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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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Dr. John’s Gumbo

Buy Dr. John’s Gumbo

Dr John's Gumbo45 years ago Dr. John released his iconic tribute to New Orleans music, Dr. John’s Gumbo. This fifth album by this artist is a collection of covers of classic tunes associated with his native city. The resulting sound falls somewhere between the earliest rock n’ roll and the contemporary sounds of the early seventies, all while remaining musically true to the New Orleans R&B sound.

Dr. John was born Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack with French lineage in New Orleans dating back to the early 1800s. His earliest influences were King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, while as a teen he was present at some of the earliest recordings of Little Richard. At age 16, Rebennack gained employment as a producer at Ace Records while playing guitar in local clubs through the late 1950s. After deciding to concentrate on piano and adopting the stage persona “Dr. John”, he migrated to Los Angeles to join the booming session musician scene and became part of the famous “wrecking crew”. Here, he played on albums ranging from Sonny & Cher to Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.

In the late 1960s, Dr. John struck out as a solo artist, at first combining his core New Orleans-style with psychedelic rock tilted towards his fascination of voodoo religious ceremonies. His acclaimed debut album Gris-Gris was released in 1968 followed by the subsequent yearly releases Babylon, Remedies and The Sun, Moon, and Herbs, which all worked to build Dr. John’s cult following.

Co-produced by Harold Battiste and Jerry Wexler, Dr. John’s Gumbo was the first studio album to significantly change musical direction. He later wrote that this album was, “both a tribute to and my interpretation of the music I had grown up with in New Orleans in the late 1940s and 1950s.”

Roots Rock Review logoDr. John’s Gumbo by Dr. John
Released: April 20, 1972
Produced by: Harold Battiste & Jerry Wexler
Track Listing Primary Musicians
Iko Iko
Blow Wind Blow
Big Chief
Somebody Changed the Lock
Mess Around
Let the Good Times Roll
Junko Partner
Stack-A-Lee
Tipitina
Those Lonely Lonely Nights
Huey Smith Medley
Little Liza Jane
Dr. John
Lead Vocals, Piano, Guitars
Harold Battiste
Clarinet, Saxophone, Horn Arrangements
Sidney George
Harmonica, Saxophone
Jimmy Calhoun
Bass
Fred Staehle
Drums, Percussion

 

Dr. John’s Gumbo starts with its most significant hit, “Iko Iko”, originally composed by James “Sugar Boy” Crawford in the 1950s and telling the story of a parade collision between two tribes of Mardi Gras Indians. Musically, the choppy rhythms are accented by scratchy lead vocals, responsive backing vocals and just the right amount of boogie-woogie piano and brass sections, nicely setting the pace for the album. “Blow Wind Blow” the first of several Huey “Piano” Smith songs, works its way in from the ending of “Iko Iko” in medley-like fashion and offers another fine upbeat and entertaining rock boogie.

Earl King‘s “Big Chief” is built on a cool electric organ arpeggio, offering a spooky-cool groove upon which to build – other elements including a growling sax and more call and response backing vocals. “Somebody Changed the Lock” leans the most towards New Orleans jazz, especially through the various iconic horns throughout above the now standard boogie piano. Next, (Ahmet Ertegün) – here Dr. John puts a a Dixieland spin on the Ray Charles classic, “Mess Around” (written by Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegün), with this version offering not too much in terms of substance but plenty of pure musical fun.

Dr John

“Let the Good Times Roll”, another song originally by King, stays within the original blues structure of the song, with much a capella vocals in between the musical chops during the verses. “Junko Partner” is built upon a consistent, shuffling drum beat before the fine piano-led blues verses. This song persists in its methodical rhythms throughout, even having a bridge which is purely vocals over drum shuffle. “Stack-A-Lee” follows with as good a version of this much covered staple (usually titled “Stagger Lee”), featuring a frantic piano and contrasting growling vocals, while Professor Longhair‘s “Tipitina” is recorded much more low-fi, almost sounding like it was recorded live in a club or even during a rehearsal.

The final stretch of the album starts with “Those Lonely Lonely Nights”, rapid piano over steady rhythms in Fats Domino-like fashion. Next is a seamless tribute to Huey “Piano” Smith, with a medley of three tunes (“High Blood Pressure”, “Don’t You Just Know It”, and “Well I’ll Be John Brown”) are offered over steady boogie rock, never breaking out of key or rhythm. The album wraps with “Little Liza Jane”, featuring a good sax lead and rich harmonies.

Dr. John’s Gumbo commenced a very successful phase in Dr. John’s career and set the stage for the follow-up 1973 album, In the Right Place, which became his most commercially successful album ever.
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