Soul Serenade: Stax “Soul Explosion”

It’s a well-known story at this point. In 1968, Stax Records co-founder Jim Stewart decided to put an end to the distribution deal that his company had with Atlantic Records. Warner Bros.- Seven Arts had acquired Atlantic the previous year and Stewart had insisted on a “key man” clause in his deal with Atlantic which was triggered when his key man, Jerry Wexler, left Atlantic. The contract called for a renegotiation or outright termination of the distribution deal if Wexler left. Stewart hoped for renegotiation but he considered the offers he got from Warner-Seven Arts to be insulting and he decided to terminate the contract.

As part of the termination, Stewart asked for the Stax master recordings to be returned to him. Unfortunately, Stewart had failed to read the contract carefully before he signed it. The contract said that if the deal between Stax and Atlantic was terminated, the master recordings would belong to Atlantic. That meant all of the masters, every recording that Stax had sent to Atlantic for distribution from 1960 -1967. Stewart felt betrayed and Wexler caught a lot of the blame. In his defense, the legendary A&R man claimed that he hadn’t read the contract carefully either. The end result was that the only music that Stax still owned was music that the company had not released. Even Sam & Dave, who had so many hits for Stax, turned out to be merely on loan from Atlantic and had to return there. They never had another hit. To add crushing insult to crushing injury, the biggest Stax star of them all, Otis Redding, was killed in a plane crash on December 10, 1967, along with all but two members of the Bar-Kays. A few months later Dr. King was murdered in Memphis and things went from very bad to much worse.

Stewart sold his shares in Stax to Paramount Pictures in May 1968, although he remained with the company for a while in a diminished capacity. Al Bell was named Vice-President of Stax and became more active as Stewart retreated. Bell had the unenviable task of keeping a record company with no catalog on its feet. He did what anyone in his position would do. He called for a “Soul Explosion.” It began with the first Stax hit since the split with Atlantic, Johnnie Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love.” Next, Bell presided over the unprecedented release of 27 albums and 30 singles in a short period of time. Suddenly, Stax was back on the musical map led by the songwriter/producer turned hitmaker Isaac Hayes, the gospel to R&B shift of the Staple Singers, and Stax veteran Rufus Thomas. Others who assisted in the label’s resurrection included Eddie Floyd, Carla Thomas, the Mad Lads, Albert King, the newly re-formed Bar-Kays, and Ollie & the Nightingales.

Soul Explosion LP cover

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stax resurgence Craft Recordings has embarked on an ambitious reissue program that includes the digital release of 30 Stax albums from the era, one a day for the month of June. In addition to the artists mentioned there are albums from the Soul Children, David Porter, the Dramatics, Estelle, Myrna, and Sylvia (from the Sweet Inspirations) and others. The company has also curated a Soul Explosion playlist for the streaming platforms. Perhaps the crown jewel of the Stax reissue program is the two-disc Soul Explosion album which has been newly remastered and released on vinyl for the first time since 1969. Here’s the Soul Explosion tracklist:

LP 1 – Side 1
Johnnie Taylor “Who’s Making Love”
Jimmy Hughes “Like Everything About You”
Booker T. & The MG’s “Hang ‘Em High”
Carla Thomas “Where Do I Go”
Eddie Floyd “I’ve Never Found A Girl (To Love Me Like You Do)”
Southwest F.O.B. “Smell Of Incense”
Albert King “Cold Feet”

LP 1 – Side 2
Booker T. & The MG’s “Soul Limbo”
The Mad Lads “So Nice”
Eddie Floyd “Bring It On Home To Me”
William Bell & Judy Clay “Private Number”
The Staple Singers “Long Walk To D.C.”
Ollie & The Nightingales “I’ve Got A Sure Thing”
The Bar-Kays “Copy Kat”

LP 2 – Side 1
Booker T. & The MG’s “Soul Clap ‘69”
The Staple Singers “Hear My Call”
Johnnie Taylor “Save Your Love For Me”
Jimmy Hughes “Peeped Around Yonder’s Bend”
Carla Thomas “Book Of Love”
The Mad Lads “These Old Memories”
Southwest F.O.B. “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”

