rise in popularity throughout 1956 and into 1957. Over this period, Presley released two more LPs, Elvis and Loving You, both of which reached number one on the album charts.

Through this period, Elvis had a strong backing band consisting of guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black and drummer DJ Fontana, who joined him on live occasions as well as in the studio. Elvis’ Christmas Album consisted of eight Christmas-themed songs recorded over three days in September 1957 along with four Gospel songs recorded earlier in year for an EP entitled Peace in the Valley. Along with the core rhythms section and several keyboardists, Presley is backed on most tracks by a vocal ensemble known as “The Jordanaires”.

Roots Rock Review logoElvis’ Christmas Album by Elvis Presley
Released: October 15, 1957
Produced by: Steve Sholes
Track Listing Primary Musicians
Santa Claus Is Back In Town
White Christmas
Here Comes Santa Claus
I’ll Be Home for Christmas
Blue Christmas
Santa Bring My Baby Back (To Me)
O Little Town of Bethlehem
Silent Night
(There’ll Be) Peace In the Valley (For Me)
I Believe
Take My Hand, Precious Lord
It Is No Secret (What God Can Do)
Elvis Presley
Lead Vocals, Guitars
Scotty Moore
Guitars
Dudley Brooks
Piano
Gordon Stoker
Piano
Hoyt Hawkins
Organ
Bill Black
Bass
DJ Fontana
Drums

 

The album’s upbeat first side begins with one of two songs commissioned for this album. Written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, “Santa Claus Is Back in Town” is an excellent blues rock tune which was composed on the spot in the studio and gets the album off to a rollicking start. “White Christmas” follows as a slow and jazzy rock version, built on low piano notes to offer a canvas for Elvis’s unique vocal interpretation. The song was composed by Irving Berlin in 1942 for Bing Crosby and had charted during every Christmas season in the 15 years since its composition. Berlin was not happy with Presley’s version of the song, calling it a “profane parody of his cherished yuletide standard”.

The most iconic and longstanding classic from this album is Presley’s interpretation of “Blue Christmas”. Originally composed in 1948, Presley solidified this song as a rock-and-roll holiday classic with his dramatic vocals. Rounding out the first side are covers of Gene Autry’s “Here Comes Santa Claus”, a crooning ballad version of the World War II era classic “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and the second new song written for this album, “Santa Bring My Baby Back (To Me)”, another pure Christmas rocker.

Elvis Presley and band

The album’s second side features much more somber and religious-oriented music. In fact, it opens with two 19th century church hymns,
“O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night”, which are delivered in their traditional, choir-like arrangements. The four Gospel songs which finish off the album are each done with a soulful vocal style by Presley. Two of these, “(There’ll Be) Peace in the Valley (For Me)” and “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” were composed by the Reverend Thomas A. Dorsey, with the latter of these reportedly being Martin Luther King Jr.’s favorite song (in its original form by Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson). “I Believe” originated as a television show theme by Jane Froman, while the closing “It Is No Secret (What God Can Do)” may be the best of the lot of Gospel songs, delivered as a soft but rich fifties classic and becoming a major influence on Paul McCartney when he began recording with The Quarrymen the following year.

Through its many different versions, Elvis’ Christmas Album has sold over 13 million copies in the United States alone. A few months after its release, Presley was conscripted into the U.S. Army which temporarily disrupted his incredible commercial momentum. Seven years after its original release, “Blue Christmas” was released as a single in 1964 and became a Top 20 hit worldwide.

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Elvis Presley online

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Buy Elvis Christmas Album