Taking Sides: Stax Or Motown

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The Reed/Cale thing turned out quite interesting, so let's triangulate the ILM readership on another classic (and almost certainly press-led) duality. Go wild. Also because very little has been said about 60s soul on this board so far - not that you need confine yourselves to the 60s, obviously....

Oh look I'll stop waffling.

Tom, Monday, 9 April 2001 00:00 (twenty-one years ago) link

I'm not into soul music half as much as I'd like to be. I'm still something of a beginnner to the genre. And well if youre a beginner, its gotta be Motown. Stax records are more sweaty and less poppy than Motown. Its more of a connoisseur's label. Not that I havent heard great Stax records but I'd go for Motown because it had more of a catch-all appeal.

Michael Bourke, Monday, 9 April 2001 00:00 (twenty-one years ago) link

Just like Michael I'm not a real "expert" but I quite agree with everything he wrote. Plus, Marvin Gaye was on Motown and that alone enough...

Simone, Monday, 9 April 2001 00:00 (twenty-one years ago) link

I can't pick these two beloved labels apart. I must give a slight edge to Motown, just 'cause that label has meant something to me since I was a wee tot; it's the first label I became aware of. I discovered the depth of Stax much later. I'll admit that geography plays a role, too.

Andy, Monday, 9 April 2001 00:00 (twenty-one years ago) link

Faced with the choice, I'd rather say Casablanca.

Ned Raggett, Monday, 9 April 2001 00:00 (twenty-one years ago) link

What a laugh you must be to play boardgames with, Ned. ;)

In any case you're saying Motown, since everything joyful about disco - the beat (well, a beat for sure), the hysteria, the passion, the pop, the melodies - pumps out of high-sixties Motown. Then along came Norman Whitfield and Marvin and it all got way less fun. Still, Motown, for me, it is.

Tom, Monday, 9 April 2001 00:00 (twenty-one years ago) link

This is a tough question for me; I have the 7-CD Atlantic R&B box set. I know a good chunk of that stuff is either Stax or Volt (we're talking Volt, too, right?) but I'm not sure exactly which tracks. In any case, I think Stax wins out, on the basis of that distincitive sound. Motown had it's own think going, w/ James Jamerson's bass and what not, but it couldn't touch the ambience on those Stax recordings. I'm just a sucker for the way they recorded instrumets and laid on the reverb. Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd, Sam & Dave, Booker T & The MGs...the songwriting is not as good as prime Motown, but I'm a sucker for that sound.

Mark Richardson, Monday, 9 April 2001 00:00 (twenty-one years ago) link

Motown had better melodies. You kinda have to be into soul already to really get into Stax stuff, whereas Motown is immediately accessible to anyone with ears. Unlike Tom, I love the Whitfield-era "Papa Was A Rolling Stone"-type stuff. Put a wah-wah guitar on top of a funk jam and I'm there, man.

Patrick, Monday, 9 April 2001 00:00 (twenty-one years ago) link

oh, what a question! especially since i'm sort of put forth as ft's soul "expert." it's by default, i assure you.

anyway, stax = soul and sweat. motown is spector played, written, producd, and sung by african-americans though, and here's the stroke of genius, your white grandmother probably loves it as well.

which is better? it depends on my mood, i guess, so today it's stax. of course the only reason they're paired is because they were the big black labels in the 60s and to lesser degrees in the 70s, but we don't make the rules, we just play by them. for your average pop fan, moving from the beatles to the four tops is a smaller, much more manageable step than from, say, the same fab four to sam & dave. if you exhaust motown and find yourself quite enjoying levi stubbs, david ruffin, edwin starr, dennis edwards -- the more unrefined motown voices -- go give stax a try. you might just like it.

fred solinger, Monday, 9 April 2001 00:00 (twenty-one years ago) link

I love Stax, but Motown wins out as the sentimental favorite because of their pop sensibilities and because I grew up in the Detroit area.