LP 2 – Side 2
The Bar-Kays “Hot Hips”
Ollie & The Nightingales “Heartache Mountain”
Johnnie Taylor “Twenty Years From Today”
Eddie Floyd “It’s Wrong To Be Loving You”
Judy Clay “It’s Me”
Booker T. & The MG’s “Booker’s Theme”
Albert King “Left Hand Woman (Get Right With Me)”

Stax was back in business, for the time being. In 1972 the label flexed its powerful muscles by presenting Wattstax, a major concert in Los Angeles. Over 100,000 people attended and the concert was filmed for motion picture release. Bell and Stewart had purchased their company back from Paramount but things began to sour under Bell’s leadership. Bell made a distribution deal with Clive Davis at CBS but when Davis was fired by the company there was no one left at CBS who cared about Stax. Despite the lack of interest, CBS would not let Stax out of the contract fearing that Stax would make a better deal with a CBS competitor. Without anyone to push their product, Stax was on the brink of bankruptcy. In order to avoid that prospect loans were made by Union Planters Bank in Memphis and Stewart even mortgaged his home to keep his company from dying. It wasn’t to be though. The bank got scared and called in the loans. Stewart lost everything. There was more than a little racism involved in the bank’s decision, according to Bell. Apparently, white power structures and successful black companies were not going to be able to co-exist in Memphis. Stax filed for bankruptcy on December 19, 1975, and was shuttered by a judge a few weeks later.

For more information on the Stax reissues please visit the label’s website.


Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross: Episode One Hundred Twelve

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross:  Episode One Hundred Twelve

Of course, Jon and Rob are immediately back at it with the 112th episode of Radio City… and this is one of those conversations where you just can’t help but go “wow!” afterwards – it’s that good; intense, interesting and completely on-the-one.  

The boys dive right in as Rob gives us the scope of the way things have been unravelling in New York City, courtesy of their unqualified mayor who has announced his candidacy for President; the Alabama abortion decision; a “Game Of Thrones” post mortem; the very sad passing of Tardar Sauce, known and loved by everyone as Grumpy Cat plus “In Our Heads” and you’ll have to catch your breath…

Buckle up for this ride – this is Rob and Jon at their best.  And you’ll know why, very quickly.  So please:  settle in and enjoy this  edition of Radio City… 

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross: Episode One Hundred Twelve 

The podcast will be on the site as well as for subscription via iTunes and other podcast aggregators. Subscribe and let people know about Radio City, as well as Popdose’s other great podcasts David Medsker’s Dizzy Heights and In:Sound with Michael Parr and Zack Stiegler.

Popdose Song Premiere: the black watch, “Mad”

For years I’ve wondered why the heck John Andrew Frederick’s indie rock collective, the black watch, has not enjoyed even the cult-like status of kindred spirit bands like the Chameleons, the Comsat Angels, the June Brides or the Stone Roses. AND THEN, I watched America’s Got Talent this week and I figured it out (apologies in advance to fans of this band, this premiere is about to take a brief detour).

The June 4 episode of AGT was packed with some of the best singing, danger, dancing, and comedy acts the show has ever seen – and yet – the golden buzzer went to a half-baked karaoke performance from a really handsome All American guy who looked like he just jumped on stage as a lark. Joseph Allen had a megawatt smile and was charming as hell, but couldn’t sing or rap better than any average person at an open mic, let alone the world’s biggest talent show. But since he had a lot of family and friends in the audience, the judges acted like he was the second coming of Drake, and perhaps he was. The judges seemed to want to impress Allen more than he seemed to care about impressing them. He appeared to know he was going to get the golden buzzer before he even sang. Perhaps he felt entitled to it, because, well, he’s big man on campus. Meanwhile, Benicio Bryant, who could be the second coming of Harry Styles, Prince, Michael Jackson, and/or Terrence Trent Darby in terms of a one of a kind voice, an air of mystery, and a truly original look, was instantly forgotten.

What does all this have to do with the black watch? Well, plenty. For some three odd decades they’ve delivered packs of epic tracks across stacks of crackling wax, and yet, for the most part, crickets. Talent? Quality? The masses are having none of that. Celebrity president versus a qualified leader? Lock him in! Lo-fi audio with commercial breaks streaming versus uninterrupted pristine CD sound? Sure, why not. For the black watch, rejection from the masses despite loads of critical adoration serves only as a validation of their greatness.

