Cover Story

Stax puts its spin on Motown. The result? Soul, man.

Stax vs. Motown is, of course, one of the past century's great cultural rivalries, up there with Yankees-Red Sox or Beatles-Stones. In the decades since the Memphis soul label and its Detroit counterpart have receded from the center of pop music production, critics and fans have continued to make great sport of pitting these titanic institutions — the twin oracles of '60s/'70s black culture — against each other.

The conventional wisdom, usually delivered by a Stax partisan, most famously via writer Peter Guralnick's dismissal of Motown at the outset of his landmark R&B history Sweet Soul Music, is this: Though black-owned, Motown was a rigid, assembly-line purveyor of crossover pop music, aimed directly at a white audience. Though white-owned, Stax was an organic, racially diverse entity that represented the true sound of black America. >>>

"Motown and Stax almost represent exact opposite ends of the soul spectrum in the Sixties," claims critic Joel Selvin in the liner notes of the fascinating new compilation Soulsville Sings Hitsville: Stax Sings Songs of Motown Records, a collection of Stax-produced covers of Motown songs that is the latest product of a fruitful reissue campaign launched to celebrate Stax's 50th anniversary last year. (A companion volume showcases Stax covers of Beatles songs.) Selvin goes on to contrast the "automated" approach of Motown with the "organic" philosophy of Stax.

There's a lot of truth to these comparisons, of course, but the easy juxtaposition tends to denigrate the creativity of a great artist like Motown's resident genius Smokey Robinson and also downplay the obvious musical and cultural authenticity of plenty of Motown music. (If the Miracles' "You Really Got a Hold on Me" isn't "soul" music, I'm not sure what qualifies.)

But the fact that Stax tackled Motown songs so frequently without Motown re-ciprocating is itself persuasive. This is partly a function of Stax's underdog status relative to the label's more commercially successful Northern counterpart. But it's also a function of the freedom and openness of the Stax system (as well as, don't forget, the company's willingness to chase pop-culture trends in search of a hit).

Soulsville Sings Hitsville presents different approaches to the Motown style. One of Stax's strengths relative to Motown has always been the greater depth and consistency of its catalogue, manifested in more compelling minor artists and non-hit recordings. But on this compilation, Stax artists mine obscure Motown in addition to the identifiable hits. David Porter delivers a great reading of the Stevie Wonder album cut "I Don't Know Why I Love You," while the Staple Singers do a bluesy re-working of the minor Temptations' hit "You've Got to Earn It."

More interesting, though, is hearing Stax artists confront more familiar Motown material. One common strategy with a lot of Stax covers (as on the Beatles disc) is to apply a Stax groove to familiar outside melodies in instrumental form. You can hear that here with the Mar-Keys' nearly surf-rock rendition of the Four Tops' "Reach Out (I'll Be There)" or Booker T. & the MGs' relaxed, swinging take on the Supremes' "I Hear a Symphony."

On the vocal cuts, sometimes Stax artists show fidelity to their Motown source material. Minor Stax artist Calvin Scott's take on Marvin Gaye's "Can I Get a Witness" is jumpier and funkier than the (still-superior) original, but doesn't otherwise stray from the Motown template much. Veteran jazz vocalist Billy Eckstine's Isaac Hayes-produced reading of Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amour" is a stiffer, more formal (and somewhat un-necessary) gloss on the original.

More interesting is when Stax artists take these tightly wound, seemingly unshakeable Motown compositions and dramatically rework them. O.B. McClinton turns the Temptations' "I Wish It Would Rain" into country music, with a shuffling horse-trot rhythm, sour steel guitar punctuating the verses, and airy back-up vocals that signify countrypolitan more than pop or gospel.

Stax vocal group the Soul Children reconfigure Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" for Sunday morning service, putting a different emphasis on the "delivered" of the title. The slower tempo sways like a church choir; the organ pushes forward while a bluesy guitar line comments on the action; harmony vocals and finger-snap downbeats mingle between the pews. I wouldn't say it's better than the original, but it's certainly worthy of it.

Even more daring is Margie Joseph's (another Stax obscurity) reworking of the Supremes' signature hit, "Stop! In the Name of Love," a deconstruction of a pop-song staple similar to (if less titanic than) Otis Redding's version of "Try a Little Tenderness."

The Joseph version adds a spoken-word intro, turning the trademark Motown hit into a dramatic set piece that references both pre-Supremes girl groups (Shangri-Las) and the pulpit-style soul monologues of Clarence Carter or Solomon Burke. (This is a device Motown rarely used, with the crucial exception of the Contours' "Do You Love Me?," though second-tier Stax star Frederick Knight does it to the Supremes' "Someday We'll Be Together" on this compilation as well.)

The Stax version utilizes the same wind-tunnel gush of sound that Motown did to transition into the chorus, but the verses here are more melismatic in the form of some Aretha Franklin-style soul-shouting. And, structurally, this version takes the sleek, elegant Motown composition and plays around with it, taking it apart and pulling it back together with baritone background vocals and churchy piano fills in the mix. It doesn't confirm Stax's superiority to Motown, but it's absolutely a testament to the Memphis label's creativity and ingenuity. M

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