Frankly, anyone who'd say Casablanca needs a good kicking. ;-)

Nicole, Monday, 9 April 2001 00:00 (twenty-one years ago) link

I think it's important to say that Stax-Volt is not inaccessible. It was a great label with a host of terrific records.

The appeal of Motown for me was that it was incredible rhythmic dancepop music married to a superb range of singing. Stax vocalists, fine though they are, tended to fall within a strict soul genre definition. Whereas Motown had raw singers, smooth singers, flat ones, full ones, reedy ones, poppy ones...the one common denominator being that they all had 'soul': soul (un)defined as a nebulous emotional quality, not a manner of singing.

Stax released some unbelievable records (and both labels had marvellous, underrated lyricists, let's not forget) - but ultimately for me Motown's definition of soul was not whiter, but *wider*.

Tom, Monday, 9 April 2001 00:00 (twenty-one years ago) link

As much as I like Stax, I couldn't possibly put it any better than Tom. Ned being the Casablanca fan, I might lose points with him by noting that I balked on seeing the Village People during my stay in Las Vegas last week; it was either them or the shark tanks, and the feisty sharks won out. Didn't Rodney Dangerfield put out a couple records through them? He was in town as well. Too bad -- they could have had a Casablanca revue.

Andy, Monday, 9 April 2001 00:00 (twenty-one years ago) link

My choice was partially motivated by something Fred noted elsewhere, on his blog, about how (paraphrasing here) the Beatles are so ground down and under by the weight of sanctimonious hoo-hah that it can almost feel impossible to really enjoy them anymore. So guess how I really feel about both Stax and Motown. ;-)

I own more stuff on Motown than Stax, to be sure, so if that helps any. And I think I've listened to any of it about as much as I've listened to the Beatles over recent years -- not at all.

Ned Raggett, Monday, 9 April 2001 00:00 (twenty-one years ago) link

Oh sweet goddamn... I have two of three STAX boxes, and a respectable knowledge of Motown (I can sing along on the radio) and the choice is a wash. You have major MAJOR groups on Motown (Temptations, Diana Ross, The Four Tops, Gaye, Stevie Wonder...) and some major MAJOR singles on STAX (everything by Sam & Dave, Issac Hayes and The Staples Singers).

Neither were particularly strong on albums, STAX has Shaft, Motown has What's Goin' On.

The plus that STAX has is that it died before it got old. Motown got bought out, moved to the West Coast and has never been the same...

Edge to STAX for a preserved legacy. Sentimental choice goes to Motown for singability.


JM, Monday, 9 April 2001 00:00 (twenty-one years ago) link

A kick would still be in order though. If not for the Casablanca comment, I'm sure I could think of something else. ;-)

Nicole, Monday, 9 April 2001 00:00 (twenty-one years ago) link

Ahem. Why should this pain fall upon me, an innocent? *cries*

Ned Raggett, Monday, 9 April 2001 00:00 (twenty-one years ago) link

tom, nice sound bite, but too bad you're not right. and now i TOO have crafted a rhyme.

before i set off on this, a clarification of terms. "whiter," as far as i'll use it, doesn't mean an eradication of soul, it simply means a lessening. more mainstream may be a better word, just like kenny g. is a watered-down version of, say, ornette coleman, though that's a poor comparison and i'm sure there's someone who occupies the middle ground between those two and would make for a stronger comparison and so i defer to those with a stronger knowledge of jazz.

that all said: it's not an insult, as far as i'm concerned, to call motown's vision a "whiter" take on soul, soul itself, if i may, being a "whiter" take on gospel, though "secularized" is certainly more appropriate and dare i say, then, that motown was secularized soul. at the same time, stax itself was not above going pop: for the best examination of the motown/stax debate i've ever read, check out peter guralnick's sweet soul music, recommended for anyone with a modicum of interest in the music.

