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Six-disc set shows Malaco's rich history

The Last Soul Company
The Last Soul Company
By various artists

Malaco Records: 1999

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This review first appeared in the April 3, 1999 edition of the American Reporter.

Malaco may not be as famous as other independent soul labels like Chess, Stax/Volt, Atlantic or Motown, but it has done one thing none of them did: Survive.

All the above labels, plus Sun (which began life as a blues label before discovering Elvis), either went belly-up or were bought by a larger corporation. But for 30 years now, Malaco's Jackson, Miss.-based studio and record label has been putting out some of the truest, funkiest soul, blues, R&B and gospel – and they show no signs of slowing down or selling out.

A new six-CD retrospective of Malaco traces the label's beginnings, climb to financial health, the incredible success of the '80s, up through the present.

Ironically, it's the kind of expensive, glossy boxed set usually reserved for the dead and buried – such as compilations devoted to the catalogs of Stax/Volt, Atlantic or Sun. Living, active labels like Malaco don't generally give themselves the same five-star treatment; Alligator Records (the Chicago blues outfit), for instance, put out a modest two-disc set for its 25th anniversary a couple years back. And folk giant Rounder issued a series of two-disc overviews of specific areas (bluegrass, blues, folk, Louisiana) to mark its first quarter-century.

Both Alligator and Rounder have beautiful, bountiful catalogs that could easily have justified a more in-depth exploration such as Malaco has done. So it's nice to see that Malaco is not only tooting its own horn, but also presenting an incredible cross-section of music and history in a single package.

As with most human endeavors, the history presented on "The Last Soul Company" is uneven. The early years were a constant struggle for the label's founders, and the music they chose to record wasn't always the most memorable. But even in the leanest of times, there were always gems – Jean Knight's monster hit, "Mr. Big Stuff" (which was sold to Stax) from 1970, for instance, or Anita Ward's disco smash, "Ring My Bell."

But once the label began signing already established soul artists like Z.Z. Hill, Denise LaSalle, Latimore, Johnnie Taylor, Little Milton and (especially) Bobby Blue Bland in the late '70s, both sales and the artistic quality dramatically improved. Discs 3-5 are as good a selection of soul as anything any label ever put out. With only the even smaller Atlanta-based Ichiban providing any real competition, Malaco did as much to define soul in the '80s as Stax/Volt or Motown had in the '60s and '70s.

In the Malaco mold, soul was a sophisticated, heavily erotic music that balanced smooth melodies with outstanding musicianship and some of the best singing on earth. It was a more mature extension of what Sam Cook and Otis Redding had been doing in their youth – and many of the artists on Malaco had been contemporaries of Redding and Cook. If young black kids were off listening to rap, their parents were helping Malaco establish itself alongside Rounder, Alligator and the bluegrass-indie Sugar Hill as one of the distinctively American labels that helped fight the conformity of Hollywood.

The extensive liner notes by Rob Bowman provide a wonderful backdrop for the music, giving it context and life. And the production and sound quality throughout the collection are of the highest order – one of the benefits of having your own studio.

At more than $70, this set is a bit pricey. But given the amount of music and the overall quality of the project, it's well worth the money for anyone interested in the history of American popular music.