Stax vs. Motown is, of course, one of the past century's great cultural rivalries, up there with Yankees/Red Sox or Beatles/Stones. In the decades since the Memphis soul label and its Detroit counterpart receded from the center of pop music production, critics and fans have continued to make great sport of pitting these institutions — the twin oracles of '60s/'70s black culture — against each other.
Soulsville Sings Hitsville presents different approaches to the Motown style. One of Stax's strengths relative to Motown has always been the greater depth and consistency of its catalogue, manifested in more compelling minor artists and non-hit recordings, but on this compilation, Stax artists mine obscure Motown in addition to the identifiable hits. David Porter delivers a great reading of the Stevie Wonder album cut "I Don't Know Why I Love You," while the Staple Singers do a bluesy reworking of the minor Tempations hit "You've Got To Earn It."
More interesting is hearing Stax artists confront more familiar Motown material. The Soul Children reconfigure Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" for Sunday-morning service, putting a different emphasis on the "delivered" of the title. Even more daring is Margie Joseph's reworking of the Supremes' signature hit, "Stop! In the Name of Love," a deconstruction of a pop-song staple similar to (if less titanic than) Otis Redding's version of "Try a Little Tenderness."
The Joseph version adds a spoken-word intro, turning the trademark Motown hit into a dramatic set piece that references both pre-Supremes girl groups and the pulpit-style soul monologues of Clarence Carter or Solomon Burke. Structurally, this version takes the sleek, elegant Motown composition and plays around with it, taking it apart and pulling it back together with baritone background vocals and churchy piano fills in the mix. It doesn't confirm Stax's superiority to Motown, but it's absolutely a testament to the Memphis label's creativity and ingenuity. — CH