Booker T. and the MGs
[Stax (remastered 2011, recorded 1969-70)]
The Staple Singers
Be Attitude: Respect Yourself
[Stax (remastered 2011, rec. 1970-72)]
Taylored in Silk
[Stax (remastered 2011, recorded 1971-73)]
With these three CDs, Concord inaugurates the Stax Remasters series, which consist of deluxe reissues of classic albums from the golden era of Stax records, augmented by bonus tracks and expanded liner notes.
The idea for McLemore Avenue was born when organist Booker T. Jones first heard the Beatles’ penultimate album, Abbey Road, in late 1969. Although multi-artist tributes to classic albums have become relatively common in recent years, the concept of a group covering most of another act’s album was certainly a novelty at the time. What Jones and his compatriots in the MGs chose to do was not to slavishly copy Abbey Road, but to weave most of the album’s tracks into a series of instrumental medleys, steeped generously with Memphis soul. The disc’s first long medley start in the middle of Abbey Road’s second side suite, opening with a slow, stately version of “Golden Slumbers” that weaves together Jones’ lush organ and guitarist Steve Cropper’s meaty arpeggios. A crisp report by drummer Al Jackson slides the group into “Carry that Weight” and propels them into “The End” with Cropper’s stinging blues licks and Jones alternating between organ and electric piano and culminating in an unexpected vocal (Jones?) on the song’s last line. The medley shifts gears again with a slow, lazy stroll through “Here Comes the Sun” and culminates in a steamy version of “Come Together” highlighted by Duck Dunn’s booming bass lines. “Something” starts out faithful to the Beatles arrangement before switching into a long concluding passage with a Bo Diddley beat during which Jones scats around on piano.
Counter-intuitively, and possibly reflecting the length limitations of the vinyl LP, the album concludes with the first part of Abbey Road’s long medley. In this section, the group seems to run out of original ideas midway, but come back with some dazzling interplay between Cropper’s guitar and Jones’s organ on the long, bluesy version of “She’s So Heavy” that closes out the medley and the original album. The reissue of McLemore Avenue is rounded out by six other Booker T and the MGs Beatles covers from earlier albums, making for a tasty package that testifies to the harmonic genius of both groups.
The Staples had started out in the late 1940s as a straight gospel group, but their sound was considerably mainstreamed when they signed to Stax in the late 1960s. In the early 1970s, the Staple Singers were near the peak of their commercial popularity. After recording two Stax albums in Memphis with Booker T. and the MGs, the Staples recorded Beattitude in the fabled Muscle Shoals studio with their remarkable house band, anchored by keyboardist Barry Beckett, bassist David Hood, and drummer Roger Hawkins. The resulting album, Beattitude: Respect Yourself, yielded two of their biggest hits. “I’ll Take You There” was an early experiment in merging reggae beats to the group’s gospel harmonies, and the positive message of “Respect Yourself” resonated with audiences of all hues. The rest of the album focused on gospel themed message tunes like “Name the Missing Word” and “Who Do You Think You are (Jesus Christ the Superstar)?” This reissue includes two bonus tracks, an alternate version of the group’s earlier hit, “Heavy Makes You Happy” and an unreleased tune “Walkin’ In Water Over Your Head.”
R&B crooner Johnnie Taylor enjoyed a string of hits on Stax, most notably his 1968 breakthrough track “Who’ s Makin’ Love.” His 1973 release, Taylored in Silk was recorded in Detroit, with the rhythm tracks added at Muscle Shoals. The album blended smooth soul ballads like “We’ re Getting Careless With Our Love” with more risqué material, including the album’ s biggest hit, the bluesy shuffle “Cheaper to Keep Her.” The reissue includes several earlier Taylor singles, including the two sided hit “ Doing My Own Thing.”
—Michael Parrish (San Jose, CA)
[Vintage photos courtesy of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and used with kind permission.]