Stax Records: Written in Their Soul (Part 2 of 2)

Continued from Part One…

Some of the demos on the new set feature vocal and simple accompaniment; others are more fully arranged, often including an entire band. The demos in that latter category often don’t sound like “demos” at all; they have all of the characteristics of a finished recording ready for commercial release. “The songwriters wrote [each song] with the idea in mind that people would hear it,” explains Deanie Parker, who joined the Stax family in 1963 and stayed there until the end. She says that songwriters like herself hoped that the songs would be chosen for further development – “orchestra, background singers or whatever” and then given to “the hottest artists on the Stax label.” And that happened quite often.

Parker would release two singles on Volt, one of Stax’s sister labels. And she wrote songs that would indeed be recorded by high-profile stars. A co-write with guitarist Steve Cropper, her demo of “I’ve Got No Time to Lose” is included on Written in Their Soul. The song would be recorded by Carla Thomas and released (on Atlantic Records) in 1964.

But very good songs were in great supply at Stax, and as a result some solid tunes never found their way to release. Written in Their Soul collects demos of some 66 original compositions – three CDs’ worth – that have never been released in any form until now. Parker’s wonderfully bouncy, gospel-tinged “Spin It” and a deep soul duet with Mack Rice titled “Nobody Wants to Get Old” are just two examples. Cropper’s distinctive guitar tone enlivens the former. And in retrospect, it’s likely that only its slightly out-of-tune piano kept the latter from being suitable for release just as it was.

Some of the house songwriters at Stax were prolific. Written in Their Soul features quite a few tracks from the pens of writers like Rice, Eddie Floyd, Bettye Crutcher and Homer Banks. But for her part, Parker says that she has never been the kind of songwriter who created on demand. “I’m not a career writer,” she explains. “I write on inspiration. When you’re having some kind of emotional experience with something happening in life, that’s what I relate to most in writing.” Clearly, Parker has had a great deal of inspiration; looking through her BMI song registration list, she notes that she is credited with “somewhere between 50 and 100” songwriting credits.

Asked if she composed “I’ve Got No Time to Lose” with Queen of Memphis Soul Carla Thomas in mind, Parker responds quickly. “I wrote it for someone at Stax to do it, namely Deanie Parker!” she says. “In my mind, I had the first follow-up to the first two singles that had been released on me previously.” But she has no regrets.

“It just wasn’t in the cards,” Parker says. “And I am certainly not begrudging.” She believes that having her song assigned elsewhere was the best thing that could have happened to her. “It helped me to determine that fulfilling the demands of a professional, dedicated, skilled artist was not in my DNA,” she says. “I could not have endured some of the things that our male and female artists – especially those whom were Black – had to endure in order to be successful.” Instead, Parker channeled her energies into working behind the scenes at Stax, serving as editor, photographer, press correspondent, publicist, secretary and other key roles at the Memphis label. “Thank god for Jim Stewart,” she says. “He saw that I could make a contribution.”

Parker’s activities at Stax continued to include songwriting and even session work. Six of the 11 songs on Carla Thomas’ 1967 LP The Queen Alone were co-written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, but “Give Me Enough (To Keep Me Going)” is a Deanie Parker original. “I doubled [the vocal] with Carla on that,” she says. And as a skilled pianist, her input was often invaluable, even if she didn’t play on a session. “In the case of Marvell Thomas, I showed him how I formed a chord that got a specific sound that he could not duplicate,” she says with a smile. “Because he was a learned musician. I play from ear. I could sight read, but I didn’t care about the construction of a chord. I was going from sound.”

After Stax’s initial run, Deanie Parker went on to other worthy pursuits. When the Soulsville nonprofit organization was formed, she served as its first president and CEO, leading the creation of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and related projects. She remains proud of the Memphis label’s legacy and her part in its success. “Stax Records was the first business that branded Memphis and its music globally. But there was no plan, there was no diagram, there was no architectural rendering,”she says. “It was built on desire and inspiration.” And the inspiration of the label’s songwriters is on vivid display in the new multi-disc collection.

As massive and in-depth as it is, Written in Their Soul is by no means exhaustive. Pawelski – who has been working on the project in various ways for nearly two decades – notes that she culled the 146 tracks from the 665 she found. “I love giant, almost impossible projects; they’re my favorites.” With a wink, she adds, “There could certainly be future projects; I’m ready, willing and able.”

Stay tuned for lots of bonus material from my interviews with Deanie Parker and William Bell. – bk