It was the typical balmy late afternoon, at one of the twice yearly Ace Records repertoire meetings. Several concentrated hours of what is colloquially known in these parts as "heads down no-nonsense mindless repertoire" - ie the interminable debate of who owned what, where are they, and can we get our grubby mitts on it - had left the assembled motley crew of directors and consultants dazed and no doubt confused. For Messrs Broven, Rudland and Croasdell, the promise of a pint (or in Dean's case, a G & T) beckoned, while Ted, hardly sated after a lunch of "rabbit food", dreamed of the duck a l'orange he intended to devour at dinner that evening. So it was during a brief lull in the conversation that Roger threw it out there: anyone wanna do the Stax Instrumentals? Expecting a deluge of affirmatives, my hand shot up in a split-second, only to immediately notice that none of my esteemed colleagues had even risen to the challenge. Just Mr Gibbon, our Stax expert in residence, offered a slight but knowing smile, the inference being that a certain neophyte didn't know what he was letting himself in for.
Hey, I didn't mind. For as long as I can remember, Booker T & The MGs have been part of the soundtrack of my life. Like a lot of thirty-somethings, I discovered Green Onions on American Graffiti, where its muscular groove sat uneasily but proudly amongst the assembled oldies on that venerable 2-LP set. By the time the track was a reactivated UK chart hit a few years later, I was already au courant with much of the work of Messrs Jones, Cropper, Dunn and Jackson Jr et al. My teenage imagination transformed tracks like Can't Be Still, Chinese Checkers and Hip Hug-Her into a cool 60s/early 70s sound-scape, providing accompaniment to some sharp-looking mod squad as they did the bad guys in and saved the day. I found out about the Mar-Keys in a Last Night, the tune that more than any other helped put the Stax sound on the map.
But so to the task at hand - how to whittle down a voluminous quantity of unreleased MGs and Mar-Keys material into something approaching a pleasurable hour of entertainment. It was going to be hard to top our previous collection BOOKER T PLAYS THE HIP HITS (CDSXD 065), one of my all-time favourites amongst the Ace catalogue, and I know a lot of other peoples too. Hip Hits had relied on unissued, but classically MGs, readings of other peoples' material, but what we were dealing with here were unheard originals, often with vague titles or sometimes no titles at all. The Booker material spanned from the early Lewie Steinberg line-up right up until the end of the 1960s, while the cache of unknown Mar-Keys sides was more or less entrenched in their classic early 1960s pop-eye period. It had all been patiently mined from the Stax vault by Roger, and while in some cases it was obvious why things weren't released, the material was frequently excellent, and of course sonically it all had that wonderful McLemore Ave magic.
So I shouldn't have worried. Pretty soon my problem was merely debating what I had to leave off. The Mar-Keys' tracks demonstrate a jazzier, more sophisticated side than what has previously been known on record, with swinging cuts like Candy or Blue Peanut. Conversely, I was delighted to come across a rocking frat-house version of Link's Raw-Hide from the band's earliest sessions. Amongst the MGs' gems are the grooving beat of Put A Label On It, Funky Folks Cha Cha and Let's Go, the smooth groove of Slidin' and Jazzy, and a fascinating early take of the combos 1963 single Tic-Tac-Toe. Compiling STAX INSTRUMENTALS was a lot of fun, and getting to chat to Steve Cropper and Wayne Jackson in the process made it a total honour.
Whether you're a Stax diehard or merely the casual instrumental fan, you won't be disappointed.
By Alec Palao