Stax Records: Written in Their Soul (Part 1 of 2)

Most listeners never get to hear demo recordings. Created by songwriters as a guide for recording artists, those demos aren’t meant to be shared with the public. But they’re an important part of the story. A treasure trove of such demos, Written in Their Soul: The Stax Songwriter Demos is the latest – and arguably the most significant – archival release in recent years.

From the early 1960s well into the mid ‘70s, Stax Records reigned supreme. With a top-notch stable of recording artists and performers, the Memphis-based label defined and exemplified rhythm and blues and soul music. Stax’s deep bench of artists represented a powerhouse variety of musical flavors, from the gritty, impassioned soul of Otis Redding to the searing blues of Albert King; from the stirring sounds of the Staple Singers to the eclectic productions of The Dramatics; from the uplifting gospel of the Rance Allen Group and the rock-solid instrumentals of Booker T & the M.G.’s to the psychedelic soul of superstar Isaac Hayes. Sam and Dave, Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas, Eddie Floyd, The Bar-Kays, Johnnie Taylor… the list of acclaimed Stax artists is a breathtakingly long one.

There were several key ingredients central to Stax’s creative successes. Jim Stewart launched the label (first known as Satellite) in the late 1950s; his sister Estelle Axton came on board shortly thereafter. From the late ‘60s onward – through the label’s fateful associations with Atlantic and CBS – Stax was helmed by Al Bell. A tightly-knit team of producers, engineers and house musicians provided another part of the Stax backbone: Booker T. Jones and the M.G.’s (Steve Cropper, Donald “Duck” Dunn and Al Jackson Jr.) were joined by Hayes and David Porter – often augmented by the Memphis Horns – to create the instrumental components of the signature Stax sound.

But Stax couldn’t have made the mark on the charts – and upon popular culture – that it did were it not for the songwriters. From its earliest days, the label focused on bringing in and cultivating the best songwriting talent. And a remarkable number of Stax songwriters were local: the neighborhoods around Memphis’ McLemore Avenue were teeming with budding songwriters ready to provide words and music for the label’s stable of artists to record and release. As singer/songwriter William Bell notes, “Most of [us] were neighborhood kids who grew up together from grammar school to high school and on.” He says that they migrated to Stax, which served as a creative outlet. “Kudos to Jim Stewart and Ms. Axton for that,” he emphasizes.

Ever since the dawn of recording technology, songwriters’ demos (demonstration recordings) have been the industry standard; a songwriter cuts a recording to documents the music and lyrics, and to provide at least a signpost for the producers, musicians and featured recording artists to follow. In most cases, those demo recordings are for internal use only, never meant to be shared with the wider public. But in many cases – especially up to and including during the 1960s – those songwriters’ demos weren’t preserved or even documented. Tragically, countless demos have been lost forever.

Those demos are an important part of the story, though. Taken as a whole, they help complete the picture, opening a window into the process of creating the revered body of work that is the Stax and associated label story. And thanks to intrepid music historian and archivist (and two-time Grammy winner) Cheryl Pawelski, a massive cache of Stax songwriters’ demos is now seeing the light of day. Written in Their Soul: The Stax Songwriter Demos is a massive seven-disc set bringing together more than 140 demos – nearly all previously unreleased – along with illuminating essays from Pawelski, acclaimed music historian Robert Gordon and Stax house songwriter Deanie Parker.

In August 1960, William Bell’s doo-wop group The Del-Rios was asked to provide backup for a Carla Thomas session. “It turned out to be ‘Gee Whiz,’” Bell notes with pride. He would be the first male solo artist signed to Stax. In addition to scoring solo successes with “You Don’t Miss Your Water” (1961), “Private Number” (a 1968 duet with Judy Clay) and “Tryin’ to Love Two” from 1976, Bell was an in-demand songwriter at Stax. Still active today at age 83 as a performer and recording artist, the Grammy winning Bell looks back fondly on his days with the Memphis label.

“We were like a factory,” he says. “We were young, and had the energy. We would come in 10 in the morning, maybe noon, and we’d write all day until seven or eight at night, sometimes later.” Each of those marathon sessions might yield three or four songs. “We just wrote continuously,” Bell says.

As the expansive Written in Their Soul vividly illustrates, that factory yielded a great deal of material. “Sometimes, we put so many [songs] back in the can, back on the shelf,” Bell recalls with a hearty laugh, “that we forgot about them until somebody would pull one out!”

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