Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion By Robert Gordon 384 pp. $30 Bloomsbury
It's a story that any novelist or screenwriter would find fantastical. A white, middle-aged banker and part time country music fiddler with a hankering to get into the music business convinces his older sister (and her skeptical husband) to mortgage their house so he can open a recording studio.
Then, the pair buy an abandoned movie theater in a downtrodden area of blacker-than-black Memphis, build said studio, and also an in-house record shop. And from that studio come some of the most treasured music of the '60s and '70s, heard around the world.
Stax Records (from the names of the banker/fiddler Jim STewart and sister Estelle AXton) would ultimlately put its name on some 800 singles and 300 albums from 1960-1975, launching the careers of dozens of performers including Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Booker T. and the MG's, Isaac Hayes, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Sam and Dave, Luther Ingram, Albert King, The Staples Singers, the Bar-Kays, and many, many more.
The more polished and palpable Motown may have called itself "Hitsville, U.S.A.," but there was no mistaking the meaning when Stax put up the proclamation "Soulsville, U.S.A." right on the old theater's marquee.
When you combine a masterful music writer (and Memphis native) Gordon with the Shakespearian rise and fall (and rise and fall) story of Stax, you get this detailed, evocative, and compelling narrative not just of soul music, but of a city and a country's racial and social fabric.
And while Rob Bowman's previous Stax bio, Soulsville, was fine on its own, Gordon's take goes deeper, building on that effort and other writers' with a heaping helping of original research and interviews.
The history of Stax is really split into two eras. The first with Stewart and Axton's familial and casual hands on the wheel where literally anyone could walk into the studio and walk out with a writing or recording deal and race mixing was something taken for granted.
Though not lightly - when Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler came to still-segregated Memphis to meet with Stewart and some artists, the Thomases had to be snuck into the hotel's back entrance and then hidden in Wexler's room.
And then there's Redding. The label's biggest star of the Mark I era first arrived at the studio as the driver/roadie/valet of another performer, and only after constant pestering of the Stax staff did he get a one-off chance to audition.
His 1967 death in a plane crash at age 26, along with most of the original lineup of the Bar-Kays and the pilot, just as his career really started cooking and he'd broken through to white audiences at the Monterey Pop Festival is a lesser-detailed but just as important "if only..." musician pontification.
And, because the Stax had a unique arrangement with the much-larger Atlantic Records (who handled all record production, distribution, sales, and promotion of Stax music and then paid the label a royalty), the independent studio at 926 McLemore Ave. could simply concentrate on the music.
But things changed drastically in 1968. On the music front, the dissolution of the relationship with Atlantic - and the discovery that Stewart had inadvertently signed away the company's entire back catalogue to the larger company - left them starting completely from scratch.
And the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis kept the city - and Stax performers and employees - on edge. Soon, musicians were getting shaken down by local toughs in the parking lot, and the label was criticized for its racial integration and "not doing enough" for the Black Power movement.
It got so bad that MG's drummer Al Jackson Jr. personally froze out bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn - a man he'd spent hundreds of hours on the road and in the studio with - because "someone else had said he was a racist." Stax needed help, badly.
It got it in the 6-foot-5 frame of Al Bell, hired by Stewart in the process of later buying out Axton's interest in the company (the siblings had no love lost between them at the end) to inject life into the studio.
And did he ever. With a background in promotions and passion for preaching, the whirlwind former DJ built up Stax in an ambitious expansion and marketing plan, wheeling and dealing with distributors, investors, other record companies, banks, and influential music movers.
Soon, Stax was back on track, selling more records than ever (often with new acts) and making a worldwide performing star out of staff writer Isaac Hayes, whose distinct bald/shirtless/gold chained appearance and music got him dubbed "Black Moses."
Bell also saw a day when Stax would expand into movies, television, business management, and community projects and charitable services.
But it came at a price. Drugs, payola, spotty bookkeeping, and questionable hires (some with forceful, thuggish ways of getting things done) kept things on edge. R&B/Soul music was out and suddenly, disco and dance music was in.
Overextended bank loans, lawsuits and countersuits, a general decline in morale, racial prejudice from Memphis institutions, and Bell's high living/hi flying style made it all come crashing down, with Bell being led away and the studio padlocked, taken over by creditors and the subject of a federal lawsuit.
And then Stewart - who Bell had bought out years earlier but nonetheless returned to put up all of his monies and possessions as collateral to help the studio - lost everything. H was eventually evicted with his wife and three children from the luxury home he had lived in.
The Stax studio, record shop, and offices - neglected for so many years - was eventually completely torn down, a travesty for the musical and social history of Memphis.
However, the story has a happy ending, with the entire complex being rebuilt to specifications and is now home to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and Stax Music Academy.
But the most important legacy of Stax - the music - not only remains, but is as vibrant as ever. Anytime the radio plays or someone performs "Green Onions," "Hold On, I'm Comin'" "Soul Man," "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay," "I'll Take You There," "Knock on Wood," "Respect Yourself," or even "The Theme from Shaft," Stax lives again.
Make no mistake, Gordon's book is an amazing and important read. But it only makes you want to reach for the CD shelf to hear the music of Stax all the more.
And that's the best thing a book about music can ever hope to accomplish.
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