Essential New Music: Various Artists “Stax ’68: A Memphis Story”

The legendary Stax imprint was and always will be a phoenix among ashes. Stax ’68: A Memphis Story is a meticulous five-disc set celebrating every seven-inch single released during that year. 1968 was a tumultuous time for the United States, particularly the South. On the heels of labor strikes, race riots and the still “mysterious,” cold-blooded murder of Martin Luther King Jr., Memphis was an epicenter of unending turmoil. Legend has it the Stax building was literally the only building standing on its block at one point, unscathed at that. That tale is just one of the many told between the lines and notes in this 134-song monolith.

One could scrawl for ages on the social, political and racial unrest inflicting Memphis and the South as whole in 1968. In addition, Stax label keystone Otis Redding—and nearly all of backing band the Bar-Kays—died in a plane crash, snuffing out the heart light of the label’s promising future in the winter of 1967. On top of all that, Stax was stripped of its on-loan superstars from distributing label Atlantic: Sam & Dave. Not only did Stax lose the powerful soul duo, but also its distribution deal with Atlantic. Instead of folding, Stax regrouped and formidably forged onward and upward.

Disc one of Stax ’68 commences fittingly with Redding’s timeless “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” b/w “Sweet Lorene” as an opening two-punch salvo. Sam & Dave follow up with body blows, while Rufus Thomas and William Bell wait to finish the round with deadening combinations. All five discs follow suit, a handful of bruising rounds in the almighty name of blues, R&B and rock ’n’ soul. The collection is packed with hit makers and household names; however, it’s the lesser-knowns that shine brightly. We all adore Otis, worship Booker T and his MGs, salivate over Albert King’s licks and shake it down with Eddie Floyd and Johnnie Taylor. That’s not to overlook the Staples Singers, Isaac Hayes or the inimitable Carla Thomas. But the story of white soul singer Linda Lyndell harbors interest, as does the psych rock of the Aardvarks and the jazzy jump blues of Fresh Air. Are you well-versed in the Soul Children? How about the Pop Corn Generation or Ollie & The Nightingales? Stax spent 1968 reinventing itself both audibly and structurally. Risks were taken on both fronts.

Music legends are the main draw of Stax ’68, but the set is essential because of the all-but-forgottens. Stax was more than busy in 1968, and this is the ultimate collection, warts and all. The artwork is impeccable, with previously unshared photographs depicting the incivility of the times and, conversely, the high times the cherished label and its artists share. The liner notes leave nothing to be desired and are penned by Memphis music scholars Andrea Lisle and Robert Gordon, as well as S-Curve Records mastermind Steve Greenberg. Stax ’68 is a museum-quality boxed set of sight, sound and the human condition—a feast for the ears, soul and mind.

—Scott Zuppardo