Stax Records churned out some amazing music in the 1960s and 1970s, but if you’re new to the label or genre of music they created, you might not know where to start. So in this article, we’re going to countdown the best Stax songs we absolutely love. Hopefully, you’ll find a couple great tracks on this list to add to your playlist!
Best Stax Songs You’ll Absolutely Love
Let’s begin with an absolute classic by Otis Redding.
1) (Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay by Otis Redding (1968)
In “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay,” legendary singer Otis Redding delivered his masterpiece by describing the search for inner peace, hope, and simple pleasure in a world that feels cruel and indifferent – all summed up in a relaxing, idle moment on the waterfront.
Redding was Stax Records’ biggest star in the 1960s, and while “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay” was both his and the label’s biggest hit to date, the song’s success was bittersweet, as it was only released after Redding’s tragic early death in a plane crash.
While “Dock of the Bay” quickly became one of the most beloved pop songs of the entire 20th century, its message felt most acutely real upon its 1968 release, as mid-1960s social optimism began to fall apart in the face of war, urban unrest, and political cynicism. The straightforward, heartfelt manner in which Redding communicates his complex, scattered feelings makes “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay” the greatest Stax Records song of all.
2) I’ll Take You There by The Staple Singers (1972)
The Staple Singers bridged the connections between pop, R&B and Southern gospel music better than most, vividly characterizing the 1960s soul explosion’s roots in the African American church. “I’ll Take You There,” the Singers’ 1972 hit for Stax, crystallized this connection with inspiring, optimistic lyrics about reaching shared ecstasy that could just as easily be sexual, religious, musical, or some combination of all three.
The Staples Singers had been one of the Civil Rights Movement’s most prominent musical voices, and while many participants in the movement were feeling defeated and confused by the early 70s, “I’ll Take You There” represented a renewed commitment to the era’s hope for progressive change. The song inspires listeners to face their challenges bravely to this day.
While the Staples Singers recorded for a variety of labels over the course of their long career, lead singer Mavis Staples recalls their time at Stax being one of the happiest periods in their history as a group.
3) Green Onions by Booker T. & The M.G.’s (1962)
As members of the Mar-Keys, the Stax Records house band who would play the instrumental parts for vocal performances, keyboardist Booker T. Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Lewis Steinberg, and drummer Al Jackson, Jr. set the tone for many of the 1960’s biggest soul hits. As members of their own group, Booker T. and the M.G.’s, the quartet was responsible for some incredible instrumental hits of their own, including 1962’s timeless “Green Onions.”
With a title that made a literal connection to down home Southern cooking and a bubbling rhythm that all but conjured the smell of a country kitchen, “Green Onions” is the kind of song that sums up the feeling of an entire era: slick, focused, flavorful, and cool in spite of the heat.
This singular display of the instrumental charisma that held the Stax sound together makes it one of the very best of the label’s releases. Booker T. & the M.G.’s were also notable for being a racially mixed group, which made their music a stylish foil for the early 1960s march towards racial integration.
4) Hold On, I’m Comin’ by Sam & Dave (1966)
In addition to the search for true love, a great deal of 1960’s R&B projected the excitement of city living. Few songs captured the sheer velocity of speeding through urban streets in a flashy Cadillac or Lincoln like Sam & Dave’s 1966 hit “Hold On, I’m Comin’.”
The warm, comforting lyrics, set to a driving rhythm and pumped up by a fiercely confident horn section, conjured the thrilling anticipation for romantic rendezvous that millions of young people were experiencing across the United States. “Hold On, I’m Comin’” would later find new generations of audience members after it was turned into one of the theme songs for the hit 1980 musical comedy film The Blues Brothers, which not only featured the song itself but a variety of other Stax hits and cameos by the musicians who played them.
5) Knock on Wood by Eddie Floyd (1966)
Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood” is one of the very best all-around examples of the Stax Records sound. Anchored by Al Jackson, Jr.’s thumping drum beat and Steve Cropper’s crisp guitar riffing, the Mar-Keys’ horn section sends Floyd’s joyously smitten vocals over the top. The lyrics celebrate a love that has all the ferocity and sudden impact of a Deep South thunderstorm.
The song connects with audiences by celebrating love as unpredictable, powerful, and possibly fleeting. The message proved to be a little prophetic for Stax Records itself, whose commercial success would begin to subside over the next couple of years.
6) Mr. Big Stuff by Jean Knight (1971)
“Mr. Big Stuff” by Jean Knight celebrated the women’s liberation movement by delivering a humorous take on the flashy, materialistic posturing that was normal among R&B singers. The song used the latter as a pretext for questioning the worth of the fancy cars and finely pressed suits that were presented as symbols of power and success.
Knight’s spunky vocal performance asserted women’s independence by shrugging off the notion that a woman was required to throw herself at any man who presented these material goods. The instrumental arrangement for “Mr. Big Stuff” was bouncier than the typical Stax single at the time, showcasing a frisky tambourine backbeat and a James Brown-inspired ‘chicken scratch’ guitar part.
