Listen to this song by gravelly-voiced soul patriarch Rufus Thomas. It’s ‘Walkin’ the Dog’, his signature hit from 1964 that became an R&B smash, as well as a popular number among mods and R&B revivalists from the 60s until today.
Rufus Thomas was a giant on the Memphis R&B scene, a stalwart figure along the Beale Street strip from the 1940s. Although he was no musical pioneer, what he did do was to embody the regional scene, and providing a reference point for the type of sound that evolved out of Memphis. And by the mid-60s, he was middle-aged, yet with his biggest hit in front of him.
I just love this little tune; unassuming, kind of silly as in a nonsense rhyme we heard as children, yet imminently funky. Listen to that loping guitar! Listen to that growling baritone sax! And Thomas’ fun-loving vocal just exudes charm. This song is the perfect example of why Stax soul music was so popular, and in many ways it was one of the tracks that established its popularity. This is soul music with the grit of electric blues and the sweltering Sunday morning gospel tradition left in.
Rufus would later explore a purer funk sound by the next decade, heavily sampled by hip-hop artists. And of course, there’s his daughter Carla Thomas, who had a pretty stunning career of her own.
Here’s a clip of one of the most important groups in music history with the one of the greatest instrumental tracks of our time; Booker T. & the MGs with their signature hit “Green Onions”. The clip shows the classic line-up of the band, with Booker T. Jones on organ, Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass, Steve Cropper on guitar, and Al Jackson, Jr. on drums.
“Green Onions” is probably their most recognized piece, a tune which would appear in several instances of pop culture, as well as being a huge hit for the group who released it in 1962. It made number one on the R&B charts, and crossed over to the pop charts too, reaching number three. The song is somewhat related to Ray Charles “What’d I Say” which is certainly an inspiration to its structure, yet is something special on its own. Listen to that organ riff – where the hell did it come from? And Steve Cropper’s guitar – just a series of razor-sharp stabs that serve as a call-and-response to it. This is not to mention the steady, relentless rhythm section that pushes the whole thing along.
The group would gel to an unbelievable degree when “Duck” Dunn joined the band in 1965, after original bassist Lewie Steinberg left. At this point, the group began a golden age in soul music, along with producer Chips Moman, and writers Isaac Hayes and David Porter, all under the watchful eye of Stax owner Jim Stewart. Due to how often they played and recorded together as a house band, while also releasing their own records, they became one of the most imitated bands of the era – everyone wanted to nail down their sound.
In addition to soul bands like the Bar-Keys and the Mar-Keys in the States, Booker T. and the MGs also had an effect on mod groups in Britain, like the Who, a group who also traded on soul music as a part of their musical engine. Take a listen to their early instrumental The Ox (so named after bassist John Entwistle), which is a clear tip of the hat to the Memphis group. The two bands would share a stage in 1967, when Booker T. & the MGs played the Monterey Pop Festival as Otis Redding’s back-up band. It was at this time that the imaginary barriers between soul music and rock music were revealed to be just that – imaginary. Further, the group’s last album on the Stax label “Melting Pot” was something of a block party favourite, later to be sampled by early hip-hop pioneers.
Yet by the early 70s, all was not well at Stax, and as a result Jones and Cropper left, leaving Dunn and Jackson behind as sessioners for the remaining years the label had. Although the group would reunite a few times, their run was over. A big comeback which was planned in the mid-70s was cancelled when drummer Al Jackson was murdered during a home invasion.
At the end of the 70s, Cropper and Dunn would play with Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi in the Blues Brothers both on record and on film, Levon Helm‘s RCO All-stars album, and with Booker T. Jones on Neil Young’s 2002 album Are You Passionate?, which featured the band as Young’s backing group on all of the songs. Jones would continue to be a sought-after session musician, and would reunite with his bandmates a number of times over the decades with a number of well-respected drummers in Jackson’s seat, including Willie Hall, Steve Jordan, and Steve Potts.
But, they never bettered “Green Onions”. Everytime I hear it, I get something new. And it never fails to excite me, to make me want to move. Even now, the groove they created has potency.
For more information on Booker T. & The MGs, I suggest you check out my fellow music geek, and a former professor of mine from my York University days, Rob Bowman and his book Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story Of Stax Records. It is the definitive work on the subject, and is written by a Canadian, eh.
This tune packs a punch; a song of regret as expressed by a man who finds himself the victim of his own mistaken priorities. His work has taken him away from focusing on the one he loves. Will she forgive him, or is it too late? In this song, we don’t get to find out. We only hear the anguish of a man who knows he’s messed up, and that he has come to this realization, perhaps, too late.
