Stax was in a critical state in 1968. The label had split with its distributors, Atlantic, then discovered a clause in its deal that meant Atlantic retained the rights to Stax’s back catalogue. Not only that, Atlantic took back hit-making duo Sam & Dave, previously on loan to the company. Something had to be done to save Stax. Promotions boss Al Bell stepped up to become its vice president, and his solution was to demand an “instant catalogue” for the label by releasing 27 new albums in 1968. Writer-producer Isaac Hayes put together a vocal group intended to replace Sam & Dave: Soul Children, a two-man, two-woman Memphis act.
Soul Children lived up to their name. Unafraid to place emotion at the top of their agenda, the foursome, Shelbra Bennett, John Colbert, Anita Louis and Norman West, may have been inexperienced – Colbert, known as J Blackfoot, had been busking in Memphis when he auditioned for the label; Bennett was a walk-in, just turning up at Stax and pleading for an audition – but they really delivered. Side One of their self-titled debut album was entirely ballads, a brave move that laid their cards on the table as total Southern soulsters. The group offered the sort of classy yet gutsy harmonies The Sweet Inspirations specialised in – listen to that beautiful backing on the turtle-slow opener ‘I’ll Understand’ – and all four were capable of scorching lead lines. ‘Move Over’ and ‘When Tomorrow Comes’ maintain the same style before ‘The Sweeter He Is’, a lengthier dissertation on lost love. Slightly less polished, with rougher backing vocals, and veering towards church testifying, it notched up their first major hit, in 1969.
Side Two brought the groove. ‘Tighten Up My Thang’ (not an advert for Kegel exercises) blended a bouncing bassline with swinging horns and a growling vocal; its flip on 45, ‘Take Up The Slack’, sails along with funky Clavinet, craftily leaving the bottom end empty at times, providing it a floating, unanchored feel. ‘Super Soul’ is a Stax blaster, with a sizzling horn section and driving bottom end. ‘Give ’Em Love’, their debut single, is like the elder, wiser brother of The Bar-Kays’ ‘Soul Finger’, rocketing along but adding the relationship advice this group specialised in.
Despite Isaac Hayes’ original intentions for the group, Soul Children were closer to their contemporaries The Staple Singers than Sam & Dave, but delivered the goods. Unfortunately for them, Hayes focused on his unintended solo career after Soul Children was released, leaving the group short of hits until 1972’s ‘Hearsay’. When they quit in the late 70s, J Blackfoot, one of soul’s most underrated male leads, went on to hit with the elegant deep ballad ‘Taxi’. Here’s where he embarked on that soulful ride.
Stax Records is currently celebrating its 60th anniversary, and Soul Children remains one of the label’s greatest releases. Purchase the album here.
Follow the Stax Classics playlist for more essential Stax hits.