BY PHIL HOOD
Rhythm & Blues changed in the middle of the ’60s. The jumpin’, romantic, and upbeat sounds that characterized earlier eras of rock ‘n’ roll, doo-wop, and Motown respectively, took on a more rugged, grittier edge that paralleled some of the social changes in the post-civil rights, Vietnam-war era. Artists such as Sam & Dave, Rufus & Carla Thomas, Booker T & The MGs, The Bar-Kays, Isaac Hayes, Johnnie Taylor and perhaps especially Otis Redding helped midwife the evolution of R&B into soul music — intense, funky, emotionally direct. It all crescendoed in 1968, a tempest-tossed year when the label redefined its own sound and, in the process, channeled a larger historical zeitgeist.
Stax ’68: A Memphis Story, is a box set released this week that captures the spirit of the year in beautiful detail. The five-disc set contains the A- and B-sides of every single released under the Stax banner in 1968, including the company’s sub-labels. It’s the complete package with a 56-page book including revelatory, in-depth liner notes by Andria Lisle, Robert Gordon, and Steve Greenberg, as well as rare and previously unseen photos. The set presents more than 120 songs from this unprecedented creative period in American music. Some tracks are by soul legends (Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers, William Bell, Booker T. & The M.G.’s, Johnnie Taylor) and some come from the deeper Stax catalog, featuring incredible artists, many of whom I’d almost forgotten like Linda Lyndell, The Soul Children, and The Mad Lads. For students of R&B and funk, a release like this is akin to finding a new rosetta stone.
Otis To Martin
The genesis of this compilation is all the changes happening at that time. Otis Redding died in December of 1967 and Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April of ’68. Otis Redding’s posthumous hit “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay” and Sam & Dave’s “I Thank You” were the label’s first singles of ’68. These tunes showed how soul artists were evolving and also how black artists of the time were increasingly crossing over to more general audiences.
Secrets Of The Stax Drum Sound?
Al Jackson Jr. gets much of the credit, and not just for the Stax drum sound but for the overall sound of Stax. It’s been said there would be no Stax without him. As the drummer with Booker T. & The MGs, which was Stax’s house band in the early days, Jackson played with some of the label’s biggest stars. Booker T once told me he’d played “Green Onions” with more than 80 drummers over the years and only one or two could really nail the groove like Jackson. Considering how simple the sound was, relying heavily on snare and hi-hat, it’s a testament to his hitmaking feel for the rhythm.
But Jackson was hardly alone. A great debt is owed to all the musicians of Stax and in particular drummers Willie Hall and Howard Grimes. Hall drummed for the Bar-Kays and Isaac Hayes, and later the Blues Brothers, among others. Grimes worked closely with star producer Willie Mitchell on many recordings. I have heard it said that Howard Grimes does Al Jackson Jr. better than Al Jackson Jr.
Get Your Stax On!
So how can you recreate the sound? You need to take a trip back in time, for that’s where the secrets of the sound partially reside. Once you’ve got your Al Jackson Jr. groove down you need to grab the spirit of artistic freedom that infuses those grooves. Willie Hall, who started recording there while still a high school teen, has said the best thing about working at Stax was that, “There was such a freedom of expression and of the music and there was such a camaraderie among the musicians.” And, you might also need to take your time to nail the sound. Willie recalls that Isaac Hayes sessions were typically all night — 7 PM to 7 AM — and they went at it for days and days.
Terry Manning, who engineered many great Stax sessions, has said that Jackson recorded in a fairly small booth, and we can see this in some pics from those days. His kit was usually Rogers with a Ludwig 400 snare. In the studio they typically set up with a Neumann KM-84 pointed at the snare about 5″ to 8″ away. The rest of the kit would be captured on U87s or U67s. The bass drum might have an (Electro-Voice) RE-20 on it, or on occasion, either the snare or bass drum might have an RE-15 or a Shure 545.
In the early days bass guitar, bass drum, and snare might have been tracked together on track one, the rest of the drums on track two and the other music on other tracks. They used Flickinger and Spectrasonics consoles for the most part in the various studios.
One technique you might pick up on is doubling. On Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” you had Jackson on drums with Grimes doubling on conga. The result is a thick tom-like sound on the snare. The drums were tuned pretty low and you can hear that, too. They sound like African drums, not like modern rifle shots.
In some photos you can see Jackson’s wallet on his snare. In forum comments on Gearslutz Terry has said, “We almost always put the drummer’s wallet on the snare drum. It would ‘jump up’ when the drum was struck, providing a little sound, and then fall right back down (gravity, I think!), deadening it again so that the ring was not very long at all. Rarely were toms hit. Almost everything was the bass drum, snare and hat (which wasn’t miked).”
Other than that you might keep a front head on the kick, never change your heads (because Jackson didn’t), and once you’ve got a good sound going, never touch your mikes.
In addition to the various CD and digital releases, two exhibits are being presented by the Stax Museum from September to December. One is “Stax ’68” and the other is “The Give A Damn! Music + Activism at Stax Records.”
[Note: My good friend Paul Siegel, co-founder of Hudson Music and manager of Pedrito Martinez today, points out that Willie and Howard are part of a group of blues and R&B drummers whose timeless work merits further attention. Like James Black (New Orleans), Jerry Carrigan (Muscle Shoals), or Al Duncan (Chicago) their work is really identified with a city and an era. We hope to go behind the scenes with some of these players in the future.]
WIN THIS GROVER PRO TAMBOURINE OR OTHER PRIZES
We like to give away cool gear, and this is definitely cool. Grover Pro originally made only concert tambourines. But once country and pop artists started tearing the head off and using them for recording, they knew what they had to do. Their Studio Pro model features the same construction as their professional concert tambourines with German silver and phosphor bronze jingles, and a rubber edge to protect hands or shells.
To Enter: Just sign up for our newsletter or leave a comment below. Or drop me a note about who you’d like to see interviewed for Behind The Scenes.
Bonus: Three additional winners will receive Grover snare wires in Club Dark, Club Bright, or Combo styles.