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Stax-O-Trax:  Songwriter Demos 7 CD Boxed Set Delivers Amazing Insights Into Shaping A Sound Heard Around The World

Mark Smotroff gets immersed in the backbone of a legendary label…

I can’t remember the exact wording of the particular phrase right at this moment, but there is a bit of advice often passed along to aspiring songwriters. Paraphrased, it effectively says that ‘you need to first write 100 bad songs to write one good one.’  

Or something like that… 

The point is, songwriters often create scores of demos and sketches of songs to help their ideas come together. Some times, demos are put together as a guide for other artists who might cover it; other times they are assembled purely for copyright protection and processing of necessary forms to register the title. And periodically, those ideas and initial sketches capture a made-in-that-moment magical essence which is virtually impossible to recapture no matter how big and fancy the studio. Musical lightening in a bottle…

Some writers work at the piano. I write on guitar primarily and in the past made many sketches on cassette recorders kept by my bedside (these days I use the voice recorder built-in to my iPhone). Heck, I’ve even sung initial draft ideas for songs to my phone recorder while walking my dog! In some ways, composers are lucky these days as there are so many tools at our fingertips and diverse avenues for bring the music out to the universe when its ready.

Back in the early days of recording it wasn’t quite that easy as home recorders and microphones ’n such were not exactly commonplace — or affordable — for most people. If you knew how to write notation of course you could write things down. But to really hear how the song sounded and to convey it easily to others in the industry, musician-composers typically had to go into a proper recording studio — no matter how small and cheap — and pay an hourly wage to a recording engineer to capture the hits-to-be on analog magnetic tape.

Jeez, in the days before tape, bands and artists had to set up elaborate sessions to record direct to disc, which is effectively what you hear on old 78s from the pre-magnetic-tape days up to the late 1940s. There was a brief period when portable disc recorders existed (which I wrote about a while back, click here to read that article). but that was short lived…

Anyhow, lets fast forward to the 1960s, when Memphis, TN’s Stax Records was the eminent label showcasing many of the biggest stars of a new wave of soul and rhythm ’n blues music, future legends like Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave and the Staple Singers. And much like the writers working behind the scenes at The Brill Building (ie. Carol King, Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond, Bert Berns, Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller, Burt Bacharach & Hal David, etc.), Stax had its own ace songwriters including Bettye Crutcher, Homer Banks, William Bell as well as legendary guitarist and one-quarter of the MG’s, Steve Cropper. 

These unsung heroes are the focus of a fantastic new seven— count ‘em, 7! — CD boxed set out now from Craft Recordings. Documenting the songwriting process of many of the top writers for the legendary Stax Records label, Written in Their Soul: The Stax Songwriter Demos collects 146 demos (140 previously unreleased) from Stax’s own legendary roster of songwriters.

This is something of a holy grail of songwriting, giving us early sketches of classic hits to never-before-heard should-have-been hits, some with complete arrangements!    

From the official press release on the project we learn more about the set:

Compiled by multiple GRAMMY®-winning producer Cheryl Pawelski and restored/mastered by multiple GRAMMY®-winning engineer Michael Graves, the songs featured on Written in Their Soul fall into three categories: demos that were released by artists at Stax or its subsidiary imprints, including Volt, We Produce, and Enterprise (CDs 1–3); demos by Stax songwriters that were released by artists on other labels, such as Atlantic and Decca (CD 4); and a trove of hit-worthy recordings that were never released (CDs 5–7). Adding context to these songs are notes by Pawelski, plus a new essay by Emmy® and GRAMMY-winning writer/producer Robert Gordon (Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story) and Stax’s original Director of Publicity and 2x Emmy® winner Deanie Parker, who later served as the founding President and CEO of the Soulsville Foundation, which encompasses the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, among other educational organizations. Ms. Parker, who joined the Stax fold in 1962, was also a songwriter at the label.

Generally one of the things that has impressed me on this set is the overall sound quality. Some of these “demos” could have been released and maybe even become hits in their own right!  Overall, its very much a fly on the wall scenario, especially when you hear writers delivering their own heartfelt impressions of how their song should sound.  

One of the big surprises for me was hearing “Told You For The Last  Time” by Delaney Bramlett. Later recorded by Eric Clapton on his 1970 first solo album, this demo underscores that rich musical cross pollination which happened in the latter half of the ’60s as American artists like Bramlett befriended and co-mingled with the cream of crop of the so-called British Invasion. 

And its not just all demos here on Written in Their Soul: The Stax Songwriter Demos. Again, from the press release we learn: “An equal portion of Written In Their Soul is devoted to the songs that never made it out into the world. Many of these tracks are fully-realized studio recordings that were sent to publishers for copywriting purposes.”

