Home Read Albums Of The Week: Various Artists | Written In Their Soul: The...

Albums Of The Week: Various Artists | Written In Their Soul: The Stax Songwriter Demos

THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: “The new collection Written In Their Soul: The Stax Songwriter Demos is a seven-disc box set that celebrates the often-unsung heroes who wrote classic songs for major artists such as Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave and The Staple Singers.

The set features 146 demos, all but six of which are previously unreleased, from the label’s revered roster of songwriters, including Bettye Crutcher, Homer Banks, William Bell, Mack Rice, Veda Brown and Henderson Thigpen. It’s a fascinating glimpse under the bonnet of the historic label, with early sketches of vintage tracks from the 1960s and ’70s as well as never-before-heard songs with full-blown arrangements.

Written In Their Soul has been compiled by Grammy-winning producer Cheryl Pawelski, and its contents divide into three categories: Demos that were released by artists at Stax or its subsidiary imprints, including Volt, We Produce and Enterprise; demos by Stax songwriters that were released by artists on other labels, such as Atlantic and Decca; and a treasure trove of hit-worthy recordings that were never released.

Pawelski adds contextual notes to the collection, alongside a new essay by Emmy and Grammy-winning writer/producer Robert Gordon (Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story) and Stax’s original director of publicity Deanie Parker, later the founding president and CEO of the Soulsville Foundation, which encompasses the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, as well as other educational organizations. Parker, who joined the Stax fold in 1962, is also featured in the set as a songwriter.

The first preview of the collection arrived in the form of a demo by Eddie Floyd of 634-5789 (Soulsville, USA), written by Floyd and Steve Cropper and inspired by The Marvelettes’ 1962 Motown hit Beechwood 4-5789. Wilson Pickett’s recording of the Floyd/Cropper song on Atlantic was a No.1 R&B hit and Top 20 pop single in 1966.

Writes Pawelski: “Demo recordings are often tossed off without inhibition, just writer and tape recorder sharing an intimate space. I love all these songs as they tumbled out for the first time. They’re filled with the joy and magic of discovering something that wasn’t there moments before. Suddenly, there it is, a song filled with the hope of finding an audience, of saying something, of moving someone.”

Some of Stax’s biggest singles will be heard on Written In Their Soul in their earliest incarnations, such as Mack Rice’s acoustic demo of The Staple SingersRespect Yourself, written with Luther Ingram. The liner notes include an anecdote from Rice and Ingram’s conversation. “One of us said, ‘A guy got to respect himself out here to get anyplace, you know?’,” recalled Rice. “So it hit us both at the same time — that’s a good title. I have my old guitar upstairs,” Rice continued, “I’m messing with that… and I started writing the song. The words just hit me, like God just give me the words. About 30 minutes, I had the whole song.” Fellow songwriter Bettye Crutcher suggested giving it to The Staple Singers, and an R&B classic took shape.

Henderson Thigpen’s Woman To Woman, also featured here in demo form, became a signature hit for Shirley Brown in 1974. “When two men get serious,” Thigpen recalls, “they say, ‘Let’s talk man to man,’ so I thought of these ladies saying, ‘Woman to woman, let’s hash this out.’ ”

Some tracks will be instantly recognizable from their demos, such as Homer Banks(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right, written with Carl Hampton. The song was originally intended for The Emotions and then shelved, only to be discovered two years later by Ingram, who scored one of 1972’s biggest US hits with it.

Hitmakers David Porter and Isaac Hayes are also represented in this collection, via a demo of You Make a Small Girl Weak written for and performed by one of Stax’s few girl groups, Jeanne & the Darlings. There are multiple demos by the prolific Carla Thomas, who wrote her debut hit Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes) when she was just 15. Also celebrated is the late Crutcher, whose songs here include solo compositions and collaborations with her hitmaking team We Three (featuring Banks and Raymond Jackson).

Also key to the collection are songs that never reached the public, many of them fully-realized studio recordings that were sent to publishers, such as two tracks featuring Otis Redding soundalike Willie Singleton, and hitmakers such as Frederick Knight (I Like the Way You Groove Me), Eddie Floyd (Don’t You Know I’m All Alone and ‘Till You’ve Been Loved By Me, both collaborations with Cropper), and William Bell (It’s No Secret, written with Booker T. Jones).

Says Parker: “This music has lasted over 50 years, and it’s still being studied, emulated, enjoyed. It has earned the right to become a tool used to teach a new generation: Culture. Music. Arts. Man’s humanity to man. There’s so many lessons to be learned from these demos, from the Stax vault, from the songwriters at Stax… but every great song starts with something that hits you.”