but, yes, motown did have a "whiter" take on soul. the instrumentation, though brilliant, was smoother, more precise, more indebted to rock & roll. there was also less sweat, less exertion to be found in a lot of the singing: diana ross would've never made a stax record, and i'm sure this suits her just fine. berry gordy wanted to build a brand, something built by african-americans that could stand with any other label out there. to achieve fame, to sell records, he knew what he had to do and he did it and did it brilliantly. there's little shame i think in agreeing that by and large, in one aspect or another, his was a more streamlined approach to the soul music practiced by stax.

fred solinger, Monday, 9 April 2001 00:00 (twenty-one years ago) link

Why is "sweat" and "exertion" not compatible with "whiteness", Fred? I mean, I know *you're* a lazy dog but... ;)

OK, more seriously, I should have said "not *only* whiter but wider" - the white/black dichotomy was a real one in music, economically if not aesthetically, and Gordy certainly smoothed out the music. But I was talking about the singing, and as you yourself noted Fred Motown had a fair number of rough, Staxish voices on its roster, as well as the likes of Ross (who I was thinking of when I dropped the word "reedy" in). But Ross is a soul singer nonetheless - an uptown, neurotic soul singer to be sure, but this is what I mean when I say that Motown was a broad church. Musically they couldn't emulate Stax, as Guralnick emphasises. But vocally - though lacking prodigies like Redding - they could incorporate the Stax style and many other styles too.

My original post was trying to suggest that both labels suffer from an excess of cliche. Stax is seen as forbidding, difficult, a connoisseur's 'real soul' label when it put out some lush pop sides and with Isaac Hayes some of the wildest and most experimental soul albums too. Motown comes off even worse - seen as too poppy from the soul end of things (a true criticism, from that perspective, of a lot of its output, mind you), and seen by rock as good-time dance music, whereas I'd take Robinson and H-D-H as lyricists and songwriters over any rock band. Bob Dylan may not actually have said that thing about Smokey Robinson being America's greatest poet, but he was sure as hell right.

Tom, Monday, 9 April 2001 00:00 (twenty-one years ago) link

That bit about Smokey and H-D-H should say "any sixties rock band". I think rock's caught up a little since. ;)

Tom, Monday, 9 April 2001 00:00 (twenty-one years ago) link

black vs white:

Stax has more soul in the singing, but also plenty plenty country.

Motown's rhythm is far more clattery and loud and urban-'latin'- unwhite: and I personally wouldn't want to call contest between the blacknuss in the respective basslines (J.Jamerson was a jazzer, tho he plays like himself alone). Motown also employed the best loudest disc- cutters (Lennon and Townshend were always complaining to UK disc- cutters that the sound in the groove they were getting was so WEEDY compared to Motown's).

mark s, Monday, 9 April 2001 00:00 (twenty-one years ago) link

My knowledge of this period depends on how the history’s curated to me. I’m 20 years too young to have bought the singles as they came out – I know both labels from the radio and from re-issues.

Motown has damaged the reputation of its own catalogue. All it’s artists’ reputations are still under the company's control and the company has very strong views about which artist are favoured (compare the reverence accorded to Diana Ross to the treatment of Smokey Robinson). The compilations put out by Motown are tacky cash-ins poorly organised. Even now after all this time Motown treats the "product" as disposable.

Stax - way less successful but emblematic of those southern sounds - is a well managed history - easier of course because there's far less of it. Stax records have gravitas. The reissues are packaged to be soulful (original sleeves, tasteful compilations) in contrast to Motown’s K-tel inspired compilations. Even very minor Stax figures like Booker T continue to be valued as part of the lineage. Some way smaller than Motown, that Stax can even be pitched into this battle of Tom’s is a triumph of curating. It’s an absurd contest – Motown is a colossal label; Stax simply symbolises a whole southern soul approach – the very greatest records of this sound weren’t even on the label (Aretha especially).

