The Staple Singers: …a statement of warmth and affirmation. This was the backdrop for the evolution of soul, an exciting time, a dangerous time, a time of exhilarating self-discovery.

More Than Music
By David McGee

Stax Records/Concord Music Group

Stax Number Ones is not marketed as a summer album, but you will have to look long and hard for any collection more perfectly and evocatively evoking the lazy, hazy days than the 15 incredible tracks on this CD. From the mellow, sensual swing of Booker T. & The MG’s “Green Onions” to the deep James Brown-style horn-fired groove of Rufus Thomas’s delightful “(Do The) Push And Pull (Part 1),” to the elegant, formal soul majesty of The Dramatics’ “In the Rain,” these recordings—all chart toppers either on the pop or R&B chart—have a warm…summery…allure about them, sounding exactly right for cruising with the top down and the volume up with a big Sonic Route 44 drink at hand. Yet only “Green Onions” and Eddie Floyd’s frenetic “Knock On Wood” made their mark in summertime (both topping the chart in August—the former in 1962, the latter in 1966).

Another point: the recordings illustrate both the diversity of and the shared musical roots in gospel and blues among Stax’s preeminent artists. Yet if they started out in the same place, each took his or her own route from there. No one at Stax really sounded like anyone else. Sam & Dave’s gritty call-and-response discourse on “Hold On I’m Comin’” was as singular an approach as Isaac Hayes’s forward looking crunch and grind on “Shaft” (and lest we forget, Hayes, along with his songwriting partner David Porter, helped craft the Sam & Dave sound, with “Hold On I’m Comin’,” among other tunes), and both were instantly identifiable as belonging to those artists. And is it necessary to point out that when Otis Redding detoured into a folkish, introspective mode when he wrote “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of The Bay” the result when it first seeped out of the radio speaker was mesmerizing—still is mesmerizing—but was still totally Otis?

Not least of all, this particular collection underscores the Stax family’s focus on positive, life affirming messages in its songs. Even amidst the raucous workout of “Who’s Making Love,” Johnnie Taylor climbs into the gospel pulpit he knew well to inveigh against infidelity and the wages of sin (on both parties’ parts, as it turns out), and to send a cautionary warning to men who get their kicks “beatin’ on your woman.” Both Jean Knight (“Mr. Big Stuff”) and the perpetually underrated Shirley Brown (“Woman to Woman”) advance messages of female empowerment. Then there were the Staple Singers. To hear their call for civility, integrity, honesty and common decency in personal relationships in “I’ll Take You There” and “I Believe In You (You Believe In Me)” is to hear the power of music to elevate and inspire. This sort of firm but gentle sermonizing in song has almost completely vanished from a mainstream popular music world riddled with vulgarity, misogyny, and celebrations of drunken excess.

Sam & Dave, ‘Soul Man,’ written by Isaac Hayes & David Porter, #1 R&B 1967, perform at the Helsinki Culture House in Finland, 1967

Finally, note how all but the first five of the chronologically sequenced recordings—ranging from 1962 to 1974—were released after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  in April 1968. Defining soul music is a complex undertaking involving musical, political and sociological components, which coalesced as the music tracked the flowering of the Civil Rights Movement. Listen to these superb and eclectic recordings in the proper historical context, as observed by writer Peter Guralnick as he wrested with soul music’s definition in the introduction to his definitive study of the genre as musical and political-cultural statement alike, Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom (Harper & Row, 1986):

“…it seemed no coincidence that when the height of the Movement was past, when the certainty of forward motion and the instinctive commonality of purpose that marked that brief period were called into question by the death of Martin Luther King, the soul movement, too, should have fragmented, the good feeling clearly engendered by the music should have fled, and the charts should have been virtually resegregated, with funk and disco and then rap music rendering themselves as inaccessible, and ultimately as co-optable in turn, as rhythm and blues once had been. Soul music, then, was the product of a particular time and place the no one would want to see repeated, the bitter fruit of segregation, transformed (as much else has been by the encompassing generosity of Afro-American culture) into a statement of warmth and affirmation. This was the backdrop for the evolution of soul, an exciting time, a dangerous time, a time of exhilarating self-discovery. That is the historical context.”

Oh—and play it loud, too.

Visit this month’s Video File to see some of the Stax artists mentioned here performing their Number One hits.

Stax Number Ones is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024