I’m still working my way through Written in Their Soul: The Stax Songwriter Demos but so far it has been a fascinating journey. The beautiful, hard-bound book-style set features many original essays about the artists and music contained within. It features a similar design for housing the CDs to the fine retrospective from Craft Recordings celebrating Fania Records (click here and here for my two-part review of that set). This is a very high quality production, for sure. 

Some of my favorites so far on Written in Their Soul: The Stax Songwriter Demos include the sassy “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’ by Mack Rice,   Homer Banks’ horned up ode to pre-marital relations “Before The Honeymoon’ and Eddie Floyd & Steve Cropper’s unreleased demo for “634-5789 (Soulsville, USA)” which was first recorded by Wilson Pickett and according to the Wikipedia, reaching “number 1 on the Billboard HotRhythm & Blues Singles chart and number 13 on the Hot 100 singles chart.”

If you like the music of Stax Records and want to learn more about the roots of the Memphis / Stax sound, you need to hear these recordings.

Below is the complete track-list for Written in Their Soul: The Stax Songwriter Demos to whet your appetite for these tasty Stax ‘o trax!

Disc One: Stax Writers, Stax Releases (Part One)

1. Comfort Me – Carla Thomas

2. You Make A Strong Girl Weak – Jeanne & The Darlings

3. What Did I Do Wrong – William Bell

4. Another Night Without My Man – Carla Thomas

5. I Got Everything I Need – Eddie Floyd

6. Mister Fix It – Eddie Floyd

7. I’ll Always Have Faith In You – Eddie Floyd

 8. Got To Make A Comeback – Eddie Floyd

9. I’ve Seen What Loneliness Can Do – Homer Banks

10. Slow Train – William Bell

11. Hear My Call, Here – The Staple Singers

12. Top Of The Mountain – The Staple Singers

13. I See It – The Staple Singers

14. The Ghetto – The Staple Singers

15. You Can’t Win With A Losing Hand – Eddie Floyd

16. Sweet Sensation – Carla Thomas

17. Spare Me The Hurt Of Losing You – The Newcomers

18. Third Child – Bettye Crutcher

19. Respect Yourself – Mack Rice

20. People Come Out Of Your Shell – Bettye Crutcher

21. I’ll Be Your Shelter (In Time Of Storm) – Homer Banks

Disc Two: Stax Writers, Stax Releases (Part Two)

1. Get Up About Yourself – Homer Banks

2. All Day Preachin’ – Bettye Crutcher

3. (If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want To Be Right – Homer Banks

4. We The People – Carl Smith

5. Do The Sweetback – March Wind

6. What Would I Do – Leon Moore

7. Heaven Knows – Homer Banks

8. I May Not Be All You Want (But I’m All You Got) – Homer Banks

9. True Love Don’t Grow On Trees – Veda Brown

10. (I Didn’t Know What Losing Was) ’Til I Lost You – Eddie Floyd

11. Until I Lost You – March Wind

12. Drown Yourself – Bettye Crutcher

13. If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me) – Homer Banks

14. I Got To Be Myself – Carl Smith

15. You’re Spreading Yourself A Little Too Thin – Bettye Crutcher

16. Take A Walk Down My Street – Bettye Crutcher

17. Before The Honeymoon – Homer Banks

18. Nobody But You – Mack Rice

19. Hot Line To Jesus – Mack Rice

20. I Hear Footsteps (Coming Closer) – William Brown

Disc Three: Stax Writers, Stax Releases (Part Three)