This is a love song with a big helping of desperation, which really hits me whenever I hear it. I’ve had my own troubles with losing sight of love, and what is important. In this, I kind of find this tune reassuring; that I’m not the only one.
William Bell never gained the stature of an Otis Redding, or a Wilson Pickett. Yet the foundations of a great soul singer are evident in his passionate vocals that bring out the best in his material, putting the song first before any self-indulgent acrobatics by which so many soul singers are often known.
His work while with the Stax label helped to define the sound of southern soul music, and the sounds associated with Stax in particular. His first album Soul of a Bell remains to be an undiscovered gem by many soul fans.
Bell was a songwriter previous to his role as a performer. His first hit was 1961’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water”, the self-penned song which remains to be the one for which he is best known. He is also responsible for co-penning Albert King’s hit for Stax, “Born Under a Bad Sign” with Booker T. Jones, a song which Bell himself recorded. The song is now considered to be a blues standard.
The tune was also covered by Cream in 1968 on the Wheels of Fire LP, proving that his material was open to interpretation as well as cross-over appeal. Indeed, “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” was sampled by the hip-hop artist The Alchemist, featured in the track “Worst Comes to Worst” by Dialated Peoples.
William Bell continues to be a steady performer today, gaining a W.C Handy Heritage award in 2003, and having put out his most recent album in 2006, A New Lease on Life.
In honour of the passing of soul legend Isaac Hayes, here’s a clip of the self-proclaimed black Moses Hayes with his, arguably, most popular song ‘The Theme From Shaft’. This track comes from the 1971 blaxploitation film that helped to kick start a genre, one which shed light on the state of things in the inner cities of America, while simultaneously making a pantheon of heroes for those who lived there.
The song is one of the few theme songs which endures to this day that is this much of its time. The chicka-chicka-wah guitar is clearly in early 70s territory, yet for whatever reason, this song and its signature guitar and hi-hat opening helps to build the legendary status of both the film, and Hayes himself. And it shows just how ambitious soul music could be, and how successful a lushly orchestrated arrangement of strings and brass mixed with guitars and drums could be too, while still being accessible and not overblown. It builds a sort of slow-burn tension that is pure genius. This for me is Hayes’ masterstroke. One bad mutha, in fact.
Before his role as the chocolaty-voiced solo artist, and before the creation of his 1969 masterpiece Hot Buttered Soul, Isaac Hayes was a key player in the success of the Stax label in the mid to late 1960s. His contribution to the careers of Sam Moore and Dave Prater, known as soul duo Sam & Dave, is incalculable. Along with his services as staff pianist for Stax, he wrote the lion’s share of Sam & Dave’s material, including the smash “Soul Man’ along with partner Dave Porter. Most songwriters pray for the day they can write even one tune as strong as that one, capturing the essence of soul music; pure joy in delivery, an undercurrent of sexuality, and the celebration of one’s own identity. Yet Hayes wrote scores of them; “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby”, “Hold On, I’m Comin'”, “You Don’t Know Like I Know”, and many more.
But, even if he’s no longer able to make any more concert appearances, write more songs, or put out new albums, his name and influence is forever preserved in the spirit of Stax, the evolution of soul, and the legacy of musical history.
In reading an article about the rise and fall (and rise again!), of Stax records I came across another article about a (relatively) new label who loosely model themselves on the original Stax label – Daptone records.
The label started with the idea that musicians could make music they think is cool, record it, and put it out on their own. A radical idea indeed! The group of musicians have their hand in a number of projects, most notably Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, who some might consider to be a revivalist take on classic southern soul traditions. But, as it is pointed out in the article in the January issue of MOJO magazine, these guys have backed Amy Winehouse – both on record and live.
Amy Winehouse, despite her recent tabloid adventures, has a smash album on her hands with Back to Black (a recommended release as well, people, if you’ve not heard it). So, they’re not a stab at hitting the nostalgia market – millions of people are loving the sounds they’re making right now from middle-aged rockists like me, to teenage girls singing in the front rows in venues across the globe.
I find the very existence of this collective of musicians, producers, and studio/label owners very encouraging. It helps that their approach takes its lead from the basics – live music, real instruments, with artistic control taken pretty literally. In making the comparison to Stax, let’s hope they continue to exemplify the strengths of that label – great music, family environment, lots of hits, and a lasting legacy. And let’s hope too that they avoid the pitfalls!