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7) Soul Finger by The Bar-Kays (1967)
The melody in “Soul Finger” is clearly based on “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” in a reference to traditional marching bands. However, the song’s arrangement depicts a party in the streets, rather than a staid procession. While the horns hang on for dear life and guitar solos swagger through the mix, a rowdy crowd of young people chants, screams and cheers.
“Soul Finger” projects an exhilarating celebration, channeling the boundary-breaking fun that was enrapturing young Americans in 1967. The lack of a lead vocalist makes a strong statement about the contagious energy of people power and community, which is underlined by the regular shout of “SOUL FINGER” that erupts from the ecstatic children who carry the song.
8) B-A-B-Y by Carla Thomas (1966)
Carla Thomas was known as the Queen of Memphis Soul during Stax Records’ 1960s heyday. In her hit “B-A-B-Y,” Thomas projected an intense female longing for loving touch that connected with young American women, who were in the midst of fighting for a freer right to self-expression in their personal lives and elsewhere.
“B-A-B-Y” was far from sexually explicit, however, and the song’s narrator sounded more like she was singing from a high school dance or football game than a smokey night club or all night juke joint. While Thomas would later change her tone towards men into a more dismissive “tough love” attitude in “Tramp,” her hit duet with Otis Redding, in “B-A-B-Y” her sparkling voice celebrates just the kind of heavenly romantic relationship that seemed to be on every young person’s mind in the early 1960s.
Instrumentally, the song featured many signature Stax production traits, including gleaming organ, powerful horns, and restrained but limber guitar parts.
9) Born Under a Bad Sign by Albert King (1967)
Blues guitarist Albert King released “Born Under a Bad Sign,” one of the biggest hits in blues history, on Stax in 1967. The song’s searing guitar solos and heaving backbeat were a perfect match for the Stax sound, projecting just the type of gritty urban realism that hard-working African-American audiences connected with.
By fusing stark blues pessimism with a touch of hippie astrology, Born Under a Bad Sign also reached an enthusiastic white audience at a time when rock guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton were taking their own blues-inspired brands of psychedelia to the top of the pop charts.
10) Theme from Shaft by Isaac Hayes (1971)
By the early 1970s, Stax Records’ glory days had passed. However, the label was committed to keeping with the times and putting out new material that would connect with R&B’s ever-changing audience. The label struck gold with Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from Shaft,” which as the title suggests was the theme song for photographer Gordon Parks’ groundbreaking ‘blaxploitation’ detective movie.
“Theme from Shaft” was notable for its early disco motifs – pulsing wah-wah guitar, horn parts that were lighter and punchier than the classic Stax style, and sweeping string arrangements. Deep, sexy baritone vocals courtesy of Hayes himself launched a new singing style for black men that was equal parts moody and romantic.
These innovative musical elements heralded a new era of slick 70s cool in African-American culture. “Theme from Shaft” went on to win an Oscar for Hayes, making him the first African-American to win an Academy Award in a non-acting category.
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11) Who’s Making Love by Johnnie Taylor (1968)
In “Who’s Making Love,” Johnnie Taylor presented a scandalously risqué narrative about a man’s infidelity paving the way for his wife’s own infidelity to him. Taylor doesn’t exactly present the mutual cheating as a sorrowful occasion, however.
Instead, Taylor’s wild, screeching vocal leads make the story into a humorous lesson on actions and their consequences that he learned the hard way himself. Taylor’s over-the-top leads and frank discussion of mutual sexual betrayal made this song into a major hit on the R&B and pop charts, launching his long career as a manically powerful singer.
12) What a Man by Linda Lyndell (1968)
Released in 1968, Linda Lyndell’s “What a Man” was grounded by a more complicated, subtle-but-funky drum beat. This engaging rhythm presented an evolution from the straightforward thump that had dominated previous Stax hits. This gentle, spicy texture was complemented by easy going keyboard and guitar parts that foreshadowed the tone Stax would embrace in the early 70s.
R&B audiences, many of whom were aging from youth into young adulthood, connected with this touch of sophistication, as well as with Lyndell’s vocal praise for a loving man who could provide for a woman’s needs. Decades later, this hit would be revived in sample form for hip hop group Salt-N-Pepa’s hit “Whatta Man,” bringing Lyndell’s heartfelt original a new generation of fans.
Stax Records produced some of the most beloved R&B songs in music history, making sure that the American South was well represented in the charts of the 1960s and 70s. The best Stax songs channeled the joys, hopes and heartache experienced by the African-American community into contagiously catchy hits that connected with audiences in every corner of the globe.
- The label found itself at its best when combining the vocal talents of homegrown stars such as Otis Redding and Carla Thomas with crisp, funky instrumental backing by their talented stable of in-house musicians. The result, a blend of R&B, gospel, blues, and funk that rocketed young music fans on to the dance floor, came to be known as Southern Soul.
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