I was playing Wilson Pickett in the store one day when a young guy remarked that he 'loved Motown', and it sent me into a spin. Wilson Pickett Motown?! What does that mean, that every
poppy/soulful dance-hit of the 1960s is Motown these days? Well I'm here to tell you, apart from the technical error - that Motown was, as I thought everyone knew, based in Detroit (the motor town, geddit?) and Wilson Pickett recorded in New York and Memphis - there's another, deeper error: Wilson Pickett doesn't sound
like Motown! Motown is a beat - 4-on-the-floor, about as tight and as meatheaded as you can get.* And it's a melody that's pretty much set in stone, like a nursery rhyme, with here and there a few improvised asides, but nothing like Pickett's drawling, stretched-out delivery interspersed with woops, cries and screams to his heart's content. Me, much as I can enjoy Motown for a song or two or even three if I'm in the mood, and much as I love Motown bassist James Jamerson (see the movie Standing in the Shadows of Motown
for a touching memorial to this great player), I get tired of all that glossy up-front punchy monotonous pop-ness pretty quickly, and would far prefer to kick back with some southern
music: Solomon Burke or James Carr or Percy Sledge or just about anything recorded at Muscle Shoals, Alabama or - wait for it - Stax Records, Memphis, Tennessee. And y'know what, I'm pretty damn sure they got a term for that kinda music... Now what was it...? Ah! SOUL
, as invented by Sam Cooke and Clyde McPhatter and James Brown and Ray Charles. Sweet soul music. And that
's what Stax Records was about, and Motown wasn't really a part of it. I mean, power to the folks at Motown, they kind of invented a genre. But Wilson Pickett? 'Mustang Sally', 'The Midnight Hour', 'Land of 1000 Dances'? That's soul
, people. And many of those songs, and all of Otis Redding's, and 'Green Onions', and Sam and Dave's 'Soul Man', and even Isaac Hayes's Shaft
soundtrack, were recorded at Stax Studios, a converted cinema in a suburb of Memphis where the house band would punch in at 9am every morning and write and record hit songs for a living. So what this book is, see, is the record of an era, because although it sounds quaint to us now - this cinema with the seats ripped out and a sloping floor and a record shop round the side - in fact back then it was not so different to Motown Studios or Muscle Shoals Studios or Fame Studios or probably a bunch I don't even know about. To a musician, to read about this stuff is to yearn for an impossible return to something like innocence, when a production-line ethos didn't have to yield plastic, unlistenable results, and when a song could be written, worked up and recorded in a single day if you were in the zone, or maybe written the day or week before if you weren't, and released not long after, with no committee of shareholders or marketing department to answer to. But more than that, there's politics in this story: the Civil Rights movement, race riots outside the studio, the death of the old Stax - run by a white man, with two white musicians (Steve Cropper and Donald 'Duck' Dunn, familiar to many from The Blues Brothers
) as key players in a mostly-black staff - and the birth of the new, all-black model, which made a star of former staff-writer Isaac Hayes and broke all the rules of simple Major-key blues changes that had been dictated by its former chief. It's a fascinating story, if told a little dryly, and if you already like the music it'll open up a whole other facet of it. Otis, yeah I know, he's your favourite. But believe me, there was much, much more to Stax Records than just 'Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay'. Oh, and long live soul! I swear, every one
of those guys could sing their asses off, whether they were singing for Stax or not. A golden era, never to be repeated. Bow your heads and give thanks.
The guys from Stax didn't play live much (except for late nights jamming at bars around Memphis), but when they did they usually traveled as a team and made a night of it, with house band Booker T and the MGs providing backing:
Plus a little something from the post-Civil Rights era:
* FOOTNOTE: The term 'meatheaded' shouldn't be construed as an insult in this context. In my self-taught musician's lexicon it's just a quality, sometimes a desirable one. Nor is the beat described present in every
Motown song, but if you're trying to define Motown as a genre a propulsive, straight-ahead beat is central, and very different to the loping, behind-the-beat groove of Stax's Al Jackson.
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