It can be hard to separate backstory from music—especially for artists who never hit the big time. Such is the case with Stone Crush: Memphis Modern Soul 1977-1987, which gathers 18 tracks from musicians who tried to make it in a regional scene after the untimely demise of legendary Stax Records. Without any background, the album is a solid set of R&B obscurities; but, time and again, the frustrated stories behind the records elevate the music beyond its considerable intrinsic appeal.

Take, for instance, Frankie Alexander’s “No Seat Dancin’,” originally released in 1986 on the tiny DeElegance label. The midtempo soul-funk ballad features an arrangement that’s both dense and loose, with Alexander’s modest vocals paying homage to a dancefloor DJ. It sounds like it would have been a sweet regional hit, but it was barely released; Alexander, who cut his stage teeth singing in a Baptist choir, was a bricklayer by day and a singer by night. When he was ready to make a record, he couldn’t yet afford to put his entire inner vision on tape. So, like a patient construction worker, he took his time, adding elements like a horn section only as he could afford them. There was tragedy behind the scenes; producer Ben Cauley was the only surviving member of the Bar-Kays, the rest of his bandmates perishing in the plane crash that killed Otis Redding. The project took Alexander years to finish, and while he was happy with the results, he didn’t attempt to promote it. Still, according to liner notes, he has no regrets: ”Those were tough times, and maybe I should’ve tried a little harder, but I’m very happy with the way my life is right now.”

Alexander’s tale is particularly bittersweet, but the obscurity of other tracks was due to less dramatic circumstances. Album opener and de facto title cut “Stone Crush on You” comes from O. T. Sykes, who was a successful dentist and a minor local celebrity. He cut an album-worth of material at Ardent Records (a name Big Star fans will recognize), including this spirited track that gleefully borrows a riff from the Whispers’ “And the Beat Goes On.”

The sick synth-funk lines of “Keep It to Yourself,” by Captain Fantastic & Starr Fleet, was another Ardent recording. This space-themed funk was a side-project from the members of a later incarnation of the Bar-Kays, who were then signed to Mercury Records. Mastermind Benjamin Jimerson–Phillips claims that tracks like “Under Cover Lover,” as good as they were, “was maybe at 50% of our best material,” but this strange offshoot was relegated to a single on Right Note Records, with a pressing of only 1,000 copies.

Great stories, sure, but does the music live up to them? A sweet midtempo ballad by Silk Satin & Lace sure does. The lead singer was then-nine-year old Bobby White, Jr., the son of a Detroit singer who was a teen sensation in his own time. “Always” is the most endearing melody, the one you’re most likely to develop a stone crush on. White, Sr. reportedly wrote the song in 15 minutes and took his group and his son (the “Satin” of the name) into Ardent Studios for their only recording; Bobby Jr. preferred sports to singing, and that was the end of his brief music career.

At 79 minutes, Stone Crush has the consistent pacing of a vintage mixtape—it would have made a great cassette release. Liner notes by Memphis music historian Robert Gordon put it all in context, weaving rich narratives of artists working hard for little if any reward. But if just two feet start moving to this music, then all that effort is worth it. Turn up the bass to shake the floorboards as much as possible.

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