In 1966 – possibly my favorite pop music year ever – Booker T. and the M.G.’s put out a holiday album.
The group was an “American instrumental R and B/funk band that was influential in shaping the sound of Southern soul and Memphis soul.” True, that. The members in 1966 were Booker T. Jones (organ, piano), Steve Cropper (guitar), Al Jackson Jr. (drums), and Donald “Duck” Dunn (bass).
Stax Records was the great record label out of Memphis, TN. Motown may have been “The Sound of Young America,” But Stax was “Soulsville U.S.A.”, the title of a tremendous book by Rob Bowman.
“In the 1960s, as members of the house band of Stax Records, they played on hundreds of recordings by artists including Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Bill Withers, Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas, Johnnie Taylor, and Albert King. They also released instrumental records under their own name, including the 1962 hit single ‘Green Onions.'”
The Astors also spent 2 1/2 months performing on tour with The James Brown Review.
I was listening to one of my Stax-Volt box sets, which I usually do in the summer, in honor of the label’s co-founder Jim Stewart’s birthday. (His sister Estelle Axton ALSO belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, BTW.) I’ve written about Stax before, including its complicated relationship with Atlantic Records.
I noticed that some of the Memphis soul label artists, especially the more obscure ones – we’re not talking Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas – had tracks with food-related titles.
This is not to say that some of the name artists didn’t ALSO choose a musical culinary route. Booker T and the MG’s had a song about popcorn, e.g. But I picked three songs to highlight, two of which may give you tooth decay.
Candy – The Astors. Composed by Booker T & MG’s guitarist Steve Cropper and Isaac Hayes, this is the only one of the Memphis group’s songs to chart. #12 on the R&B charts, #63 on the pop charts (Billboard) in the summer of 1965.
“As ‘Candy’ moved up the charts, The Astors performed on shows at the Uptown Theater in Philly, the Howard Theater in D.C., The Regal Theater in Chicago, and The Apollo Theater in New York. The other performers on these shows included The O’Jays, The Coasters, Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions, and Redd Foxx to name a few. The Astors also spent 2 1/2 months performing on tour with The James Brown Review.”
Every Day Will Be Like A Holiday was a minor success in 1967.
When I obtained two box sets of the Memphis-based soul label STAX several years back, I noticed that there were a few holiday-related singles in the collections. Here are just three.
Booker T. and the MG’s
The STAX house band, included Booker T. Jones (organ, piano), Steve Cropper (guitar), Lewie Steinberg, replaced in 1965 by Donald “Duck” Dunn (bass), and Al Jackson, Jr. (drums). They also had some hit singles.
The group released a holiday album, In The Christmas Spirit in 1966. It put out one seasonal single that year, Jingle Bells, b/w Winter Wonderland. “Jingle Bells peaked at #20 on Billboard’s list of Christmas-related singles in 1966. It did not make the standard pop charts.”
The next December, STAX released another single, Silver Bells b/w the non-album track, Winter Snow. Booker is still playing music, often with Steve Cropper.
The singer/songwriter/pianist had a number of soul hits. Every Day Will Be Like A Holiday was a minor success in 1967, getting to #33 on the r&b charts. Bell was still performing at the beginning of 2015.
The keyboard player/songwriter for STAX, the singer, who died in 2008), released a couple of albums in 1970, but also a holiday, non-album single, one that invokes Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Jingle Bells, and We Three Kings, among other songs.
Sam Moore was blown away, and uttered “Play it, Steve” spontaneously.
Samuel David Moore (born October 12, 1935) and the late Dave Prater (May 9, 1937 – April 9, 1988) comprised, inarguably, the most successful and critically acclaimed soul-singing duo, Sam & Dave, from 1961 to 1981. They are members of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (1992) and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. Sam Moore has continued his career as a solo performing and recording artist.
They had a complicated recording situation, signed to Atlantic Records, but leased to the soul label Stax for a time in order to get the Memphis feel. Their working relationship was also strange; “according to Moore, they did not speak to each other offstage for almost 13 years.”
A Place Nobody Can Find, written by David Porter, was their first STAX single, b/w Goodnight Baby (Isaac Hayes/Porter), both sides featured Dave Prater singing lead. It failed to chart. That would soon change.
Many of the song description narratives are from the great book Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of STAX RECORDS by Rob Bowman. Links to all songs.
10. I Take What I Want (Hayes/Mabon Hodges/Porter), 1965 – another early song that failed to chart. Note that many of these songs were written by the team of Isaac Hayes (of “Shaft” fame), and David Porter, who also produced these and many future songs. They also wrote hits for other STAX artists.
9. You Got Me Hummin’ (Hayes/Porter), #77 pop, #7 r&b in 1967 – such nice rhythmic humming, it wasn’t the bawdy song that the writers had envisioned.
8. You Don’t Know Like I Know (Hayes/Porter), #90 pop, #7 r&b in 1965 – their first hit, due in no small part to the promotional skills of STAX’s Al Bell. It was inspired by the gospel song You Don’t Know Like I Know What the Lord Has Done for Me. Sam Moore hated the song, and about half the tunes presented to him at STAX because Hayes and Porter made him sing high in his vocal range. Dave sings the first verse, then they trade lines. Instead of a solo, Hayes and Porter put in a horn ensemble, inspired by Otis Redding’s In the Midnight Hour.
