Memphis and, it seemed, the whole world were watching when American Idol judge Randy Jackson stepped onto The Orpheum stage and asked, "Are you ready for some heat?"
Jackson and rap pioneer Chuck D. were co-hosting Stax Records' 50th Anniversary Concert June 22nd, a local coming-out party for the Concord Music Group, which purchased the Memphis-founded label in 2004 and initiated its relaunch earlier this year.
Even before the house lights went down, however, confusion about Concord's motivations made for a hot topic with some disgruntled Stax alumni, who have felt, at best, slighted by programming for the anniversary celebration, which was broadcast live over XM Radio. Case in point: The Commercial Appeal's interview with Marvell Thomas, Stax organist and son of legendary performer Rufus Thomas, who, with Marvell's sister Carla, put the label on the map in 1960. The article cited the "marginalization" of the Thomas family's contributions to the Stax legacy, yet on Friday night, when the house band took the stage, there was Marvell, sitting on his organ bench, stage right.
Stax songwriter-turned-powerhouse performer Eddie Floyd started off the revue-style concert with "I've Never Found a Girl," getting everyone to their feet after tossing roses to fans in the first few rows. Looking, in local parlance, as clean as the Board of Health, William Bell followed with a searing take on "Private Number," his late-'60s Stax hit (originally a duet with Judy Clay, who has since passed away), while Mable John simmered, then percolated, with the sassy "Your Good Thing Is About To End."
When the Soul Children's Norman West asked, "Can I get down tonight?" it was merely a rhetorical question; the homegrown talent that took turns onstage kept the crowd moving all night. The Soul Children's take on "Hearsay," off their '72 album Genesis, was the first old-school theatrical, extended jam of the evening. Next, West's co-vocalist J. Blackfoot introduced "The Sweeter He Is" by noting, "David Porter and Isaac Hayes wrote this song — let's give 'em some applause," setting the pace for the label's original performers, who consistently gave credit where it was due.
Yet the canned banter between Jackson and Chuck D. threatened to derail the momentum between every act. WWRD (What Would Rufus Do?), I wondered, as I listened to them mumble through another round of accolades read from the TelePrompters, wishing that someone had done their homework and hired a real MC, someone who could have fun and get funky like in the WDIA Goodwill Revues of yore.
Jackson's missteps were numerous. To the audience's dismay, he squeezed Idol references into nearly every sentence, and, at one point, the co-hosts incorrectly announced that Stax co-founder Jim Stewart and Al Bell, the label's final owner, were in the audience. No big deal, unless you consider that Stewart's a recluse who has never stepped foot in the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and who was a no-show for his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Had Stewart chosen to attend the anniversary concert, it would've made a fine moment for the current stewards of the Stax legacy, but sadly, that wasn't the case.
As for Bell, he explained by phone from his North Little Rock home on Sunday night, "I knew about [the concert], but there was no formal communication as to whether I was invited or expected to be there until three days before, and by that time, I'd committed to something else."
With or without Stewart and Bell, the show went on. Memphis Horns trumpeter Wayne Jackson stepped into the spotlight for a splendid version of the Mar-Keys' "Last Night," the instrumental single that started it all for Stax Records, although it was actually released on the label's predecessor, Satellite.
"It's a pleasure and honor to perform the record that put me at Stax Records," the trumpeter announced, dedicating the number to his "best friend," Memphis Horn saxophonist Andrew Love. "Put us all here," retorted a distinctively Memphis voice, causing a mighty chuckle from the crowd. Other poignant moments followed, including Dexter Redding and Otis Redding III's performances of "Try a Little Tenderness" and "Hard To Handle" and Mavis Staples' renditions of "Respect Yourself" and "If You're Ready (Come and Go With Me)."
Midway through the evening, when Booker T. & the MGs suddenly appeared to play "Green Onions," the audience collectively and audibly exhaled, then rose to its feet with a roar. Flanked by bassist Duck Dunn, guitarist Steve Cropper, and drummer Steve Potts (who's stood in for Al Jackson Jr., since his murder in 1975), Booker T. Jones, the group's organist, began a moody vamp that took the audience to church, before erupting into the frenzied dance number "Time Is Tight." The MGs, Stax' legendary house band, performed not as showmen but as earthy studio players with their feet firmly planted onstage as their music swirled upward to the Orpheum's ceiling and beyond.
The pompadour-sporting Rance Allen — who looks and sings like a Motor City Solomon Burke — rode out the MGs' swell, preaching in a falsetto that brought down the house and declaring, "I don't think I would be out of place if I asked everybody to praise the Lord" during "That Will Be Good Enough For Me," his hit for the Gospel Truth, Stax' religious-themed arm.
In the shadow of such greatness, new Stax signee Angie Stone still shined with her version of Shirley Brown's "Woman to Woman," showcasing the work of the house band, which included Stax session guitarists Skip Pitts and Bobby Manuel.
Rising neo-soul singer N'Dambi dazzled the audience with her version of Luther Ingram's "If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don't Wanna Be Right)" and her Barbarella wardrobe, which consisted of turquoise knee-high boots and a matching mini dress.
On "Mr. Big Stuff," Lalah (daughter of Donny) Hathaway hit the right notes but lacked the punch that Jean Knight utilized to make the song a number-one hit. And Soulive, a New York-based organ-heavy quartet which had the duty of re-creating Sam & Dave's "I Thank You," sent most of the audience out to the lobby for drinks.
Collectively described as "21st- century Stax recording artists," most of the younger acts were short of the grit that made stars out of performers like Staples, Bell, and Floyd, and only time will tell who possesses the chops to make it in the music biz. Granted, Memphis makes for a tough audience — particularly when a California-based record label is messing with its hometown legacy and when material is pillaged from artists like Shirley Brown, Sam Moore, and Jean Knight, who are still alive and well and performing at events like the Ponderosa Stomp and on the chitlin circuit.
The mellifluous Isaac Hayes, the first of the old Stax artists to sign a deal with the reinvigorated label, hit a home run with "Walk On By" and "(Theme From) Shaft," demonstrating that he's made a full recovery from last year's stroke. Then, in a closing reminiscent of the local Recording Academy's recent musical salutes, the whole gang came back out for sing-alongs of "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay" and "I'll Take You There."
"I know a place/I'll take you there," Staples sang, a promise she's continued to fulfill since cutting the powerhouse anthem 35 years ago.
With so many expectations from so many different people, there's simply no way that the concert could've pleased everyone, but the originators of the Stax sound never failed to satisfy — and in the end, that's what counts.