.Soulsville, USA

America does some serious neo-soul searching

March 7-13, 2007

America is doing some serious soul-searching. After six years of treachery in the White House, opinion polls show that an overwhelming percentage of American voters would seriously consider electing a black president–and that’s good news for the charismatic senator Barack Obama of Chi-town.

How ready are we for a black president?

The pundits are already arguing if Obama is black enough.

In recent months, the country has been cozying up to soul music in a big way. The Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice” might have snagged the 2007 Grammy Awards Song of the Year honors, but the snarling neo-soul single “Crazy,” from Gnarls Barkley’s funky St. Elsewhere album was the bigger radio hit. And neo-soul connoisseurs grooved last summer to British blue-eyed soulman James Hunter’s party-pleaser People Gonna Talk, which bristles with Sam Cook and Jackie Wilson sensibilities. And, of course, there’s that ongoing love affair with Dreamgirls.

Of late, Sony/BMG has launched an ambitious new reissue program that includes a Beautiful Ballads series, featuring the softer sides of Earth, Wind & Fire, the Isley Brothers, the O’Jays and Gladys Knight & the Pips, among others. In late March, the label will reissue seven digitally remastered titles by Sly & the Family Stone–the premier crossover soul band of the ’60s and ’70s, and the originators of the ubiquitous slap-bass sound–with a slew of bonus tracks.

Meanwhile, on March 13 the Concord Music Group is initiating a major reissue of Stax Records material, starting with a two-CD box set featuring 50 hit singles by Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Booker T & the MGs, Isaac Hayes, Johnny Taylor, Albert King, the Staples Singers, Rufus and Carla Thomas, and others. The Stax 50 compilation commemorates the 50th anniversary of the founding of the seminal Satellite Records as a country music imprint in a north Memphis garage before it edged into rhythm and blues.

CMG, which acquired the Satellite, Stax and Volt catalogues as part of its 2004 purchase of Fantasy records, also plans to release definitive collections, rare performances, unreleased tracks and remixes on another 20 Stax titles throughout the year.

The beauty of the Stax/Volt label (known as Soulsville USA) was that for the most part it served as a gritty, blue-collar adjunct to the squeaky-clean sounds of Detroit’s Motown label, which billed itself as Hitsville USA. While Motown artists like Marin Gaye–with his dapper demeanor, smooth choreography and tailored Italian suits–were coolly churning out pop hits without so much as breaking a sweat, such Stax/Volt artists as the soul duo Sam and Dave were tearing up stages with a far more visceral brand of soul music.

It’s a sound that continues to resonate: the Stax/Volt roster is a staple of the classic radio format; Portishead sampled the Isaac Hayes single “Walk on By” for their song “All Mine” (used last year on a Victoria’s Secret TV ad); and Prince snared Stax/Volt artist Frederick Knight’s singing style, lock, stock and barrel.

Music industry wags report that Justin Timberlake is planning to revive the Stax label to produce contemporary R&B acts. And while that may not be black enough for you, the classic sounds on Stax 50 should serve as a scintillating soundtrack for this extended presidential campaign.

At least it’s one party that won’t let you down.


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