Stax Records' 10 Biggest Hits

The ten biggest smashes that made the Southern soul label a national treasure

The Stax/Volt labels were Memphis' homegrown product, more directly related to the musical history of the community and more of a symbol of its heritage than even Motown. Like many such roots labels, this meant that they sacrificed commerce for authenticity, but that doesn't mean they didn't get over -- and sometimes in a very big way indeed. This list represents the most popular Stax/Volt singles of all time, weighted toward crossover success. (Black success, for a label this real, was always a given.)

#1 R&B, #1 Pop (May 1972)

Producer/songwriter Al Bell was Stax's resident financial genius as well as a creative one, capitalizing on soul's rise in the mid-'60s and then, when Atlantic had no more use for the label, rebuilding it from the ground up by signing several acts at once. Staff songwriter Isaac Hayes was one; another was gospel group The Staple Singers, who Bell decided to turn into semi-secular hitmakers. This classic, written and produced by Bell, did just that, though the recording is "just" lead singer Mavis backed by the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Score it as an assist for both Memphis and Alabama, sitting atop the pop charts for one week and the R&B charts for a solid month.

#1 R&B, #1 Pop (March 1968)

Designed specifically by Otis Redding as a way to turn get through to the white youth after hearing what The Beatles were doing with Sgt. Pepper, Redding retreated to a boathouse in Sausalito, CA, and wrote this soon-to-be-standard, essentially a brooding take on his daily routine and how it reflected his own emotional crossroads. For a lot of listeners at a very tumultuous time in America, it naturally struck a chord; sadly, Otis' plane crashed into Lake Monona in while house guitarist Steve Cropper was still mixing the single, depriving the great shouter -- and us -- of a potentially fascinating new direction.

#1 Pop, #2 R&B, #4 UK, #6 Adult Contemporary (March 1968)

Believe it or not, the largely-instrumental track that would come to define mainstream music for the next decade only makes the #3 spot on this list, because while it shot straight to #1 on the pop charts, it stalled out at #2 R&B, held back by The Chi-Lites' "Have You Seen Her." This, the song by which all "blaxploitation" funk is judged, was actually a little too pop for some black listeners, its swooping cinematic strings seeming to work against the grittiness of the rhythm. The great irony is that the arrangements for both this Isaac Hayes number and the Chi-Lites song would form the basis for Philly Soul, and later, disco, proving that this was the (immediate) future of R&B.

#2 Pop, #1 R&B (July 1971)

It's unusual for two big hits to be recorded at the same session, rare for them to be cut on two different artists, and even more so for both songs to achieve iconic status. Yet that's just what Wardell Quezerque, the "Creole Beethoven," did by arranging and producing this song and King Floyd's "Groove Me" with the same musicians in one afternoon. When DJs started spinning "Groove Me" (at first relegated to a b-side!), Atlantic came calling, and Stax figured their might be more gold in that session. They were right, of course: Floyd's hit peaked at #6 pop, but Jean's made it all the way to #2, moving an unheard-of three million copies of the 45.

#2 Pop, #1 R&B (October 1967)

The song that retroactively gave "soul music" its name was written by Isaac Hayes as a subliminal response to the infamous Watts riots of 1965, where several burned buildings had been tagged with the word "soul." Realizing he could make the word into a signifier for black pride, a code of sorts, Hayes and partner David Porter gave the song to their funkiest call-and-response artists, Sam and Dave, who scored another #1 R&B for the label and then, after Atlantic picked it up, took it all the way to #2 pop. Ironically, it won a Grammy the following year for Best Rhythm and Blues Performance, a black music term it would weaken considerably.

#3 Pop, #1 R&B (July 1972)

Arguably the quintessential marital infidelity ballad, Ingram's one and only big hit was actually released on a tiny label called KoKo, but since it was distributed by Stax, and penned by one of the label's songwriting teams (Homer Banks, Carl Hampton and Raymond Jackson), this agonizingly sexy smash is a Stax victory in all but name. It was, perhaps predictably, turned into a hit all over again via a long "rap" by Millie Jackson, and very unpredictably revisited once again by Barbra Mandrell. Rod Stewart even took a crack at it. But the sexiest, saddest, most deliciously tortured version is still the original.

#3 Pop, #1 R&B (September 1962)

The Stax label's Memphis house band, Booker T. and the MGs were appropriately one of the first to tale over the pop charts, second behind only Carla Thomas' decidedly non-Stax sounding ballad "Gee Whiz." A Memphis DJ, also appropriately, broke it wide open, "Onions" having also been ignominiously relegated to a b-side afterthought. Not only was this the first Stax single to go gold, the band had already come up with a million-seller a year earlier, as the Mar-Keys, when their instrumental smash "Last Night" moved a ton of copies for Stax's precursor, Satellite.

#5 Pop, #1 R&B (November 1968)

Taylor is often an afterthought when considering the impact of Stax, which is strange, since lots of the label's artists struck pop gold once and only once, and especially since Taylor, the "Philosopher of Soul," had more hits after the label folded, most notably the very non-philosophical 1976 single "Disco Lady." Ironically, the Blues Brothers phenomenon rectified this somewhat -- the comedy/bar-band SNL duo took their own version of this to the Top 40 during the disco era, helping to revive the style of Memphis soul Taylor was forced to leave behind.

#9 Pop, #1 R&B (December 1973)

James Brown, upon hearing "I'll Take You There," advised the Staple Singers to "stay in that groove" and never leave it. In many ways they didn't; this follow-up, which actually came a year and four disappointing interim singles later, was designed to create that magic twice, and it almost succeeds. But while the first hit envisioned a place where there "ain't no smilin' faces / lying to the races," this one is more universal, and therefore more utopian: "Peace and love / will grow between the races." In fact, Mavis goes so far as to issue personal invitations to "liars," "troublemakers," "backstabbers," possibly "terrorists," and even "genocides."

#6 Pop, #7 R&B, #4 UK (May 1968)

Another example of blaxploitation synergy, with this tighter-than-tight instrumental doing double duty as background for the film Up Tight!? Yes and no. This classic groove, part of a more traditional soundtrack album, came out three full years before Shaft -- and the film in question, a gritty crime drama, was therefore less about ass-kicking and silk suits and more about the black activist community and what direction it should take in the immediate aftermath of Martin Luther King's death. Unlike most Stax smashes, this one translated into a hit across the pond, becoming a direct influence on both punk (The Clash played it often) and New Wave (Squeeze paid homage to it on their classic "In Quintessence").