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Malaco Records
The Last Soul Company
Malaco Records

On Christmas Day, there is a tradition that goes on in most African-American households that is generally lost on all other cultures. After the entire family gets through opening up presents and finishing off holiday foodstuffs, they all adjourn to the living room, get plastered on newly bought Scotch and shuffle their feet to a soul-stirring blues album from Malaco Records. Z.Z. Hill, Johnnie Taylor, Bobby Blue Bland, even Down Home Blues, that collection of barroom blues songs they used to sell on TV, all at one time or another occupy space on black people's turntables when December 25 rolls around. As long as it has a good beat and you can stagger to it, it's on. I know this phenomenon takes place in my family's house. I have the home videos to prove it.

For 30 years Malaco has been the most underrated of independent soul labels. It has also been a label looking for a distinctive identity. From its humble beginnings as a label slinging out old-school R&B, then Philadelphia Sound-style soul, then party funk, then divine gospel, to its final incarnation as the home of rustic blues, Malaco has turned out a lot more in its three decades than some would expect. In a commemorative boxed set, The Last Soul Company, you see year-by-year Malaco's rough-and-tumble ascension into black-music consciousness.

The first couple of discs in this six-CD, 112-song collection center on Malaco's beginnings as a label influenced by the do-it-yourself inner workings of such popular R&B labels as Stax, Chess and Atlantic. Beginning with Haran Griffin's randy "Looking for My Pig," the three-to-four-minute songs that appear on these discs ooze with what can only be called down-and-dirty Southern soul.

It's there on tracks such as Cozy Corley's confident "Warm Loving Man," Eddie Houston's jubilant "I Can't Go Wrong" and the piano twirl and girl-group sass of Jackie Dorsey's "Sweetheart Baby." Caucasian artists also contributed to the Southern sound, as heard here in songs performed by the Loudon Wainwright-ish Paul Davis, Stefan Anderson and George Soule.

But true success for Malaco would come in the form of two artists, King Floyd and Jean Knight. King Floyd's "Groove Me," a 1970 masterpiece that lives on in practically every TV commercial, had a funkiness to it that made the song Malaco's first gold-selling hit. Another winner would come the following year with Knight's sassy chart-topper "Mr. Big Stuff." Although those two mainstream hits weren't technically Southern R&B, Malaco was still working with the deep-rooted sounds of Dorothy Moore, Eddie Floyd (no relation to King) and McKinley Mitchell.

The last three tracks on disc two highlight the label's brief detour into the disco era, which was due mainly to the club success of Anita Ward's bouncy "Ring My Bell." Disc three starts with the label's bout with disco, in which the company scored with some numbers (e.g., Freedom's funky-as-hell "Get Up and Dance") but tanked with others (e.g., Fern Kinney's uneven electronic remake of "Groove Me"). Curiously, it was around this time that Malaco began finding its voice with the help of the late Southern blues veteran Z.Z. Hill.

Hill, along with his direct, catchy lyricism ("If you wanna hear him holler / All you gotta do is ask him for a dollar"), ushered in a new sound for the label: down-home blues. The six Hill tracks featured on disc three make up a peerless showcase of Hill's durability as a blues artist, from the feet-shuffling fervor of "Down Home Blues" to the lecherous mischief of "Cheating in the Next Room" to the sympathetic heartache of "Please Don't Make Me Do Something Bad to You." Hill's brilliance as a blues performer also inspired other artists to get into the mix, most notably the middle-aged singer-songwriter Denise LaSalle ("Your Husband Is Cheating on Us") and the in-your-face veteran performer Latimore ("Bad Risk").

Disc four is mostly mid-'80s blues tunes performed by the label's most successful crew of blues/soul artists, "The Big Five," as they were known. Along with Malaco favorites LaSalle and Latimore, the label also snagged blues legends Bobby Blue Bland, Little Milton and Johnnie Taylor, who became Malaco's flagship artist when Hill passed on in '84.

Each of the three new labelmates brought something distinctive to the fold. Bobby Blue Bland's scorned-lover brand of brutal blues, backed up by his phlegm-inducing yelps, was always respected by the boozers-and-losers set. Little Milton had a juke-joint delivery that was joyous and a little humorous. (Here's how he describes the proprietor in "Annie Mae's Cafe": "Although she's a woman / She's not easy to be shook / She keeps a .38 Special behind the counter / And the other one in her pocketbook.") And Johnnie Taylor was the mack daddy of the bunch, a smooth operator who sang songs like he was seducing his latest conquest by the fireplace in his penthouse apartment. Meshing all this together with the familiar formats of LaSalle and Latimore, Malaco Records hit its creative stride.

Disc five reveals Malaco's arrival into the 1990s, as new artists began to infiltrate the label with hopes of catching a buzz. As Latimore and Bobby Blue Bland were still killing 'em with heartbroken numbers, and as Bland was messing with reggae vibes, and as LaSalle was keeping vibrant in her blunt delivery (as shown here by the song "Wet Match": "Your love is like trying to / Light a fire with a wet match / You won't even get a spark / Like that"), there were new kids in the hall -- and some of them weren't even kids.

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