STAX ARTISTS TAKE ON MOTOWN, THE BEATLES
April 2 -- Ford paying homage to General
Motors? The Eagles covering the Rolling Stones? Read on.
``SOULSVILLE SINGS HITSVILLE, Stax Sings Songs of
Motown Records'' (Stax): These two competing record
companies, one in Memphis, the other in Detroit, feature
different styles of black music from the U.S. Mixing them
can become schizophrenic.
You sense a certain discomfort. Motown slicked down
its product and compromised with the commercial market
toward the end. Rhythm and Blues is folk music more than
pop. It doesn't go out of style. Stax stayed truer to it.
These versions of the songs, all from the 1960s and
'70s, are classic R&B. The Mar-Keys take on ``Reach Out
(I'll Be There),'' which furnished hits for both the Four
Tops and Diana Ross, adds an infectious hillbilly-washboard
beat, and thus brings another dimension to the old tune.
Booker T. & the MG's version of ``I Hear a Symphony,''
associated with the Supremes, has their usual attractive,
soft, tightly wound swing. The Staples Singers do Smokey
Robinson's ``You've Got to Earn It,'' and they earn it.
Mavis Staples sings ``Chained,'' originally recorded
by Marvin Gaye, and when she gets righteous, she can make
you think of Aretha Franklin. You can't beat that.
Nobody's perfect, and it must be said that Billy
Eckstine's version of ``My Cherie Amour,'' originally
associated with Stevie Wonder, is a crying shame.
Speaking of righteous, the Soul Children doing
``Signed, Sealed, Delivered,'' another Stevie Wonder
vehicle, may get you signifying.
``STAX DOES THE BEATLES'' (Stax): It's refreshing to
hear down-home black takes on white music rather than the
other way around.
Like the above-reviewed Stax/Motown collection, this
is a compilation of classics recorded in the '60s and '70s,
and it is even more schizophrenic.
Stax may do the Beatles, but it doesn't do fancy. It
does, however, do kitsch. The corny tenor player on the
Mar-Keys' take on ``Let It Be,'' for instance, will have
you crying in your beer.
The whole thing involves some essential listening for
anyone who still gets goose pimples from a groove. It
reminds me of Jimi Hendrix covering Bob Dylan's ``Like a
Rolling Stone,'' and ``All Along the Watchtower,'' and of
``Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan,'' a
compilation recording by musicians such as Shirley Ceasar,
Dottie Peoples, Aaron Neville, and Mighty Clouds of Joy.
On the first-reviewed album, the artists obviously
esteem the source material. They are proud to be taking on
the competition, even if they are a bit cowed by it.
Maybe it's my imagination, yet on this one there's a
certain lack of respect. You know, we have to do this stuff
because it's commercial, but who really cares about those
square white British kids, anyway?
Carla Thomas's version of ``Yesterday'' includes some
wrong chord changes. On the original version of
``Something,'' the Fab Four incorporates a device called
``la tierce Picard,'' or the Picardie third, which involves
ending a minor-key number with a major chord. Bach used it.
The Beatles' ``Something'' is the only time I've heard
the Picardie third in pop music. It's divine, the whole
point of the tune. Isaac Hayes's pompous adaptation
disregards it, and that drives me up the wall.
John Gary Williams's ``My Sweet Lord'' will convert
you to the religion of your choice. The velvet groove of
Booker T. & the MG's is perfect for ``Lady Madonna'' and
``Eleanor Rigby.'' Steve Cropper's version of ``With a
Little Help From My Friends'' is seriously soulful.
The highlight, however, is Otis Redding's ``Day
Tripper,'' which grooves in your face right from the start.
The conviction will blow you out of your chair. Play it
loud, and I dare you not to dance.