ifty years after its first recording, the Stax label is back, primarily with box sets and reissues including unreleased cuts, but also with some new signings. To re-inaugurate, the label (now owned by Concord) has put out a two-disc compilation of 50 of Stax’s most important tracks. The dilemma isn’t whether you need the music in this box—you do—but exactly what the significance of such a package is, which is less clear.
Stax music has long had a solid place on the shelves of soul fans, from the early cuts of Booker T. to the later work of the Staple Singers. Over its nearly 20 year run, Stax maintained prominence with smashes like “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” and “Theme From Shaft“ while filling its catalog with less successful but still strong work by artists like Carla Thomas and William Bell. The mix on these discs allows them to offer some surprises even while focusing on the old and comfortable.
Most fans of the label or of R&B; in general will already own much of this material. Despite the strength of its holdings, Stax 50 in no way replaces the four-disc box set The Stax Story. The two discs aren’t enough to make an overarching statement about the label (it would have been nice to start and end with Stax’s first and last recorded singles, instead of four years after its beginning), and without rarities, it offers little for collectors. Familiar names like Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes show up in proportionate numbers, but it’s redundant. All of the Staple Singers’ cuts, for example, appear on The Best of the Staple Singers.
For these reasons, only artists like Thomas and Bell benefit from this compilation, given that the general audience has been less exposed to their work. The performances collected here (like Bell’s “I Forgot to Be Your Lover”) point out that nearly everyone on the roster could stack up with the big names. They also suggest that digging through the Stax back catalog is in order—a possible hint at the reason for the set’s release. But it makes the set somewhat unnecessary. If you’re already likely to own the more famous tracks here (though, note, “Walk on By” is the edited version), and know that you should be getting the others, at least on single-artist collections, you might think twice about buying all the same material.
Of course, it’s still two and a half hours of stunning music. Open the box and you’ve got a ready-made soul mix to sustain any social function. The music comes sequenced almost entirely in chronological order (with a few minor shifts, apparently for mix purposes), which makes for a relatively smooth flow. Unfortunately, but reasonably, the discs aren’t split between the two halves of the label’s history that liner-note writer Rob Bowman (and most critics) roughly mark in 1968, due to the departure of several key musicians (including Otis Redding and members of the Bar-Kays who died in a plane crash), some business changes, and a shift in aesthetic. However, even the break works out. The presence of “Time Is Tight” by Booker T. & the MGs shortly before Isaac Hayes’s “Walk on By” shows that the change wasn’t sudden or complete.
Because of the quality of the music, this set still serves a purpose, introducing novice soul listeners to a particular world of soul. Although this set may ultimately prove inessential in a given fan’s collection, it still contains the songs to get a newcomer excited about future explorations. It’s a small and temporary picture of a great label, but that doesn’t mean it’s not useful. And it keeps me from having to keep an eye on the stereo during parties, which is always a good thing.