So if I had to choose? As an infant I heard Motown on the radio every day. I know most of the big singles like nursery rhymes. Until recently I haven’t wanted to own many of them. Stax records were at one point in my life a big, exciting discovery – The Staple Singers were a massive teenage crush. In truth there simply isn’t enough material on Stax to give up Motown for it. If on the other hand the contest was stretched to include Atlantic, King and Hi (Aretha, James Brown, Al Green for example) then it might be a fairer contest – gospel soul versus pop soul.

Guy, Tuesday, 10 April 2001 00:00 (twenty-one years ago) link

Booker T... minor?

I'll have to take Stax, just in response to that comment. But otherwise, motown would win. For Smokey Robinson's "Really Got A Hold On Me" alone.

Sterling Clover, Tuesday, 10 April 2001 00:00 (twenty-one years ago) link

Surely compared to a James Brown, Booker T has to be minor... Minor is not perjorative - some of my best friends etc etc

Guy, Tuesday, 10 April 2001 00:00 (twenty-one years ago) link

Stax v. Motown... is there a difference? Christ, what next, the great Steps v. S Club 7 dialectic?

Pihkal Boy, Tuesday, 10 April 2001 00:00 (twenty-one years ago) link

s club

gareth, Tuesday, 10 April 2001 00:00 (twenty-one years ago) link

I'm sure you can tell the difference between Poptones and Chemikal Underground.

And everyone knows that Steps is just plain cooler than S Club 7...

Nicole, Tuesday, 10 April 2001 00:00 (twenty-one years ago) link

You can always talk about that here.

Tom, Tuesday, 10 April 2001 00:00 (twenty-one years ago) link

Stax for me. Booker T/Steve Cropper.

Since I was a hippie in high school, Motown was way too mainstream. It's not now though.

Joseph Wasko, Friday, 13 April 2001 00:00 (twenty-one years ago) link

five months pass...
As someone noted, this isn't exactly a fair competition. Motown had a heavy roster of artists, and it's just asking too much to let them all go, even if you prefer the Stax/Volt sound. One thing that bugs me: Everyone says, "Well, I like Stax, but Motown had that broad appeal didn't it?" Well, yeah, but so what? Since when is "appeal" a cardinal virtue? What about your own opinion?

Speaking of which, I'd take Stax/Volt any day. Simply because I don't _like_ most of the songs written by Phil Spector, or his compatriots.

Jack Redelfs, Saturday, 29 September 2001 00:00 (twenty-one years ago) link

Any Philadelphia International fans in here? Were Gamble/Huff more indebted to Motown or to Stax?

Tadeusz Suchodolski, Saturday, 29 September 2001 00:00 (twenty-one years ago) link

four years pass...
Motown. But really ... REVIVE!

k/l (Ken L), Monday, 14 November 2005 06:05 (seventeen years ago) link

hi k/l

stockholm cindy is in your extended network (Jody Beth Rosen), Monday, 14 November 2005 06:11 (seventeen years ago) link

Hey man. Sorry, I'd say Stax -- it's the sound and the wild-man soul singing by Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, etc. I also just like the story I have in my mind about Stax as this ragtag, little-engine-that-could label where they used all the same musicians on every album, wrote shit last minute in the studio, etc. And I'm a big fan of the songwriting of Hayes/Porter.

Hurting (Hurting), Monday, 14 November 2005 06:30 (seventeen years ago) link

Hey guys.

k/l (Ken L), Monday, 14 November 2005 06:33 (seventeen years ago) link

I remember buying into the whole Stax critique of Motown way back when- "They make their records from a switchboard" - but I eventually got over it.

k/l (Ken L), Monday, 14 November 2005 06:49 (seventeen years ago) link

If we're comparing the highlights of the labels - e.g. trying to compare something like http://images-eu.amazon.com/images/P/B000025AKZ.02.LZZZZZZZ.jpg with something like http://images-eu.amazon.com/images/P/B00005QX5I.02.LZZZZZZZ.jpg then I'll go with Stax / Volt / Atlantic every time.

