I am a huge fan of Stax records, especially its output up to, and a little past, the death of Otis Redding. That era was covered in a box set with all of its single A-sides packed onto nine compact discs. Diminishing returns resulted from a second and third set which covered the Al Bell / Isaac Hayes era. Still, I was very excited when a fourth (“Rarities & The Rest of the Best”) was announced, even if there was very little of it I spun more than once.
So I didn’t have much hope when 2023 brought the announcement of a set of seven compact discs of songwriter demos. Usually, songwriter demos are simple recordings completed merely to submit a song for copyright. One of the better collections of this type of material, Good As Gold: Artefacts Of The Apple Era (1967-1975), was still rather spotty, and those were songs recorded for The Beatles’s Apple label. No knock on Stax but, if a set of songs recorded for The Beatles’s record label was largely unimpressive, I wasn’t expecting much from this set.
To my complete shock, I expect that Written In Their Soul: The Stax Songwriter Demos will likely be my choice for the best box set I bought this year. The quality of the material here places this second only to the first singles collection in my esteem.
What I least would have expected is the quality of the vast majority of the arrangements and recordings. These are largely fully-fledged productions. Some songs have horns, some even have strings. The majority have at least bass and drums accompanying piano or guitar. So many of these could have been issued as singles exactly as they are here.
And the irony is that, to my ears, these recordings would have been better releases than much of what was released in what were the final years of the label. That was the era where almost all productions were done by Isaac Hayes or emulating his style.
And there was some great music in that era. However, there are great songs and there are huge productions, but the combination of the two together is rare. Some songs are better suited for grandiose trappings, but most are better served by smaller-scale arrangements. It is only my opinion, but the production should serve the song.
So I was very pleased to discover the wide variety of recordings here. At the simplest end, we have many tracks where a singer accompanies themselves on guitar or piano, on a recording that sounds like some type of portable setup. On the other end, we have tracks so fully realized, so superb, one might think these are previously released songs they somehow forgot.
Most of the tracks here are by artists whose names may not be instantly recognizable to most, and that’s because the majority of these tracks are being demoed by the writer, not the person who would be recording the finished version. Stax icon Eddie Floyd may have some stellar performances here, but the real stars of Bettye Crutcher, Mack Rice and Homer Banks.
“Mister Fix It” is a solid example of how well the bare-bones approach works. Floyd’s demo with just him singing and playing the guitar is a great listen on its own. And even without having heard the finished version, I think the average listener can imagine a likely bass and drum accompaniment. I suspect most people can even hear the appropriate horn bursts where they would most likely occur.
The track sounds like it would have been a perfect match for Otis Redding, whose death shook the organization to its foundations. Despite his absence here, he still casts a long shadow over the performances. This is especially obvious in the performances Homer Banks and Mack Rice do of their demos here. When Banks does “I’ll Be Your Shelter (In Time of Storm)”, he adds frequent “Got-ta, Got-ta, Got-ta”s just like the big man might have.
Mack Rice has other great tracks here. There’s a great county soul stomper in “Nobody But You”, a track that commands you stomp a foot along to the beat. One of the more unusual tracks across these discs is “Linda Sue Dixon”, a groover which reveals its psychedelic leanings only when the chorus points out the title character’s initials are L.S.D.
But the real star of the set is Bettye Crutcher, with most of the best songs written by her. She writes and performs in a variety of styles, demonstrating a chameleon-like ability. On “Let’s Get Down To Business”, she somehow channels Carole King circa “I Feel The Earth Move”. “So Glad To Have You” is slinky, sultry R&B with a great minor-chord chorus, like somebody saying something in a hushed voice they don’t have the courage to say more loudly. “All Day Preachin’” has crossover potential, as it seems to reach out to the denim rock crowd coming to the fore at that time. “There Is A God” sits perfectly in the middle of a Venn diagram of two of my favorite musical genres: garage pop and gospel.
One of the trends I found most intriguing across the set are the attempts to create a song to ride the coattails of an established hit. “You’re Funny Boy” has some DNA from “Expressway To Your Heart”. Veda Brown’s “True Love Don’t Grow On Trees” is like “Rescue Me” playing at half speed and that’s a gooood thing. “Put It To A Vote” desperately wants to be “ABC” by the Jackson 5. The opening chords and the effect on the guitar on “Love Is You” sounds uncannily similar to “Something” by The Beatles. But then, The Beatles were so heavily influenced by American soul music that I doubt they would have minded Memphis borrowing something in return.
Many of the songs also have memorable lyrics, with choruses like “Everybody wants to live a long time/nobody wants to get old” or “I may not be all you want/but I’m all you got”. Especially poignant is the social consciousness of Mack Rice’s “Deaf And Dumb”: “I can see a man snatch a lady’s pocketbook/you can hear a child crying but you won’t ever look/cause we won’t open our mouths/about the situation today/That’s why/a man who’s deaf and dumb/is better off today/than you and me”. Alas, he also wrote “Pussy Footing Around”, which has this lamentable couplet: “I’m gonna put my big foot down/til you spread it out on the ground.” That, and he wrote “Santa Clause Wants Some Lovin'”, which sounds, in every regard, exactly how you think it would.
There are a few detours from what I would have expected. The solo piano and vocal demo “What Would I Do?” opens with the singer making the kind of sounds I don’t think I have heard outside of the digitally glitchy vocals on Radiohead’s “Everything In It’s Right Place”. I was surprised even more by the accompanying tune, which made me recall “Pyramid Song” by that same group.
Probably the biggest surprise is many of the tracks have people singing songs of love to another of their own gender. That would have been unprecedented at the time. I’m guessing the songwriter was hoping somebody of the gender opposite than their own might want to record the song. In that case, I’m surprised they didn’t recruit a different singer.
There are some prototype versions of famous songs here, though not many of them. Eddie Floyd’s “634-5789” appears as a demo on the disc of tracks non-Stax artists released first. I was stunned to learn Wilson Picket recorded this before Floyd did this own version on his legendary Knock on Wood album. There’s also a block of four tracks by The Staple Singers which is amazing because it’s The Staple Singers. Speaking of which, there’s Mack Rice’s demo of his “Respect Yourself” which is shockingly different from that which The Staple Singers eventually did.
All of this music was very nearly lost. In the 1980’s the music publisher for these songs transferred all of their analog recordings to Digital Audio Tapes before discarding the original reels (this had me banging my head on the wall). So these weren’t just songwriting demos from artists with Stax and its related labels, but everything the publisher handled (and now my head starts hammering hard enough that drywall is falling off). This resulted in approximately 1,300 90-minute DATs. That is approximately 1,950 hours of tape to pour through. Compounding matters is some of the DATs went bad over time (so much for the digital preservation effort) and were transferred to hard drives as-is, keeping digital glitches intact (and now I have a new window from where my head excavated a large opening in the wall).
It is a testament to the perseverance of compiler Cheryl Pawelski that 665 tracks were identified for potential release. This was then whittled down to the selection on this set, which is grouped into three CDs of demos that eventually became fully realized tracks by Stax artists, one CD of songs first recorded by artists outside the organization and three discs of demos for songs likely unreleased in any other form. I think the highest praise I can give this set is that, after listening to its 146 tracks, I wanted to hear some of the 519 that didn’t make the cut. Put me down for additional volumes of what I hope will be a series.