Nearly a quarter century ago (April 30, 1991 to be exact), a lavish, 9CD set called The Complete Stax/Volt Singles: 1959-1968 was released. Housed in a large box and featuring liner notes in book form, the set provided a handy (and nearly exhaustive) chronicle of the Memphis label’s output from its beginnings up through the end of its association with Atlantic Records. Nearly 250 tracks showcased some of the best-loved (and important) sides from a long list of names familiar to any self-respecting pop music fan: Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, Sam & Dave, Booker T & the MGs, and so on. Many lesser names were featured as well, of course, and the overall quality standard of music was impressive.
Nearly two and a half years later (September 1993), a follow-up set appeared. The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles: 1968-1971 focused on the beginning of Stax’s post-Atlantic era, a period during which Stax was still in its ascendancy. Originally housed in a large box and featuring an LP-sleeve sized booklet (again with liner notes from Stax chronicler Rob Bowman), the set was reissued in 2014 in a smaller format. The 2014 edition housed the CDs in slim cardboard sleeves instead of jewel boxes, and reduced the booklet (and its set type) to CD dimensions as well.
In 1994 the project was completed, with the release of The Complete Stax-Volt Soul Singles, Vol. 3: 1972-1975. Covering the final years of the original Stax label, this third volume showcases music from the period when Stax declined, faltered, and finally succumbed. Bowman’s liner notes provide the concurrent narratives of the music and the label’s demise.
Like the second volume, Vol. 3 has now been reissued in a smaller format. And while it’s undeniable that the material on this third entry (spanning ten discs) is not the equal of the earlier sets, that’s an unreasonable standard. By 1972, Stax was already beginning to suffer business problems, most specifically with regard to distribution. Bowman’s liner notes detail the label’s arrangement with CBS, one that – at least on the Memphis end – gave reasons for optimism. But it was not to be. And in the wake of Stax’s blossoming difficulties, many of its star acts would leave.
As a result, the music on Vol. 3 features quite a few names that will be unfamiliar to all but the most ardent southern soul aficionados. But that doesn’t mean the music’s not good; on the contrary, in one sense listeners might find that The Complete Stax-Volt Soul Singles, Vol. 3: 1972-1975 features some of the best soul music they’ve never heard before.
Edited down to single-length, Isaac Hayes‘ Shaft Soundtrack cut “Do Your Thing” is a scorcher. The Dramatics‘ sweeping classic “In the Rain” is a thing of beauty. And there are a number of such well-known sides found on Vol. 3. In addition to late-period classic sides from Rufus Thomas, Johnnie Taylor, and the Bar-Kays, Vol. 3 serves up a number of lesser-known treasures from The Soul Children, The Mad Lads, David Porter, Mel & Tim, and countless others. It’s not unreasonable to assume that if Stax hadn’t suffered its distribution woes, several of the relatively obscure singles collected on Vol. 3 might have stormed the charts.
But that didn’t happen. While there are quite a few charting hits among the hundreds of tunes in this box (213 songs, to be exact), most died a quiet death in the marketplace. And as Bowman’s liner notes explain, several album projects initiated while Stax was in its death throes never got completed; there’s some question as to whether some of the late-late period material (from discs 9 and 10) ever saw official release. It’s likely that even if those songs were officially released, boxes of records languished in a CBS warehouse somewhere.
One exceedingly small quibble I’ve encountered with regard to all three Stax/Volt box sets is that they’re not – strictly speaking – “complete.” The b-sides are almost never included. And by limiting the set to soul, music from other genres (rock, gospel, and so on) from Stax and its associated labels (Volt, Enterprise, Respect, We Produce, and Truth) is not included. I’ll concede those arguments and argue that even without the other material, Vol. 3 remains a stone cold classic. Forget that the lion’s share of this music didn’t chart; forget that a lot of it was made by supposedly second-tier artists. Forget all that, take the music for what it is, and you’re all but guaranteed countless hours of listening pleasure.