A new compilation came out today, collecting all of Stax Records’ singles from the year 1968, and it’s both an uncannily visceral time capsule and a timeless collection of some of the finest sounds ever recorded. Stax ’68: A Memphis Story is packaged across five CDs and a 60-page book, and can be purchased here, although you can also stream its 134 tracks on streaming services (like Spotify). Due to the perhaps arbitrary confines of the collection—by adhering solely to the 45s released within one calendar year—it’s neither a comprehensive overview of Memphis, Tennessee's seminal Stax Records nor an in-depth look at 1968 in the US as a whole. But this period is worth a focused view: As the box set's accompanying essays explain, 1968 was a difficult and historic year for Memphis, most notably for the April 4 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. which took place in that city, but also for the sanitation strike that precipitated King’s visit, the ingrained Jim Crow racism that led to the strike, and to the violence and riots that followed King's murder. Through it all, Stax Records was very much in a process of reinventing itself, stepping out from the shadows of soul hit-factory label Motown as well as Stax’s own distribution partner Atlantic Records, to stake its claim the most important soul and R&B label in the country.
Stax had begun the year in mourning, following the December 1967 death of Otis Redding and members of Stax session band the Bar-Kays in a Wisconsin plane crash. And just a few short months later, Stax was on the verge of collapse—their distribution deal with Atlantic Records ended following that label’s sale to Warner Bros., and in looking at the paperwork, Stax soon discovered they didn’t own any of their own back catalog, it all being Atlantic’s property. Atlantic also used legalese to whisk one of the label’s top acts, Sam and Dave, away from them, and when negotiations in New York went nowhere, Stax retreated to Memphis and essentially started the label over from scratch.
The material on Stax ’68: A Memphis Story covers both halves of this contractual rift, transitioning from the final Atlantic days to the first releases of Stax’s second incarnation. As the discs progress, you can sense Stax digging into their regional identity instead of aiming to please their slick corporate distributors, and the songs become more Southern and less cosmopolitan. But what’s really revelatory about the compilation was how much bigger Stax’s purview was than merely the soul and R&B records that have begun their legacy. There are songs from Stax’s affiliated labels, not just Volt, but Hip, Arch, Enterprise, and Magic Touch. And next to the familiar soul, gospel, funk, and rhythm and blues tracks are all manner of records, including straight-up jazz from the Eddie Henderson Quintet, girl-group pop from the Goodees, classic blues from Albert King, country cornpone (a remake of “Who’s Making Love” by Daaron Lee), a really wretched stab at jug-band ragtime from a forgotten group called Fresh Air, and other period curios. The white pop stuff is mixed: For every dud like Bobby Whitlock’s “Raspberry Rug,” there’s a slice of long-lost psychedelia like the charming “Lollipop Lady” from the Delrays (whose ranks briefly featured a young Michael McDonald).
Still, what surprised me most about Stax ’68: A Memphis Story is how much white music sits next to the famous stuff. There’s a good amount acid rock and whimsical white-guy psychedelia in these tracks. Not every track is a gem: The B-sides, included for every single, are frequently really good, but there are more than a few also-rans here, and the further Stax moved away from their established, masterful grip on soul, the less effective the results.
Nevertheless, the compilation does an admirable job of juxtaposing Stax—a melting of pot of black and white—against the backdrop of the very divided city of Memphis, itself part of a very divided American South. And if there’s one thing to take away from this intriguing, binge-worthy collection, it’s that music, while chronicling difficult times and functioning as a potent form of activism, can also open windows onto utopian ideals, where all groups can come together and make beautiful sounds. There’s as much aspiration as frustration in these sides, and even though they were made a half-century ago, the spells they cast haven’t lost an ounce of potency.