1. I’ll Be The Other Woman – Shelbra Bennett

2. We’ve Got Love On Our Side – Bettye Crutcher

3. It’s So Wonderful – Frederick Knight

4. That’s What Friends Are For – Mack Rice

5. Sugar Daddy – Bettye Crutcher

6. Woman To Woman – Henderson Thigpen

7. So Glad To Have You – Bettye Crutcher

8. Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’ – Mack Rice

9. Dy-No-Mite (Did You Saw My Love) – Mack Rice

10. Your Love Is Amazin’ – Eddie Floyd

11. Walk On To your New Love – Bettye Crutcher

12. Something Ain’t Right – Mack Rice

13. There Is A God – Bettye Crutcher

14. Packed Up And Took My Mind – Denise LaSalle

15. Don’t You Know That It’s All Right – Joe Shamwell & Eddie Floyd

16. Who Made The Man – Mack Rice

17. It Don’t Pay To Get Up In The Morning – Mack Rice

Disc Four: Moonlighting – Stax Writers, Non-Stax Releases

1. Don’t Let The Love Light Leave – Carla Thomas

2. I’ve Got No Time To Lose – Deanie Parker

3. A Woman’s Love – Carla Thomas

4. 634-5789 (Soulsville, USA) – Eddie Floyd

5. Linda Sue Dixon – Mack Rice

6. Told You For The Last Time – Delaney Bramlett

7. Let Me Know – Mack Rice

8. Let Me Be Yours – Joe Shamwell

9. We Can Love – Eddie Floyd

10. Without You – Mack Rice

11. Shouting Out Love – Veda Brown

12. Take My Body – Bettye Crutcher

13. I’ve Got A Feeling (We’ll Be Seeing Each Other Again) – Homer Banks

14. I Could Never Be Satisfied – Mack Rice

15. Everybody’s Hustling – Mack Rice

16. Either You Love Me Or Leave Me – Homer Banks

17. I’ve Never Been This Close To Jesus – Mack Rice

18. Pussy Footing Around – Mack Rice

19. This Time Yesterday – Mack Rice

20. Are We Slipping Away – Mack Rice

21. I Wanna Slow Dance Wit’cha – Frederick Knight

22. What You Did To Me Last Night – Bettye Crutcher

Disc Five: Uncut Songs (Part One)

1. Got To Make You Mine – Eddie Floyd

2. Come On Dance With Me – Rufus Thomas

3. I Got To Go For That – Rufus Thomas

4. Spin It – Deanie Parker

5. Nobody Wants To Get Old – Deanie Parker & Mack Rice

6. Such A Feeling – Eddie Floyd

7. Never Say No To The One You Love – Eddie Floyd

8. Looks Like Another Hot Summer – Steve Cropper & Eddie Floyd

9. Give You All The Love I Got – Eddie Floyd

10. It’s Up To You – Carla Thomas

11. Let’s Be Sure – Carla Thomas

12. Oo-we Baby What You Do To Me – Booker T. Jones

13. Coming Together – Homer Banks

14. It’s Over – Homer Banks

15. Break Out (aka Bust Out) – Wendy Rene

16. Walk On Back – Unknown

17. Come On Down – Mack Rice

18. Can’t Make Enough – William Bell

19. Love Is You – Eddie Floyd

20. Let’s Get Down To Business – Bettye Crutcher

21. Stone For Stone – Henderson Thigpen

22. I Won’t Do You No Dirt – William Bell

23. Just Too right To Be Wrong – Mack Rice

24. Song #2 – The MG’s

Disc Six: Uncut Songs (Part Two)

1. Too Much Sugar For A Dime – Homer Banks

2. Too Much Sugar For A Dime – Bettye Crutcher

3. You Knock Me Out – Homer Banks

4. I Should Have Changed My Ways – Jimmy Hughes

5. ’Til You’ve Been Loved By Me – Eddie Floyd

6. Deaf And Dumb – Mack Rice

7. It’s No Secret – William Bell

8. Somebody’s Got You Baby – Marshall Jones

9. Something Keeps Holding Me Back – Mack Rice

10. Take It All Off – Bettye Crutcher

11. Don’t You Know I’m All Alone – Eddie Floyd

12. Sweet Dreams (I Had Of You) – Eddie Floyd

13. Ain’t No Love Like My Baby’s Love – Bettye Crutcher

14. Just The Way You Loved Me – Bettye Crutcher

15. Glory Glory I Love Him – Eddie Floyd

16. Stay With Me – Eddie Floyd

17. Three Meals A Day – Mack Rice

18. Everybody Is Talking Love – Bettye Crutcher

19. Didn’t Love Straighten It Out – Homer Banks

20. We Don’t Need Stone Walls – John KaSandra

21. You’re Funny Boy – Carl Smith

Disc Seven: Uncut Songs (Part Three)

1. Shadows On The Wall – Eddie Floyd

2. Grandpa’s Will – Homer Banks

3. Whatcha Gonna Do (When You Find The One) – Bettye Crutcher

4. I Got To Keep On Taking Chances – Jimmy Hughes

5. Thank You For Loving Me – William Bell

6. Do Me Wrong – Eddie Floyd

7. Put It To A Vote – Carl Smith & Marshall Jones

8. Dammit – Eddie Floyd & Mack Rice

9. The Yard Man – Bettye Crutcher

10. Don’t Stay Gone Too Long – Bettye Crutcher

11. How Can I Win Your Love – Eddie Floyd

12. Every Now And Then – Mack Rice

13. Somewhere In Somebody’s Heart – Willie Singleton

14. Love Treaty – Willie Singleton

15. Staying With My Man – Eddie Floyd

16. Bread Winner – Mack Rice

17. Got To Be Somebody For Me – Eddie Floyd

18. Hometown Lover – Eddie Floyd

19. Do You Want Me To Lie To You – Bettye Crutcher

20. I Don’t Care Anymore – Shirley Brown

21. I Like The Way You Groove Me – Frederick Knight

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