Otoh if we're trying to weigh (Booker T & The MG's, Ray Charles, The Coasters, The Drifters, Aretha Franklin, Isaac Hayes, Ben E King, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and Percy Sledge) against (The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, The Isley Brothers, The Jacksons, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Temptations and Stevie Wonder) then I've probably got to come down in favour of Motown.

Stewart Osborne (Stewart Osborne), Monday, 14 November 2005 10:36 (seventeen years ago) link

Stax was my favorite label for many years. And lsitening to the radio as a kid in the 60s Motown was slightly (haha)overexposed while living in the Detroit area a decade later sealed the deal. Motown = The Big Chillsdtk UGH! Now upon reflection I'd say Motown, if nothing else because their run extended well into the 70s and even the early 80s (I mean good records on the Motown label as opposed to classic "Motown" records from the old hit factory). And the cliched stuff actually sounds great now cause it's less exposed. Jamerson & Benjamin, Barrett Strong "Money That's What I Want" Shorty Long singing "Function at the Junction" magic associations. Either the names give you goosebumps or they don't.

m coleman (lovebug starski), Monday, 14 November 2005 11:46 (seventeen years ago) link

nine months pass...
Seems to me that 1960 stax was trying to recapture the chart action of Carla Thomas's Gee Whiz, whereas 59/60 Motown was only half heartedly trying to recapture Barrett Strong's Money. Motown was a bit more shooting in the dark for a while aiming every direction while Stax slowly moved in one direction to find their sound.

Only after The Miracles' Shop Around and Mary Wells success proved to be the formula did Motown relegate Barett Strong, Lamont Dozier, and The Hollands as writers (which is a mixed bag because I really like Eddie Holland's records as much as I like his writing).

Needless to say, Stax moved beyond that late 50's ballad sound and found success based around The Memphis Horns and Booker T & The MG's...Motown's echo chamber combined with Benny Benjamin's loose fills gave contrast to the horn heavy Stax once Holland/Dozier/Holland + Funk Brothers was the formula.

James Jammerson is a subject unto himself. Good God.

But aside from the hits/mid 60's, the early stuff form both were great and very very different from one another.

PappaWheelie, Olives, Red Wine, Coffee, Scotch, and Me (PappaWheelie 2), Tuesday, 29 August 2006 16:38 (sixteen years ago) link

Motown. Better songs, better harmonies, and actually a more identifiable style.

Stax had a great rhythm section and (like Motown) several excellent singers, but the song material didn't hold up.

Geir Hongro (GeirHong), Tuesday, 29 August 2006 20:12 (sixteen years ago) link

as usual, the geir is so wildly off, he nearly transcends the whole TS thing. "more identifiable style" is not true, altho after '68 it's obvious stax records were farmed out more. "song material" doesn't hold up, yeah geir, like "dock of the bay," "raise your hand," "mini-skirt minnie" and about a hundred others aren't so good, as opposed to the many, many bad motown covers of white-people shit. "better harmonies," what does that mean, geir? the singers harmonized better, the songs were more harmonically interesting, what? define your terms.

actually, i really call it a tie. they were both great factories and i can't see any real difference in quality, except that stax never did a "city of angels," which is the greatest album ever made. (except for genesis' "foxtrot," of course.)

edd s hurt (ddduncan), Wednesday, 30 August 2006 03:17 (sixteen years ago) link

two years pass...

Stax v. Motown... is there a difference? Christ, what next, the great Steps v. S Club 7 dialectic?

― Pihkal Boy, Monday, April 9, 2001 8:00 PM (7 years ago) Bookmark Suggest Ban Permalink

harry s tfuman (and what), Saturday, 21 February 2009 20:04 (thirteen years ago) link

five months pass...

