The Best Memphis Soul Songs? The People Have Spoken

Sep 10, 2019

Credit Courtesy of the Stax Museum

What are the best--or, perhaps, most populist--songs recorded in the Golden Age of Memphis soul music? 

Last May, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music put the question to voters, in part to coincide with the city's Bicentennial. Stax director Jeff Kollath compiled a list of 200 tunes and asked people to check off their top picks on paper ballots and online. 

The museum recently revealed the top ten winners of the BiSOULtennial (our radio story explores the top five).

There were two rules for the songs to be included on the ballot. They had to be recorded between 1957 and 1975 and predominately tracked in Memphis. That ruled out some Stax label tunes and artists who frequently recorded elsewhere, such as "Respect Yourself" by the Staple Singers and some hits by Johnnie Taylor. (Muscle Shoals contributed much to "Memphis" music.)

For the record, here are songs 6-10, notable because only one song by a woman broke the top ten.

10. Ann Peebles, "I Can't Stand the Rain."

9. Wilson Pickett, "In the Midnight Hour"

8. Al Green, "Love and Happiness"

7. Issac Hayes, "Theme From Shaft"

6. Sam & Dave, "Soul Man"

Here are the top five, with a few comments.

NO. 5: Otis Redding, "Try a Little Tenderness" (1966)

Stax executive director Jeff Kollath says this song has all the classic elements of a Memphis soul song. Booker T. and the MGs and the Memphis Horns serve as backing musicians. The song's explosive climax is a thrill with every listen. 

NO. 4: Otis Redding, "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay" (1967)

Recorded just days before Redding's death in a plane crash, the tune is a smooth and relaxed contrast to Redding's grittier hits. 

NO. 3: Al Green, "Let's Stay Together" (1971)

Recorded at Royal Studios, the song features producer Willie Mitchell's characteristic "clean" stereo sound. Green recorded numerous takes, but was reluctant to release it. The song spent 16 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100.

NO. 2: Sam & Dave, "Hold on, I'm Comin''" (1966)

Composed by the songwriting team of Isaac Hayes and David Porter, the tune was famously dashed off after Porter called out his response to Hayes shouting for him to get out of the bathroom. 

NO. 1: Booker T. and the MGs, "Green Onions" (1962)

The oldest of the top five songs--and also an instrumental--is also the one that emerged as an early-on consensus favorite.

"It was No. 1 on the first day of voting and stayed No. 1 until the last day of voting," Kollath says. 

Kollath says the title refers to the funky smell of onions, which stands in for the loose rhythmic funk of the music.