So it makes sense that at this stage in his rock career, Frederick gets both ‘Mad’ and even. On June 21, his longtime label, ATOM Records, drops not only a new black watch album, Magic Johnson, but also three career-spanning compilations:

“31 Years of Obscurity: The Best of the black watch: 1988-2019” — a single disc compilation (also digital and streaming) — perhaps the best title for a hits compilation since Comatose-Non-Reaction, the Thwarted Pop Career of Danielle Dax.

“The Vinyl Years: 1988-1993” — rare music re-Issued (CD, digital, streaming)

The Completed Works: 1988-2019 — Every song the black watch ever released available (only on a limited edition USB thumb drive)

Popdose is proud to premiere a new single from Magic Johnson, ‘Mad’:

“ATOM Records is emptying the vaults of all of our recorded work (17 albums, 5 EP’s, a handful of 7″ singles) in order to get the indie world ready for more fuzz-jangle gems by the black watch,” Frederick told Popdose. “This isn’t the end of the band by a long chalk, but a restock–for the next 30 years of putative non-obscurity!”

While we had Frederick’s attention – beyond the band, he’s also an author and professor – we asked him a burning question – what’s in a name? We always thought the black watch (with its no capitals aesthetic) sounded like some shadow resistance organization. “the black watch is named after the Scottish regiment of warriors and bagpipers on account of I myself am mostly Scottish, plus Irish and English,” he said. “As a child, I was both musical and obsessed with the British army.  As a child, mind you.  Totally anti-war with all my heart NOW.”

So there ya go. Buy some albums by the black watch and have yourself a stellar time, all while supporting the mainstream pop resistance. If mankind is still around in 31 years, here’s to their 17 next albums. Fame, celebrity, and other trappings be damned. But let’s admit it, some of that Drake cash would be nice.

Magic Johnson by the black watch is out June 21 on ATOM Records.

In the featured photo above, pictured L to R, the black watch: Andy Creighton (no relation to this post’s author), John Andrew Fredrick, Chris Rackard, Rick Woodard. Photo by Tony Pinto.

The Vinyl Diaries: Hawks, Doves and Kasey Anderson

Kasey Anderson owes me $46, but I don’t want his money.

Seven or so years ago, Counting Crows released a covers album (Underwater Sunshine) that contained an Adam Duritzian take on a song called “Like Teenage Gravity,” by a band called Kasey Anderson and the Honkies (as I said at the time, singer Durtiz probably kicked himself for not naming a Counting Crows album Teenage Gravity). The Anderson song came from an album released in 2011 called Nowhere Nights, which I listened to somehow (probably a Spotify stream) and really dug, so much so that I tracked down his website store and ordered vinyl copies of that and another record.

The records never arrived. The wait went on so long, I forgot about the whole thing until I read an article about Anderson facing charges of bilking investors out of more than half a million dollars for a charity album that never materialized (he got caught around the same time I ordered the records from him). He wound up doing jail time for that, and came out of the pokey clean of the drugs he had used a good bit of that money procuring, and also in treatment for bipolar disorder.

According to an interview he gave last summer, Anderson wasn’t sure he would return to recording music, but he did, releasing an album under the guise of a new band, Hawks and Doves. It’s called From a White Hotel (Jullian Records), and it’s pretty damn good.

And I wouldn’t bring up Anderson’s legal issues or my irritating but comparatively small financial loss, were it not for the fact that Anderson himself addresses the whole shebang on From a White Hotel’s title track:

Some days I wasn’t thinkin’
Some days I wasn’t thinkin’ straight
Some nights I did enough cocaine
To raise my heroes from their graves …

And they sent me off to prison
For tellin’ half a million lies
And livin’ all around the world
On bread that wasn’t mine

Anderson says that recording and playing “From a White Hotel” is a way of accepting responsibility for what he did, holding himself accountable, and that seems as good a reason as any to do such a thing, to lay his failings out in front of people time and time again, from every stage that will have him. He did a bad thing, but it’s a hell of a thing to make himself revisit it.