Yes there is a difference. Stax is grimier and darker. Spontaneous. Motown more processed and thought out. Motown dictatorship- Stax a democracy (cept maybe in the last few years) Staxers could choose their own clothes. More about individuality as opposed to the production line from Motown. Stax wins.

This is my impresssion.

Hinklepicker, Wednesday, 12 August 2009 11:18 (thirteen years ago) link

two years pass...

Thread of missing Bob Babbitt and Duck Dunn.

Just now wanted to hear "Ball of Confusion" for some reason. Spotify led me to Motown Complete Number 1's. As I listened I realized that it was one of Bob's signature tunes and then the next tracks up were "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," "War" and "The Tears Of A Clown," which were all his too. Didn't react strongly to the news when I heard about him passing, I guess now is the delayed reaction hitting.

My Elusive Memes (James Redd and the Blecchs), Friday, 20 July 2012 00:43 (ten years ago) link

Is this thread about rockism?

Will Chave (Hurting 2), Friday, 20 July 2012 00:47 (ten years ago) link

Probably. On the off campus Motown side, that service does not have a decent version of BB's masterwork "Band of Gold," only some remix rerecords. Finally, I had never known or had forgotten he had played on "Smiling Faces Sometimes" and all those Spinners records.

My Elusive Memes (James Redd and the Blecchs), Friday, 20 July 2012 00:52 (ten years ago) link

three years pass...

Just bumping this thread to say that the new William Bell album, released on Stax (whatever that means in 2016), is very nearly as good as his original Stax albums.

Ⓓⓡ. (Johnny Fever), Thursday, 7 July 2016 01:42 (six years ago) link

Some good songs on it and his voice is still strong, although on one number he sounds kinda like Van Morrison (I forget the title of that one).

curmudgeon, Thursday, 7 July 2016 18:03 (six years ago) link

two weeks pass...

Been listening to the new William Bell one again. Very good, despite my minor nitpicks.

curmudgeon, Monday, 25 July 2016 17:14 (six years ago) link

four months pass...

One of Bell's better new songs is nominated for a Grammy

Best Traditional R&B Performance:

"The Three Of Me" — William Bell

curmudgeon, Wednesday, 7 December 2016 19:23 (five years ago) link


Ⓓⓡ. (Johnny Fever), Wednesday, 7 December 2016 20:20 (five years ago) link

two years pass...

Came across this old RIP/Remembrance thread about Stax/Ardent engineer Ron Capone, a link to which I am placing here: https://repforums.prosoundweb.com/index.php?topic=11362.0

Spirit of the Voice of the Beehive (James Redd and the Blecchs), Monday, 17 December 2018 00:39 (three years ago) link

RIP Ron Capone. I don't know much about him, but I'm currently working my way through the Stax Singles box set in chronological order, picking out my favorites, and the consistent warm sound makes it a comfortable task.

Karl Malone, Monday, 17 December 2018 00:41 (three years ago) link

He’s been dead for over a decade, just thought of him because of his association with James Burton, who was super-tight with Joe Osborn, who did just pass, and played on tons of records although no Memphis recordings I am aware of.

Spirit of the Voice of the Beehive (James Redd and the Blecchs), Monday, 17 December 2018 01:06 (three years ago) link

I saw a Marshall Crenshaw email note to Bob Lefsetz that mentioned bass player and one time guitarist Joe Osborn's death. His little obit didn't mention any Memphis work.

curmudgeon, Monday, 17 December 2018 03:43 (three years ago) link

Yes, these guys had a Shreveport connection, not a Memphis connection.

Spirit of the Voice of the Beehive (James Redd and the Blecchs), Monday, 17 December 2018 10:43 (three years ago) link

Did Charles Lloyd play on any Stax releases? Saw a William Bell interview where he said they used to hang together.

curmudgeon, Monday, 17 December 2018 16:28 (three years ago) link

three years pass...


Profile of now 83-years old William Bell

curmudgeon, Wednesday, 16 November 2022 21:05 (two weeks ago) link

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