The Heart and Soul of Stax Records in 10 Songs

Stax Records spent decades spinning gold. The label nurtured a unique sound that blended R&B, gospel, blues, and country, eventually leading the way in a soul revolution. Stax became a home to icons like Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, The Staple Singers, and Booker T. & the M.G.’s.

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Label and artist, together, created what would become a genre all its own, giving life to some of today’s greatest songs along the way. Get to know the heart and soul of Stax Records with these 10 songs.

10. “Mr. Big Stuff” – Jean Knight

“Mr. Big Stuff” was a big hit for Stax, but an even bigger one for singer Jean Knight. The 1971 shuffling funk tune was one of her debut singles. It skyrocketed to the top of the Hot 100, peaking at No. 2, but earning the title of Soul Single of the Year. The song even secured her a nomination for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance at the 1972 Grammy Awards.

9. “Who’s Making Love” – Johnnie Taylor

Johnnie Taylor was a Stax mainstay. Heralded as the “The Philosopher of Soul,” Taylor¸—armed with fierce vocals and effervescent energy—amassed a number of hits during his time with the label, including songs like “I Had a Dream,” “I’ve Got to Love Somebody’s Baby,” and the 1968 classic “Who’s Making Love.”

8. “What a Man” – Linda Lyndell

From its opening riff and sensual bass line, “What a Man” is instantly recognizable as one of Stax’s most enduring hits. A young Linda Lyndell sang the tune, giving it impassioned fuel. “What a Man” would be one of her only hits, but the song and her voice would see a resurgence again in the early 1990s when Salt-N-Pepa sampled and reimagined the tune as “Whatta Man.”

7. “Knock On Wood” – Eddie Floyd

The infectious soul number “Knock On Wood” was another slam dunk for Stax, but the song also launched singer-songwriter Eddie Floyd’s career as a solo artist. He would go on to become one of the label’s most consistent hitmakers.

6. “In the Midnight Hour” – Wilson Pickett

Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” was Stax gold. The iconic soul song not only topped the R&B charts but also saw crossover success in the Hot 100, peaking at No. 21. The 1965 tune marked Pickett’s breakthrough.

5. “Green Onions” – Booker T. & the MGs

Almost single-handedly inventing the Stax sound, Booker T. & the MGs was the label’s house band. They played on hundreds of Stax recordings, backing talents like the aforementioned Pickett and Taylor, Otis Redding, Bill Withers, Sam & Dave, and so many more. The band, however, released hits of their own, including the classic “Green Onions.”

4. “I’ll Take You There” – The Staples Singers

The gospel-soul family band, the Staple Singers, gave Stax another chart-topper with their 1972 hit, “I’ll Take You There.” Like many Stax recordings, the song saw great success on the R&B charts and beyond, reaching No. 1 on the Hot 100.

3. “Theme from Shaft” – Isaac Hayes

Stax released Isaac Hayes’ funk-soul theme from the 1971 film, Shaft, as a single, a move that took the composition from cinema and launched it up the charts. It crossed over from soul to easy listening to an overall pop hit, gracing the No. 1 slot on the Hot 100.

2. “Hold On! I’m Comin’” – Sam & Dave

Sam & Dave were a Stax power couple, releasing Southern soul classics, like “Soul Man,” “I Thank You,” “Wrap It Up,” and”When Something is Wrong with My Baby,” under the label. But no recording compared to their magnum opus, “Hold On! I’m Comin’.”

1. “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” – Otis Redding

Otis Redding was Stax royalty. Crowned the King of Soul, he was among the label’s greatest acts. It was with the label that he recorded signature tunes like “These Arms of Mine” and “Try a Little Tenderness,” but none quite touched his ultimate classic, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”

The tune wasn’t released until after his untimely death. It would quickly top the Hot 100 and become Redding’s only No. 1 single on that chart.

Photo: Stax Records

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