Picks and Pans Review: Top of the Stax

updated 01/09/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/09/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

Various Artists

In the '60s and '70s, American soul music flourished in such disparate places as Detroit and Philadelphia. These two anthologies capture the greatest outpouring of an equally important soul crucible: Memphis. Top of the Stax (Stax/Fantasy), a double album containing 20 hits, drops the hammer with the first selection, Sam & Dave's motivating Hold On, I'm Comin'. It rarely lets up. The Staple Singers' Respect Yourself, Eddie Floyd's Knock on Wood, Otis Redding's (Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay—these are songs that have been covered more thoroughly than Liz Taylor's love life. Some other fun tracks from the era have been dusted off, such as Booker T. and the MGs' Green Onions, the Dramatics' In the Rain and Isaac Hayes's Theme from Shaft. The singers (among them Shirley Brown and Johnnie Taylor) are fantastic throughout, but then so were the Stax studio musicians, who included Steve Cropper, Booker T. Jones and Donald "Duck" Dunn. The History of Hi Records (MCA) is not as rich a testament to the Memphis sound, mainly because the label's roster of artists was never as deep as Stax's. The two Hi records do, however, contain some gems. Volume I encompasses 1959 through 1972 and includes a number of short R&B instrumentals from the likes of the Bill Black Combo, Ace Cannon and Willie Mitchell. Mitchell became the label's driving force as a producer, and his golden-groove touch, roomy but intoxicating, emerges on this record with Ann Peebles' Part Time Love and Al Green's I Can't Get Next to You. Mitchell's genius is more evident on Volume II (1972-77). Again the main beneficiaries are Green (I'm Still in Love with You; Call Me) and Peebles (Breakin' Up Somebody's Home; I Can't Stand the Rain). The only things these collections of Memphis soul have in common are drummer Al Jackson Jr. and a virtually inexhaustible spirit. You can still play these songs over and over again without tiring of them. How many albums on the charts today could pass that test now, let alone in 10 or 20 years?

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