These 10 songs are the Bible of Stax — singles that captured the label’s distinctly Southern and soulful sound and catapulted it to the world.
BOOKER T. & THE MG’S: Nearly every R&B and blues bar band has covered “Green Onions.”
MAR-KEYS | “LAST NIGHT” | 1961 | One of Stax’s earliest hits remains the coolest instrumental party anthem in recording history. The Mar-Keys went from the frat circuit to become Stax’s first house band, cutting these two and a half minutes of funky, swinging, unmitigated fun along the way.
BOOKER T. & THE MG’S | “GREEN ONIONS” | 1962 | Rhythm ’n’ groove gets no deeper. Nearly every R&B and blues bar band has covered this tune, and band members Booker T. Jones (organ), Steve Cropper (guitar), and Donald “Duck” Dunn (bass) have continued to make significant contributions as producers and sidemen for the likes of Neil Young and the Blues Brothers. Drummer Al Jackson was fatally stabbed in 1975.
RUFUS THOMAS | “WALKING THE DOG” | 1963 | DJ, talent-show host, and performer Rufus Thomas captured the essence of a down-down dance party with his first smash single. He reigned as the godfather of Memphis music until his death in 2001.
OTIS REDDING | “RESPECT” | 1965 | All the Stax signatures — deep grooves, resonant bass frequencies, the ebullient horns, and powerhouse testifying — came together in such early Redding breakthroughs as “Respect,” which later became a huge crossover smash for Aretha Franklin.
SAM & DAVE | “HOLD ON I’M COMIN’ ” | 1966 | The harmony-and-high-spirits, church-refined approach of Sam Moore, who is still singing brilliantly, and Dave Prater was a formula unto itself. This song was a blueprint for such later Sam & Dave hits as “Soul Man” and “I Thank You.”
EDDIE FLOYD | “KNOCK ON WOOD” | 1966 | Besides writing hits for Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding, Floyd helped forge the template for gut-busting sexy male soul shouters with this single.
ALBERT KING | “BORN UNDER A BAD SIGN” | 1967 | Blues got a little more sophisticated — and a lot funkier — when this hit brought King stardom after he’d struggled for more than a decade on other labels. It also established him as a guitar hero; he was emulated by the likes of Eric Clapton, who cut the track with Cream almost immediately after hearing King’s version.
DRAMATICS | “WHATCHA SEE IS WHATCHA GET” | 1971 | Stax played a role in ushering in the cool, silky soul of the ’70s that would become defined as the Philly sound. The Dramatics’ graceful, elegant, pointed “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get” was the label’s Top 10 pop-chart entry in that sweepstakes.
STAPLE SINGERS | “RESPECT YOURSELF” | 1971 | Led by gospel singer-guitarist Roebuck “Pops” Staples, this trio took spiritually inspired message music into the larger cultural arena with “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There.” Mavis Staples remains a soul, blues, and rock diva, in the best sense of the word. Her recently released We’ll Never Turn Back (Anti-) revisits the civil-rights movement, which inspired so much of the Staples’ music.
ISAAC HAYES | “THEME FROM SHAFT” | 1971 | If South Park made Hayes a joke, it was tunes like this and his lushly orchestrated “Walk On By,” also on Stax 50th Anniversary Celebration, that marked him a genius. Gorgeous, sexy, and indelible.