Walk On By Part 2

I just can’t get over losin’ you
And so if I seem, broken and blue
Walk on by, walk on by
Foolish pride, that’s all that I have left

Thanks to a wonderful teacher in high school, I was fortunate enough to be exposed to the entire Stax singles catalog almost immediately upon becoming interested in 60’s R+B. I went from one cd, Otis Redding’s Greatest Hits, Volume 2 to The Complete Stax Singles 1959-1968. I think a lot of folks can hand something this comprehensive to a kid nowadays, off a hard drive, or loaded onto a 3000gb ipod, and they will take it gladly. Though maybe not listen to it. My teacher said, “Here, write a report on it, give it back in two weeks.” Nine discs, about 250 songs, along with a great huge book that came with the set. I devoured the lot. I can still recall hearing Macy Skipper or Eddie Floyd for the first time. Flipping out over Jeanne & the Darlings and Carla Thomas.

The story of a little re-purposed movie theater with a record shop in the front and a studio in the back, where neighborhood kids would come in and make their dreams come true became something close to a fairy tale for me, and I would regale friends about Memphis’ belle epoque. Each player seemed to fulfill some role in the Stax castle, with Rufus Thomas serving as the wizened Shakespearean court jester with a beautiful daughter, William Bell the sad-hearted knight errant, Johnny Taylor the cad, Booker T. & the MG’s standing sentry over the proceedings, ready at a moment’s notice to jump into action, and label owner Jim Stewart running around like Jimmy Stewart in a screwball comedy (“Whoa, we got a goldmine over here!”). At the heart of this myth was its true hero, Otis Redding: a figure so benevolent that he held the entire place together through his kind demeanor and his ability to touch any person to the core with his voice alone. Here was a guy who used lyrics his wife wrote to create one of the greatest breakup songs ever recorded, who was known to throw a song out after the third take because it wasn’t raw enough, who sang a song to kids about staying in school. I remember being shocked while reading Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music when he mentions that Redding actually got upset at Sam and Dave for getting the crowd too riled up before he took the stage. It was, and still is, the only negative thing I have ever heard about Otis Redding.

Of course this version of events is too perfect to be entirely true, and it ends with a crushing blow. That happens on the evening of December 9, 1967, when Otis, his manager and four members of his backing band, the Bar-Kays, are killed in a plane crash in Lake Monona, Wisconsin. Besides the posthumous release of Otis’ biggest hit, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” the coda of this tale is sung in not one but two other songs, “A Tribute To A King” by William Bell, and “Otis, Sleep On” by Redding’s protoge Arthur Conley. The moment I had always thought of as perhaps the most fitting end to Otis’ story is on the last song he recorded “The Happy Song (Dum Dum),” when he laughs his way through the line:

You oughtta see my baby’s face/ she just grins grins grins…

Otis Redding – The Happy Song (Dum Dum)

And right there my concrete sense of Stax ends. Black and White photos turn to that gritty 70’s Brown and Yellow. Al Bell makes some highly-profitable but not-so friendly moves. Isaac Hayes stops writing music for others and starts making music for himself,

and this

turns into this

There I left it, and really have ever since. When I hear about the great Stax artists of the 70’s — Hayes, The Staples Singers, The Bar-Kays, Luther Ingram — I enjoy ’em, but they don’t stir my heart. When I recently watched Mel Stuart’s excellent 1973 documentary, WattStax, I found myself searching the artists’ faces for something of the past. A sheepish grin over all the attention, maybe? An insular attitude amongst the musicians? No dice. There is a powerful composure and professionalism throughout the all the performances. Even Rufus Thomas pulls off some artful crowd control after folks start rushing the field to get closer to the stage. And when Bar-Kays sax player Harvey “Joe” Henderson says, “Freedom is a road seldom traveled by the multitude,” he means that he and his bandmates have earned it.

I guess I’m saying that as much as I like the 70’s stuff (and LOVE this performance of “Son of Shaft”),  I don’t pay too much attention.

All of this as a lengthy defense for the indefensible crime of misattribution* by yours truly. In my last post I indulged deeply in the fantasy of a Stax that never existed.

In my mind, Isaac Hayes was backed up by Booker T. & the MG’s in one final late-night jam, as he recorded one of the greatest soul masterpieces of all time: “Walk On By.” But, as my fact-checkin’ cuz Tim points out in the comments:

I hate to burst your bubble, but the MGs are not on “Walk on By”. Booker had just left or was soon to leave Stax, Cropper left soon after this too. That’s The Bar-Kays.

The Bar-Kays. Well, yes and no. The Bar-Kays and Harold Beane on lead guitar. Not Charles “Skip” Pitts who plays wah-wah on Shaft, or regular Bar-Kays guitarist Michael Toles, who plays rhythm guitar on “Walk on By” and on Shaft, and who later became part of Hayes’ touring group, and certainly not Steve Cropper. It is indeed Hayes on keyboard, not Booker T. That fanatic, exhausted drumming is courtesy of the Bar-Kays’ Willie Hall, not my hero Al Jackson Jr. The strings and horns, it turns out, were outsourced to Detroit, with members of the Detroit Symphony playing on violin. Definitely not the Memphis Horns, as I had always assumed. Here is how Marvell Thomas, son of Rufus, piano player and Co-Producer of Hot Buttered Soul tells the story of Beane’s playing to music historian Bill Dahl:

“The guitar solo was not something that was planned on front end,” recalled Thomas. “It was like, ‘Well why not?’ We just stretched out and let it go. When you get in the middle of it, you just kind of ride with it until it stops.”**

And that’s where I’m sort of left too. If I didn’t know a lot of this stuff, especially the bit about Detroit, I think I’d be a lot happier. And if I didn’t talk about it, the song may even be better. The fact that the fantasy of Stax is is impossible is something I’ve probably always known. I’m sure Otis Redding was secretly a shoplifter, William Bell was fiercely confident, and the works of Booker T. are actually by a different man with the same name. The golden age of Stax perseveres not through its anecdotal history, but by the immense, emotional scope of the music, and the joy which one inevitably feels while listening.

And so, I think I’d prefer to let the misinformation of the previous post stand. It’s a reverie brought about by late night radio– a truth that’s undeniable. Plus, everybody knows advice that was given up for free…lots of details to discern. Lots of details.

*This word, by the way, being the ultimate in onomotoseeia.

**This quote, and much of the personnel information comes from AllMusic and the Concord Music Group website, which oversaw the 2009 reissue of Hot Buttered Soul.

3 Comments

  1. Tim Whitsett
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    Al Jackson’s my hero too! I love the Shakespeare analogies.

  2. Posted May 27, 2010 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    If only more than 86 people would read this..

  3. Posted May 29, 2010 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    Incredibly awesome post. Really!

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