Soul survivor: Stax Records is back

The label pioneered black music in the Sixties and Seventies with artists such as Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding and Booker T
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The Independent Culture

Not many labels manage to come back after a 30-year hiatus and re-establish a chart presence comparable with before. Yet this is exactly what has been achieved by Stax, the legendary soul label which gave the world Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, Eddie Floyd, Sam and Dave, Arthur Conley, William Bell and Booker T & The MGs, before filing for bankruptcy in December 1975.

That should have been the end for the company launched in the back of a garage by Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton in 1957. The licensing deal that they signed with Atlantic Records in the early Sixties, and the sale of that label to Warner Bros-Seven Arts in 1967, meant that most of their catalogue up to that point belonged, and still belongs, to what is now Time Warner.

In the Seventies, Stax soldiered on with Johnnie Taylor, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Jean Knight, The Dramatics, Luther Ingram and Shirley Brown, and organised Wattstax, the "Black Woodstock", at the Los Angeles Coliseum in August 1972. But, three years later, unsympathetic banks called in their loans and the company's assets were sold to Fantasy Records. When Concord Records, in turn, bought the Fantasy Label Group in 2004, it came up with a plan not only to keep the post-1968 Stax catalogue alive, but also to sign new artists to the company that had been the gritty rival to Berry Gordy Jr's Motown.

The first stage of this strategy has now been implemented with the release of The Art of Love & War, Angie Stone's fourth album and her debut for Stax, recorded at Marvin's Room, Marvin Gaye's old studio on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. It entered the R&B and hip-hop charts at No 1 and the album charts at No 11.

Collin Stanback, the vice-president of A&R at Stax/Concord, and the executive producer of Stone's album, isn't surprised by its success. "I actually expected it. I thought it was important to make an impact with the first new act on the relaunched Stax. If the label had kept going into the Eighties and Nineties, Angie Stone is the type of artist who would have been signed," he stresses.

"She is an artist of a certain calibre. Her new album has great songs and a great vibe as well as an organic approach to the lifestyle, which is really what soul music is."

The launch of The Art of Love & War was greatly helped by the choice of "Baby" as the lead-off single. "There were a few questions about 'Baby' but it opened her to a few demos [demographics]. It took Angie Stone once again into her core audience but it also attracted new fans. It's a funky track, a very infectious groove, with the Curtis Mayfield sample. We used the percussion from 'Give Me Your Love (Love Song)'. Angie's writing is always about the story of the underdog. Having Betty Wright guest on the track helped, too. Everyone knows her for 'Clean Up Woman'," says Stanback.

"We'll be releasing singles into next year. The next one, 'My People', features James Ingram. It's a pretty profound track with what's going on in America right now. People no longer make albums that make statements but Angie Stone does," he continues.

"This is Angie looking at the state of the world. There's a war going on, an unspoken war, people are trying to find their way in the world, and it seems that love and war keep passing. It deals with people and relationships. It's her way of making people understand what's going on. There were a lot of good vibes and good energy."

Stone had health problems last year but her recent week of concerts at the Jazz Café in London showed that the singer, who has often been compared to Aretha Franklin, has lost none of her powers.

It was certainly impressive that, on her UK visit last month, Stone went straight from doing Later... With Jools Holland to a phenomenal late-night show. Since Black Diamond, her debut, she has had great credibility in Britain. She's also had the benefit of advice from the Grammy award-winning soul singer D'Angelo, with whom she had a relationship and who nurtured her into the mainstream.

So what does the future hold for Stax? Next up will be Lalah Hathaway, the daughter of the much missed Donny Hathaway, who was Roberta Flack's duet partner on Seventies soul standards like "Where Is the Love", "The Closer I Get To You" and "Back Together Again". Hathaway is very much following in her father's footsteps and, again, Stanback feels Stax could help her reach a wider audience.

"She made a couple of albums for Virgin in the Nineties, she did a jazz record with Joe Sample [of The Crusaders], and she was on Interpretations, the Earth, Wind & Fire tribute album Stax issued recently. Her new album is a departure from jazz back into soul and the eclectic side of R&B. It should put her right up there with Jill Scott and Erykah Badu," he says.

Hathaway has worked with Badu: "She is from Dallas, Texas, she was in Erykah Badu's band for a while," says Stanback. "She's the girl with the red afro. People are going to really love her. And Soulive [another signing] are young guys who all play in a jam-band style. They're known as an instrumental band but they've added vocals on a couple of songs. You could call them the new Booker T & The MGs."

But Stax is also keeping strong links with its illustrious past and the rich tradition of American soul music. Hayes has signed to Stax again, returning to the label where he made his name as the co-writer of "Hold On I'm Comin" and "Soul Man" in the Sixties, before going global with "Theme From Shaft" in 1971. And Leon Ware, the Detroit-born singer and songwriter best known as Gaye's right-hand man on the I Want You album, and a solo artist in his own right too, has also joined the Stax roster.

"We'll continue to release catalogue. We want to make sure that people hear the music that's in the vaults that they've never heard before, but we will also focus on continuing the brand of the label with the new artists," stresses Stanback. "We want them to be touring, to be building their careers along with the brand name.

"With Stax, there are certain criteria, certain standards. Our job is to meet that standard or beat it. I'm not trying to compare an Otis Redding album to an Angie Stone album but the quality has to be high."

'The Art Of Love & War' is out now on Stax through Universal