In the late '50s, the urban landscape began to leave deep impressions on rhythm and blues, and soul music grew out of the cracks. Motown and Stax were the new genre's champion and herald, with the Motown sound of the Supremes, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, and Little Stevie Wonder being bouncy, pleasing, and infinitely commercial, while Stax's records were raw, gritty, and emotional, punctuated by fierce horns and unbridled voices. Motown volunteered Diana Ross and Stax offered Mavis Staples -- the difference between sequins and sweat.
The disparity between the labels truly comes alive thanks to Soulsville U.S.A., a collection of eight short documentaries that Bay Area filmmaker Bob Sarles made at the behest of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which will be opening in April in the Memphis movie house that once served as the label's studios and store. The videos -- comprised of rare live footage and studio sessions, as well as interviews with such surviving Stax family members as Rufus Thomas, Booker T. & the MG's, and Isaac Hayes, plus label founders Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton and President Al Bell -- will be part of the permanent installation. (This will be the only screening opportunity outside Tennessee.) While the minidocs on the artists offer wonderful glimpses at Stax's evolutionary talent, Sarles' all-too-brief history of the imprint presents the true grit. Ranging from the spontaneous formation of the multiracial Stax house band -- the aforementioned MG's -- to Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination just a few miles away, the film places Stax in a historical context and follows the company's progression from its family-room environs to WattStax, a daylong festival that filled the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1972. Both a defining musical moment for black America and Stax's death knell, the "black Woodstock," as it came to be known, proved the power and popularity of the label, and provided Sarles with some of the most jubilant concert footage I've ever seen. Sadly, with more than 40 Stax artists represented, it also proved that the imprint was too big to be one happy family, and two years later the company imploded under its own weight, leaving a treasure trove of memories and music. Screenings of the Soulsville documentaries will be held on Friday, Jan. 10, at Studio Z at 8:45 p.m. Rare concert footage will precede the videos and live music follows at 10 p.m. (arrive early as no one will be admitted in the middle of a screening). Admission is free before 9 p.m. and $5 after; call 252-7666.
Should Soulsville only whet your appetite, '60s jazz-soul organist Reuben Wilson is sure to sate with his Masters of Groove, an ensemble including former James Brown drummer Clyde Stubblefield and jazz guitarist Grant Green Jr. While Wilson's early Blue Note recordings didn't have the immediate impact of, say, Booker T. Jones' output, his organ vamps have been recently discovered by soul-jazz revivalists and sampled by hip hoppers Nas and A Tribe Called Quest. The Masters of Groove's current release, Meet Dr. No, is an organ-drenched boogie through the James Bond soundtrack, and it's definitely shaken, not stirred. The Masters of Groove perform on Friday and Saturday, Jan. 10-11, at the Elbo Room at 10 p.m. Tickets are $10; call 552-7788.