What a way to launch a record label. And not just any label. We’re talking about Stax, the Memphis label acronymed from Mssrs Stewart and Axton, who boasted Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and Booker T & the MGs on their roster among very many.
If you have a Stax record from before March 1967 it’s on Atlantic if you bought it here or it’s on import. To launch the label a package tour of their artists – The Stax/Volt Revue – toured Europe, mainly the UK, for a month in March and April of 1967. This was a classic play-the-hits, two shows, early and late, a night package tour. That’s Otis Redding at the Finsbury Park Astoria, Sam & Dave at the Hammersmith Odeon and the MGs at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon.
They stacked the tour with an all-star team. Along with Otis, Sam & Dave and the MGs, there was Arthur Conley, Eddie Floyd, the Mar Keys and Carla Thomas, who ran straight into the fanatical UK following no one has expected. There were fan clubs and newsletters and fanzines devoted to Stax, there was an Otis Redding Appreciation Society and best of all a National Soul Board which published monthly magazines like Soul music Monthly, Soul Beat and Home of the Blues.
This was the first time a Stax revue had hit the road and it was the first trip overseas for pretty much everyone except Otis. Actually it was first time they’d been outside the Southern states and this was a racially integrated set of musicians. In 1967. The MGs is 2 black guys and 2 white guys, the horn section is 2 white guys and a black guy. They couldn’t believe it when they got to the May Fair GHotel – nice digs by the way – and there was only one entrance. In the US experience there were hotels for whites and different hotels for black people and there were restaurants for white people and different ones for blacks. Here any hotel would take them and the bell hop treated them like stars. Amazingly they had never see that before.
After two days of rehearsals and a warm up gig at the Bag O’Nails, the first gig was Friday night March 17th at the Finsbury Park Astoria for two sold out shows at 6.40pm and 9.10pm, 3000 a show. Tickets were 17/6 top price ranged down from 20/ 15/ 12/6 8/6. The cars were mobbed as it arrived for the sound check at the stage door and the queue to get in snaked all the way down the Seven Sisters Road despite the cold.
‘Gimme an S, Gimme a T, Gimme an A, Gimme an X’ chanted compere, DJ Emperor Rosko before Booker T and the MGs opened the first half was for a few songs. Even the backing band were superstars! After the MGs, the 3 piece horn section came out and joined the MGs to form the Mar Keys for 3 tunes and then they stayed on for the rest of the show as house band. Next came Otis Redding protege Arthur Conley whose Sweet Soul Music – on Atlantic not Stax – was riding up then charts Music as far as Number 7 , Carla Thomas, daughter of Stax star Rufus ‘Walking The Dog’ Thomas, with Eddie Floyd closing the first half. His Knock On Wood had been at no 11 and Raise Your Hand entered UK chart the day the tour arrived.
After the short interval, you got the Dynamic Duo, the Double Dynamite, the Sultans of Sweat, Sam and Dave, who were sensational performers with a bunch of sensational songs. There was bedlam throughout their set, the stage was rushed, but with some provocation. Utterly amazing performers, they ran, danced, jumped into the audience, police dragged them back on stage, pretended to leave the stage and then came running back on, pretended to faint, miraculously revived.
As Otis Redding hit the stage, there was a moment of hush as all the mods present took in the fact that it actually was Otis Redding before them. Then straight into Day Tripper, his new Stax single, followed by Shake, Satisfaction, Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa, Respect, My Girln and the set closer, Try A Little Tenderness. Followed by total chaos as he left the stage.
And that was it, a devastating 70-80 minutes. Audience and musicians were exhausted at the end of the show – and they had to do it all over again in an hour. And then the next night at the Upper Cut club in Forest Gate before Paris and 29 cities in 31 days in all, most of it in a 52-seater coach zig-zagging around the UK, all in the days before we had the network of motorways we do now. With Cardiff and Glasgow scheduled together, with a day off inbetween, they couldn’t all the way to Scotland in ojne day so had to stay overnight en route in Carlisle. So that’s Otis Redding and friends, staying in a small hotel in a large B&B called the Crown & Mitre. In Carlisle. There was no heat in the rooms and this was up North in March so they all slept in their clothes – they are from the South after all.
After one more stop in London, at Hammersmith Odeon, they all flew home. Otis went back to America and wowed the crowd at Monterey Pop in June but of course died December 10th 1967 in Wisconsin when the new plane he’d bought crashed into a lake. Pretty much his only pop hit in the US was the posthumous Dock Of The Bay.
Luckily those thoughtful (and commercially minded) people at Stax immortalised this unique tour on tape: there’s Stax-Volt Revue Live In Europe Volume One, Stax-Volt Revue Live In Europe Volume Two and inevitably Stax-Volt Revue Live In Europe Volume Three, as well as an Otis Redding Live in Europe release and the Booker T and the MGs live album ‘Back to Back’. There’s also an extraordinary DVD of a gig they did in Oslo so really no one has an excuse for not having some of this wonderful music.