The rest of From a White Hotel contains healthy dollops of everything I dug about Anderson from the first I encountered his music. His is a near-perfect amalgam of twang and volume, a throwback to a not-quite-young-anymore Steve Earle (who Anderson shouts out in one track), when he made Exit 0 and Copperhead Road. It’s the kind of amped-up country rock that thankfully seems to be making a resurgence these days, thanks to performers like Jason Isbell, Austin Lucas, Cody Jinks, Jimbo Mathus and Red Shahan, among others. You won’t find much, if any, of this stuff on country radio, in large part because the music has balls and some semblance of soul, which are not the forte of programmers who routinely put the three-minute Corona commercials from the likes of Florida Georgia Line and Sam Hunt on the airwaves.

Anderson and his band come out of the gate hard, with “The Dangerous Ones,” which starts with a steady kick drum and distorted guitar and instructions to “Let the television burn, babe / There’s a riot in the streets.” It’s a simultaneously vague and pointed sentiment, perhaps personally and/or politically motivated, delivered with a genuine snarl. There’s something closing in on him, some power beyond his own, and it’s malevolent as hell. His only response is to be malevolent right back — “Let it burn, let it burn, let the motherfucker burn — it’s election day,” he sings later on. “They shut the water off last week / I guess it’s gonna burn either way.” 

Speaking of spiteful and vicious, check out the guitar tone on the overdriven blues “Get Low” — it’s nasty stuff. The material on From a White Hotel is not all loud and angry — the bass groove of “Every Once in a While,” for example, shows off Anderson’s soul influence. And, speaking of influences, there’s “Chasing the Sky,” with its three chords and familiar story —  leaving the hometown, finding trouble, “can’t seem to keep your chin off the ground.” It’s a well-worn trope, but Anderson’s voice is  authoritative and genuine — you can comfortably slide the song into a mix with the Mellencamp and Springsteen and Earle tunes that blazed a trail for it.

The breadth of Anderson’s songwriting is clear when you listen to “Geek Love” and “Bulletproof Hearts (For Laura Jane)” back to back.  The former is a piano ballad on which the protagonist gazes around a carnival at daybreak, sees ghosts wandering the midway and he issues the refrain “I’m not comin’ home” as something less a threat than a resignation. The characters he encounters in his big-top life — the underwater blues singers, the “pincushion kid,” the jealous sword swallower — all seem real; it’s life outside the circus that is the abstraction.

“Bulletproof Heart” is no less engaging — in this case, Anderson’s character is Laura Jane Grace, the real-life transgender punk singer/songwriter and voice of Against Me! and, more recently, The Devouring Mothers. The song is a curious distillation of Grace’s story, with the intriguing refrain “There ain’t no such thing as real American girls.” The song does have a great, moving final sentiment: “For a while it all went wrong, but when you’re gone / They’ll say, ‘She earned her mama’s name’ /  No one loves in vain.”

From a White Hotel is a strong record, and a welcome return to record shops for Anderson, a return that is bolstered by a new recording he and Hawks and Doves dropped in March, called The Garden Sessions EP.  Recorded live last October during an acoustic session at the Underwater Sunshine Festival (curated by Adam Duritz), The Garden Sessions features a handful of Anderson’s best songs (including “Like Teenage Gravity” and “Geek Love”) and a faithful cover of Tom Petty’s “Walls.” It’s the best five bucks you’ll spend this spring, and probably this summer, too.

So, yeah, years ago I gave Kasey Anderson some money for records he never sent me, but that’s all right. As long as he’s clean and healthy and making music as good as the stuff on From a White Hotel and this new EP, I’m happy — for him and for his fans, those of us standing behind him and his peers, listening and waiting, helping keep this music alive until the bro-country shit-show runs its course. 

Sometimes it’s better to lay siege to a castle than to storm it. At some point, the walls will fall. We can only hope.

Dizzy Heights #56: Let’s Stay Friends Forever – The Wind and the Rain

Sorry for the extended absence. It was a whirlwind couple of weeks (kids finish school, vacation, totally first world problems), but here is the overdue, Tears for Fears-inspired follow-up to the show about the sun and the moon. I actually had to export this show about six times to get all of the tracks to appear (thanks, network drive), but I think, THINK, that everything turned out okay.

Individual results may vary, but for me, doing a show about the wind and the rain essentially meant doing a show about the rain. The ratio of rain songs to wind songs, no joke, is 19:4.

LOTS of artists making their Dizzy Heights debut this week, including Eddie Rabbitt, Nick Heyward, Garbage, The Alarm (wait, what?), Sam Phillips, The Marmalade, and Tal Bachman.

Thank you, as always, for listening.