Treasure Trove: Ace reissue showcases Stax's deep bench.
One of my favorite high-school-era acquisitions was The Complete Stax-Volt Singles 1959-1968, a then-new nine-disc, 244-song collection from the first — and still, to my mind, best — period of Memphis' landmark soul label.
I was already well-versed in the label's first-tier talents — Otis Redding, Booker T. & the MGs, Sam & Dave — and had at least a little bit of working knowledge of some of the second-tier artists — Rufus and Carla Thomas, William Bell, Eddie Floyd. But that collection — still the one boxed-set most worth owning for Memphis music fans — yielded dozens of discoveries — third-tier artists and one-shots that would be mixtape favorites for years to come: Deanie Parker's yearning "My Imaginary Guy," Oscar Mack's testifying "Don't Be Afraid of Love," Bobby Marchan's accusatory "You Won't Do Right," the Mad Lads' grit-and-grind Motown "Patch My Heart," Mable John's heart-stopping "Don't Hit Me No More," and so many others.
One of the great discoveries was Wendy Rene, whose ebullient hometown anthem "Bar B Q" got heavy play during cold Minnesota college winters and whose grave "After Laughter (Comes Tears)" was a favorite even before the Wu-Tang Clan sampled it prominently on "Tearz," the closing track of their 1993 hip-hop instant classic Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers.
Well, Rene finally gets her own spotlight this week with the release of the loving compilation After Laughter Comes Tears: Complete Stax & Volt Singles + Rarities 1964-1965, from Seattle-based indie Light in the Attic, which last year gave similar treatment to another Stax-connected artist Charles "Packy" Axton with Late Late Party 1965-1967 and the Memphis-connected country/folk/gospel legends the Louvin Brothers with their two-disc Satan Is Real reissue.
After Laughter Comes Tears leads with "Bar B Q" and follows soon after with the Wu-Tang-sampling title track but also adds 20 more Rene tracks, including four with the vocal group the Drapels, whose "Wondering (When My Love Is Coming Home)" was also a Stax box discovery, though I didn't know then that Rene was in the group, along with brother Johnny. Two other tracks here — Rene's call-and-response "Give You What I Got" and the Drapels' thickly funky "Young Man" — were also on that initial Stax box.
But the rest will be obscurities even to all but the most doggedly completist Stax and soul fans, and there are highlights here too: "Gone for Good" comes on like a feistier take on the sophisticated-yet-girlish Carla Thomas style of the time. The solo-penned "Love at First Sight" has a palpable confidence and swagger. "The Same Guy" builds off distinctly Stax-ian organ-and-guitar interplay. "Reap What You Sow" is a surprising answer-record to William Bell's Stax standard "You Don't Miss Your Water."
The consistency of these deep cuts — 17 singles or B-sides from a two-year period that didn't even make the cut on that initial 244-track box — underscores the treasure trove that was the Stax music machine in the '60s, made out of a consistent but elastic in-house groove and a whole community of real voices.
Rene's story — real name Mary Frierson, living south of the airport, along the Tennessee-Mississippi border — is told by former Flyer contributor Andria Lisle in terrific liner notes. This includes Rene's teen audition for Stax co-owner Jim Stewart, her getting help from Deanie Parker and Otis Redding on a new recording moniker, her last-minute decision to turn down a concert trip with Redding and the Bar-Kays that resulted in the plane-crash deaths of Redding and most of the band, and Rene's take on her rediscovery by Wu-Tang and R&B star Alicia Keys, who did her own interpretation of "After Laughter (Comes Tears)," re-titled "Where Do We Go From Here."
Memphis-connected music reissues are legion — there seems to be a new Elvis Presley one every couple of months — but After Laughter Comes Tears is more enjoyable and purposeful than most. Wendy Rene's career is a footnote in the larger Stax story but a footnote that was worth the elaboration this well-conceived collection offers.