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[cash stax]Southern Sounds

2021-08-21 01:43 Tag:

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  Mosie Burks (left) with the Mississippi Mass Choir.

  Canadian music aficionado and Grammy-nominated writer Rob Bowman is best known for a little book called Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records. But Bowman has kept busy since the publication of Soulsville, U.S.A., and this year he released the definitive book on another Southern soul (and blues and gospel) label, Malaco Records, titled The Last Soul Company: The Malaco Records Story.

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  book cover courtesy malaco records

  I decided to do my Ph.D. in Memphis because I wanted to live in the space where so much of the music I loved was created,” Bowman tells me. When he says “the music I loved,” Bowman’s not speaking lightly. His love affair with Memphis music stretches back to some of his earliest memories — like when he bought his first Rolling Stones record and, quite by accident, discovered Otis Redding.

  “I need to go buy a record by that Otis Redding guy,” Bowman remembers thinking after hearing the Stones’ version of Redding’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is.” The record store didn’t have that track, but Bowman bought a copy of “Try a Little Tenderness,” and the rest, as they say, is history.

  “It changed my world. It was astonishing,” he remembers. Before long, the young Canadian began buying Otis Redding records, and soon enough added some Sam & Dave to the mix. “Eventually I figured out they’re all from this one company in Memphis, Tennessee.”

  Cut to Memphis in 1983. Bowman had moved to the Bluff City and enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Memphis State. Among the music the voracious listener considered as the subject of his dissertation were the Memphis jug band phenomenon of the 1920s, the postwar gospel quartet tradition, the blues of B.B. King and Bobby Bland, and Hi Records. It was eight years after the closure of Stax Records, and a conversation with a Memphian clued Bowman into what he saw as a total travesty: There were people in Memphis who didn’t know about Stax Records. “Somebody needs to correct this historical injustice,” Bowman remembers thinking, and his area of study was set.

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  photograph courtesy malaco records

  Rob Bowman

  In 1998, the Jackson, Mississippi-based label Malaco Records hired Bowman to produce the liner notes for a six-disc box set. Some time later, those notes would become the basis for The Last Soul Company: The Malaco Records Story, Bowman’s giant coffee-table book.

  “They’re one of the longest running independent labels in American music history. Longer than Atlantic, longer than Chess, longer of course than Stax or Motown,” Bowman says.

  But how did a little Southern soul label find such staying power? According to The Last Soul Company, the keys to Malaco’s success lay in a series of risky gambles. Malaco Records was founded by Tommy Couch Sr. and Mitchell Malouf in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962. In its early days, Malaco operated as a recording studio licensing songs to bigger distributors — Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff,” though released by Stax, was a Malaco recording. But a second age began when the studio scooped up the contracts of some older soul singers.

  “Soul singers who had reached middle age often found themselves left out of the business. Malaco became their home.” — Rob Bowman

  “Disco had taken over, funk had taken over, and hip-hop was just around the corner,” Bowman says, setting the stage. Meanwhile, soul singers who had reached middle age often found themselves left out of the business. “Malaco became their home,” Bowman says. The studio had these former heartthrobs sing over 12-bar blues song forms, and soon enough they had hits on their hands. There was a strong audience, the 35-and-up crowd, who were interested. “Malaco owned that culture, owned that subgenre of soul music,” Bowman says, “and then Malaco got involved with gospel quartets in 1975 when they signed the Jackson Southernaires.”

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  photograph courtesy malaco records

  Above: Sitting: Jo Jo Benson and Peggy Scott. Standing: Tommy Couch, Jerry Wexler, and Mitchell Malouf.

  The gospel world, specifically that of Black gospel quartets, also saw its own growing pains thanks to industry changes in the ’70s. Duke/Peacock Records sold to ABC Paramount, who dropped many of the quartets they acquired in the sale. Nashboro Records out of Nashville, Tennessee, went out of business when founder Ernie Lafayette Young died in 1977.

  “Two of the biggest labels specializing in Black gospel quartets are out of business, and the gospel world changed,” Bowman says. “Quartets were anachronisms, just like those soul singers who couldn’t find a label.”

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  photograph courtesy malaco records

  King Floyd in the recording studio.

  The folks at Malaco records sensed an opportunity. They began buying the rights to every quartet they could. Eventually, they had the Jackson Southernaires, The Sensational Nightingales, and the Soulsters, who used to be fronted by Sam Cooke. “It’s a loyal audience,” Bowman says of the fans of gospel quartets. The record sales generated by that move enabled Malaco to make further inroads into other gospel territory. They purchased Muscle Shoals and Savoy Records, among others. “Over time, they not only own the quartet business, they end up buying the choir business with their label purchases,” Bowman says. Malaco also introduced its own mass choir, the Mississippi Mass Choir, whose 1988 release became the best-selling gospel record up to that point.

  So Malaco dominated the soul blues world, moved on to take over gospel, and then set themselves up to cash in on the streaming and sampling revolutions by digitizing their massive back catalog. Malaco releases have been sampled by Grandmaster Flash, Drake, Kanye West, John Legend, Megan Thee Stallion, and Cardi B. Not only is Malaco a company with a long history, but, it would seem, years of commercial viability ahead of it.

  “The week the book came out, Malaco had the No. 1 gospel airplay record on Billboard magazine. A record by Byron Cage called ‘I Can’t Give Up,’” Bowman says, summing up the breadth of the label’s relevancy. “Malaco deserves their story to be told.”