Mary Frierson: A soul star with Stax of talent


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Despite growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, as a Sixties teenager blessed with a fine soul voice, the precocious Mary Frierson failed to find fame, something a new compilation aims to address. After Laughter Comes Tears is the first collection to document the brief career of one of the Stax stable's lesser lights and is named after a cult tune that has enjoyed a second lease of life.

While still at school, Frierson formed vocal group The Drapels with her brother Johnny and two friends. They took the bus to Stax Records and successfully auditioned before label co-founder Jim Stewart. Recording with the group and as a solo artist, she was also signed as a songwriter – christened Wendy Rene by none other than Otis Redding.

A teen bride, she dropped out of school when the Steve Cropper-penned "Bar-B-Q" became a regional success. That marriage soon dissolved as Rene focussed on music, yet a bona fide hit remained elusive and she retired in 1967 having started a family with a Stax employee. Rene agreed to do one final gig with Redding but pulled out at the last minute. That weekend, Redding died in a plane crash.

So things might have stood until rap collective Wu-Tang Clan sampled the refrain from her stand-out track on "Tearz", from their 1993 debut album Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). That influential record introduced Rene to a new generation of performers. Booker T's organ from the tune was lifted for Alicia Key's 2007 album track "Where Do We Go From Here", then two years later, Swedish artist Lykke Li covered "After Laughter..." as a B-side.

Around that time, Keys invited Rene to join her at a Memphis club, but the retired singer felt unable to go. Since then, she has performed once at a festival in New Orleans, though Rene says she misses her family, meaning both the Stax team and her brother Johnny; a reminder of how close ties were in the label's heyday.

'After the Laughter Comes Tears: Complete Stax & Volt Singles & Rarities 1964-65' is out now on Light in the Attic Records