Stax does the Beatles and Motown

Stax Records will release Stax Does The Beatles and Stax Sings The Songs of Motown® Records on February 26.  Stax, of course, was best known for creating its own songs — classics like “(Sittin’ On The) Dock of the Bay,” “Knock On Wood” and “Respect Yourself.” But in the hands of a Stax artist, a Beatles or Motown song found a new Southern groove, often redefining what would seem improbable to improve upon.

“I was moved by the Beatles,” explained Booker T. Jones of Booker T & the MGs, quoted in Rob Bowman’s Soulsville USA. “I thought they were doing really great things. Their records didn’t sound alike ever.” And thus Booker T & the MGs recorded the Beatles covers album titled McLemore Avenue, containing such songs as “Eleanor Rigby,” “Michelle” and “Lady Madonna,” all included on Stax Does The Beatles. MGs guitarist Steve Cropper called The Beatles “a cool group of superhumans. Hats off to the Beatles and thanks for the music.”

But Booker T & the MGs were by no means the only artists to turn to the Beatles as a song source. Isaac Hayes turned in a 12-minute version of “Something,” included here, on his 1970 album The Isaac Hayes Movement. Carla Thomas chose Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” as part of her Live at the Bohemian Caverns sessions in Washington, DC. She had met McCartney in 1967 at London’s Speakeasy Club.  Otis Redding’s version of “Day Tripper” became an immediate classic — the Fab Four’s riff lending itself famously to Stax’s horn section. Other prime Stax Beatles covers, contained here, emanated from David Porter, the Mar-Keys, Reggie Milner and John Gary Williams.

Album annotator Richie Unterberger writes, “While Stax was destined to be primarily remembered for the wealth of original soul classics it generated, Stax Does The Beatles reminds us that its artists were also able interpreters of music first performed outside the Southern soul genre.”

Liverpool wasn’t the only outside source of Stax hits. The Memphis label found equal reserves within the repertoire of its Detroit rival label, Motown, proven by the 15 tracks of Stax Sings Songs of Motown® Records. Joel Selvin, pop music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, who wrote the notes for the Motown covers album, noted: “In Detroit, Motown followed an automated approach to making records, influenced no doubt by founder Berry Gordy’s early work at the Ford plant, while in Memphis, the Stax musicians took a more organic tack.”

Yet when the shimmering teen pop of Detroit made it down to Stax’s Memphis studios, songs found a whole new life. Take, for instance, Margie Joseph’s soulful reading of the Supremes’ “Stop in the Name of Love.” The Staple Singers’ version of the Temptations’ minor hit, “You’ve Got To Earn It,” penned by Smokey Robinson, narrowly missed the R&B Top 10 in 1971. And blind soul singer Calvin Scott gave a gospel-tinged Southern workout to “Can I Get a Witness” for his album I’m Not Blind, I Just Can’t See.

As he did with the Beatles, Isaac Hayes re-imagined Motown with his deconstructed cover of the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye.” The song was a highlight of Hayes’ classic Black Moses album from 1971. Hayes also contributed production finesse to his frequent songwriting partner David Porter’s cover of the Stevie Wonder song “I Don’t Know Why I Love You,” featured on Porter’s 1970 Enterprise solo debut album.

Other Stax artists to cover Motown included Mavis Staples, Barbara Lewis, Billy Eckstine, the Mar-Keys, Fredrick Knight, O.B. McClinton, the Bar-Kays and the Soul Children.