7. You Don’t Know What You Mean to Me (Eddie Floyd/Steve Cropper) #48 pop, #20 r&b in 1968 – I’m not a great fan of talking in pop songs. But when Sam & Dave do it – “Eddie FLOYD wrote the song” – it’s different. Steve Cropper is best known as the guitarist of the Stax Records house band, Booker T. & the M.G.’s.
6. Soothe Me (Sam Cooke), the live version went #56 pop, #16 r&b, #35 UK – smooth like Sam Cooke was.
5. Soul Man (Hayes/Porter), #2 pop for three weeks, #1 r&b for seven weeks, 24 UK in 1967. A Grammy Hall of Fame song. Isaac Hayes suggested Steve Cropper play a slide guitar lick, and Cropper, not having a proper slide, used a cigarette lighter. Sam Moore was blown away and uttered “Play it, Steve” spontaneously, which was kept in the mix. The success of the Blues Brothers’ cover, for some reason, made me irritable.
4. Wrap It Up (Hayes/Porter) – B-side of I Thank You, 1968. The lead vocals were recorded in Paris while the duo was on tour, because the label thought, correctly, that the A-side was going to be a big hit.
3. I Thank You (Hayes/Porter), #9 pop, #4 r&b, #34 UK in 1968 – more talk that works. Sam’s “I want everybody to get off your seat, And get your arms together, And your hands together, And give me some of that old soul clapping” sounded like church, especially the word “old.” Also love the clavinet, played by Hayes. It features background vocals by Ollie and the Nightingales.
2. Hold On, I’m Comin’ (Hayes/Porter), #21 pop, #1 r&b in 1966 – the first Sam & Dave song I was aware of. Hayes had yelled to Porter to hurry, and finish up in STAX’s washroom. Porter responded, “Hold on, man, I’m coming.” Sam is on lead vocals from the start. Little mistakes, such as Wayne Jackson missing a trumpet entrance, were left in. Often covered, never surpassed.
Jim Stewart and sister Estelle Axton were the co-founders of Memphis-based Stax Records. Stax and Motown were the two most important record labels in America in terms of bringing black music into the mainstream during the Sixties and Seventies.
If Motown was “the Sound of Young America,” then Stax/Volt was “Soulsville, U.S.A.” Between 1959 and 1975, Stax and its affiliated labels released 300 albums and 800 singles. Among the latter, 167 were bonafide hit singles.
In late 1958, her younger brother, Jim, appealed for financial help to develop Satellite Records, which he had set up to issue recordings of local Memphis country and rockabilly artists.
Estelle convinced her husband [Everett Axton] that they should remortgage their house and, in February 1959, she joined Satellite as an equal partner, contributing $2,500 – at a time when Everett was earning just $18 a week. She kept her bank job, but took a keen interest in Satellite’s fortunes, enjoying pop music and working with young people.
By 1960, Jim and Estelle had found the Capitol Theatre, in a black Memphis neighbourhood, that they turned into a recording studio. To help defray the rent, she opened a record shop in the foyer, and left the bank to work there. She and Everett remortgaged for another $4,000 to refurbish the cinema…
The studio’s location meant a wealth of aspiring local black talent began dropping in, Estelle’s record shop encouraging them to hang out and play popular songs. “The shop was a workshop for Stax Records,” she explained. “When a record would hit on another label, we would discuss what made it sell.”
Also in 1960, Estelle’s son, saxophonist Charles “Packy” Axton, provided Satellite with its first million-seller when his group, the Mar-Keys, put out their debut single, Last Night. According to Estelle, her brother had not been interested in releasing the record until she pleaded, cried, and swore at him. Then he bet $100 that it would never be a hit. [It was.]
Satellite was forced to change its name after it was discovered that a Los Angeles label already owned the title. Taking the first two letters from Jim and Estelle’s surnames, Stax Records was born…
Over the years, many of Stax’s musicians recalled that it was Estelle who encouraged them, then forced her brother to sign them up. “You didn’t feel any back-off from her, no differentiation that you were black and she was white,” noted Isaac Hayes. “Being in a town where that attitude was plentiful, she just made you feel secure. She was like a mother to us all.”
At Stax, Estelle ran the front of the house – the record store – and Jim ran the back – the studio. Many of the label’s stars first came in as her customers – Booker T. Jones, William Bell, and Albert King among many (in the early years, she also employed Steve Cropper). Her store would serve as both a respite from the studio, and perhaps more importantly, as a library and research facility for the songwriters and musicians.
Estelle was the founder of the Memphis Songwriters Association in 1973. The Memphis Songwriters Association was formed in order to foster the education and advancement of local area songwriters. There was a focus on the development of the songwriting craft with the intentions of producing commercially viable songs and improving performance skills.
After her split from Stax, Axton went on to found the Fretone label, which launched Rick Dees’ 1977 novelty smash “Disco Duck.”
Clearly, Estelle Axton was the ears and heart, and soul of STAX in the 1960s, helping move the label from its rockabilly roots to become a soul powerhouse. In spite of Disco Duck, I believe Estelle Axton ought to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.