Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Last Soul Company

By Mark Jordan

APRIL 12, 1999:  Those who are trying to resuscitate the Memphis music industry don’t have much to look to for inspiration on the national landscape. The ongoing trend of mega-record-company mergers suggests that the industry is moving toward a virtual oligarchy, where a handful of anonymous corporations controls what goes into the nation’s CD bins. And if the corporations run their record labels the way they make their movies or their magazines or whatever, what they put in the stores will be geared toward mass consumption, a production philosophy that does not permit an iota of artistic autonomy or individuality to seep through. Be too different, and you might alienate a potential buyer.

But beneath the majors’ radar – way beneath, all the way down in Jackson, Mississippi – a little record company shows that not only can an independent label survive but actually thrive in an age of boardroom record producers.

The title of Malaco’s new six-CD box-set retrospective, The Last Soul Company, says it all. Founded 30 years ago by Tommy Couch Sr., Malaco is not only one of the few remaining labels that puts out genuine Southern soul music, it often seems like one of the few remaining places where the souls of the performers and technicians on a record actually come through in the final product. Malaco does not make cookie-cutter records.

Of course, this attention to individuality hasn’t always been profitable. Several times in its history the label has been on the verge of extinction.

“In 1975, business was so bad that we basically were out of business,” Couch recalled in a recent statement. “Our lawyer in New York got us a publishing advance to keep us open, but it was only for $10,000. Right after that, we had a big record, [Dorothy Moore’s] ‘Misty Blue.’ Then came [Z.Z. Hill’s] ‘Down Home Blues.’ Then everything else took off after that.”

Even today, despite the presence of such blues and R&B stars as Bobby “Blue” Bland and Little Milton on the roster, the success of a Malaco record is more accurately measured in thousands of copies sold, not the millions that the majors live and die by. Accompanied by a 120-page booklet detailing the label’s history, the 112 songs on The Last Soul Company, however, reveal a label rich in music and artists.

Fans of Stax-style Southern soul who are unfamiliar with Malaco will covet the first two discs covering ’60s and ’70s material. The obvious standouts during this first decade were King Floyd’s “Groove Me” (which can currently be heard as the soundtrack to a Lever 2000 soap commercial), Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff,” and Anita Ward’s disco anthem “Ring My Bell,” which closes disc two. But Malaco’s early years are littered with forgotten gems such as Cozy Corley’s “Warm Loving Man,” and Betty and Charles’ “You Can’t Find Love.” Hearing these early Malaco tracks is like discovering a hidden vault under 926 East McLemore full of forgotten singles.

And a listen to “Mississippi” Fred McDowell’s ’70s track “Red Cross Store” should be required of all devotees of R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, both of whom studied with the blues master.

Some of the later tracks, especially the early ’80s material, gets bogged down in the synth production that was ubiquitous at the time but hasn’t aged well at all. Still, songs such as Z.Z. Hill’s “Cheatin’ In The Next Room,” Lattimore’s “All You Ever Need,” Denise LaSalle’s “My Tu Tu,” as well as numerous tracks by Johnnie Taylor (who landed at Malaco after stints with Stax and Columbia), diva Shirley Brown, and Bobby “Blue” Bland do a fine job keeping the classic Southern R&B and blues style fresh in a contemporary context.

While comprehensive of Malaco’s blues, R&B, and soul output, the one thing that gets short shrift on The Last Soul Company (only two tracks) is the company’s gospel legacy – which includes the Savoy, Freedom, and Muscle Shoals Sound labels. While a retrospective commemorating the 50th anniversary of Savoy, the New York gospel label that Malaco purchased in 1986, is in the works, there is surely more in the labels vaults by the likes of the Jackson Southernaires to make another box set worthwhile.

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