Massive Reissue Campaign Helps Stax Revive Soulsville U.S.A.

Black Moses: Isaac Hayes went from behind-the-scenes songwriter and producer to performing superstar in the '70s, largely on his soundtrack for the movie "Shaft."EXPAND
Black Moses: Isaac Hayes went from behind-the-scenes songwriter and producer to performing superstar in the '70s, largely on his soundtrack for the movie "Shaft."
Photo courtesy of the Stax Archives

As the Director of Publicity at the legendary Stax Records, Deanie Parker witnessed a lot of musical history at 926 E. McLemore Ave. in Memphis, Tennessee during the ‘60s and ‘70s. But what she remembers most is the deep bond between the performers, producers, writers and office staff.

Now 70, Parker recalls they were a big family – complete with family feuds. “Some of us loved each other desperately, some of us liked each other, and some of us did anything we could not toconfront each other!” she laughs. “But more often than not, we were celebrating each other; the birthdays, the record releases. And we cried together — the most painful of which was when Otis Redding died in that plane crash with most the Bar-Kays. We experienced all of the emotions that any normally crazy family would!"

Perhaps more than any other label, Stax did the most to introduce and elevate R&B and soul music. Grittier than competitors Motown and Philadelphia International and headquartered in a renovated movie theater in “Soulsville, U.S.A.,” the label released sides by the likes of Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, the Staple Singers, Booker T. & the MGs, Carla Thomas, Albert King, Johnnie Taylor, the Dramatics, and William Bell during its prime years of 1957-1975. Others, like Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin, recorded there as well.

Founded by white Memphis banker and country fiddler Jim Stewart and his sister, Estelle Axton (“Stax” coming from the first two letters of their last names), and later led by Al Bell, the label and its various subsidiaries would release more than 800 singles and nearly 300 LPs in its time.

Upcoming Events

In time to celebrate the label’s 60th anniversary and the new partnership between Rhino Records and Concord Music Group, which brings all of the music together under one roof for the first time ever, a massive Stax reissue campaign has just begun. The next year will see (or has already seen) a slew of budget compilations, new box sets and live albums, and long-out-of-print titles on both CD and vinyl come out.

“This feels different than the other times, yes it does!” Parker says enthusiastically. “We have lived 60 years to see this catalogueall together, secured by the strongest loving straps that there are! And we can continue to enjoy the music and share it to those who appreciate what Stax did. And I am delighted that they have gone [deeper] into the vaults.”

Beginning in 1963 at the age of 16, Deanie Parker became a crucial part of the Stax team, initially as a performer and songwriter before becoming a producer and Director of Publicity. She continues to be one of the label’s most vocal champions with her involvement in the Stax Museum of American Soul Music (opened in the label’s former studio/office space), the Stax Music Academy, and the Soulsville Charter School.

Stax was also unique in its melding of white and black musicians and employees – an integration that sometimes both sides of the color line didn't care for. Parker recalls that when mixed racial groups would congregate outside 926 E. McLemore just to talk, some locals would make them go indoors.

The label’s story is also one of survival, and perhaps the greatest comeback of any. For years, Stax had an agreement to turn over its master recordings to the much larger Atlantic Records for pressing and distribution, while retaining their own identity. When those companies parted ways in 1968, Stewart was shocked to discover that he had actually signed away all rights to those recordings as well, leaving Stax with no catalogue at all.

Rather than fold up – and under the hyperkinetic leadership of Bell – Stax started again from scratch. The label became an even bigger commercial success before bad financial dealings from too much expansion, too many projects, and too much debt eventually forced it to close, shuttering its famous home.

Parker says that even today Stewart – now 86 – wishes he had that signature back. “He was just a good ol’ boy who believed a man’s word was his trust. We weren’t used to dealing with big city slickers like [Atlantic honcho] Jerry Wexler,” Parker says. (For the record, the late Wexler always maintained he wasn’t aware of the contract’s Draconian statute.)

“Today, [Stewart] would read the fine print – or have someone read it for him!” adds Parker.

But whatever the foibles of the label on the business end, the label’s music is timeless (I would recommend Robert Gordon’s Respect Yourself: Stax Records and Soul Explosion and Rob Bowman’s Soulsville, U.S.A. The Story of Stax Records for reading). And the Rhino/Concord anniversary reissue campaign aims to celebrate that history of the label.

But Parker is hardly living in the past, as her involvement with both the Stax Music Academy and the Soulsville Charter School attest. And especially what it has meant to the children in a neighborhood that for years went downhill once the studio shut its doors.

“We knew we needed to start these programs that would benefit the children first. And we taught them the same songs and the history of their neighborhood and gave them a safe place to go,” she says.

“We became the parents that some of the children did not have. The spirit of Stax, whatever it was in the soil or with the people of Soulsville, I hear it and see it and feel it everything I walk through those doors.”

Mavis Staples performs alongside Milton Hopkins and J. Paul Jr. & the Zydeco NuBreedz at A Gulf Coast Juneteenth, 7 p.m. Monday, June 19 at Miller Outdoor Theatre.

For more info on the anniversary reissues, visit staxrecords.com. For info on the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, the Stax Academy of Music, or Soulsville Charter School, visit staxmuseum.com.

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