By the time Otis Redding gets to the first “you-oooo” in “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now),” you know it’s there.
You can feel it anytime those first notes from Booker T.‘s organ come pumping through the speakers on “Green Onions,” or whenever the horns light up on “Soul Man.” And you’d have to be deader than disco to not feel it when the Staple Singers promise us, “I’ll take you there.”
“It” is that special mix of soul, pride and musicianship that makes your hair stand on end. It is what made Stax Records a legendary label in American music, a legacy that finally can start growing again thanks to the company’s 50th anniversary relaunch.
That is “long overdue,” said one of Stax’s most enduring stars, Isaac Hayes. “This music is powerful and it’s unique. Some people have forgotten what was so special about it.”
Stax’s “It” was strong enough to bring black and white musicians together in Memphis in the years leading up to Martin Luther King Jr.‘s fateful journey to the Lorraine Motel, where Stax’s musicians wrote many of their tolerance-preaching hits. It was potent enough in the `70s to turn Stax into (pick any): the most prominent business in Memphis; arguably the most successful independent record label in the world; the nation’s fifth-biggest black-run company.
But Stax’s special thing wasn’t able to stand up to bank execs and bigger record-company moguls who, in 1976, contributed to the bankruptcy filings that closed the label’s doors for three long (and noticeably less funky) decades.
Many of Stax’s principal players - including its best-known white musician - believe the powers-that-be didn’t trust or appreciate the success of the label’s black stars. Seeing “The Black Moses” (Hayes) wearing gold chains and driving a gold-plated Cadillac probably didn’t help.
“Clearly, there were people who wanted to see Stax go under,” said Steve Cropper, guitarist in Booker T. & the MGs and a producer and writer of many of Stax’s hits. “It was a sad day for everybody.”
Now the question is whether or not Stax’s “It” can stand up to the test of time. Or at least that was one of many queries thrown at Cropper, Hayes and other Stax players at the South by Southwest Music Conference (SXSW) in March, where they converged for a coming-out party to market the label’s relaunch.
“I hate the word `preserved’ - when they say the music is being preserved,” Cropper’s bandmate, bassist Donald (Duck) Dunn, said. “This music has held its own, even when the company didn’t.”
With the indie conglomerate Concord Music taking up ownership of Stax, the relaunch campaign is in high gear this summer with a flurry of reissues, some new releases, a PBS special premiering Wednesday and scattered all-star performances, including an MGs tour.
The first of the Stax live showcases was at SXSW, where the MGs - basically Stax’s house band - reunited with two of Stax’s soul-survivor singers, William Bell (“You Don’t Miss Your Water”) and Eddie Floyd (“Knock on Wood”), and some of the players who came to be known as the Memphis Horns.
Hayes gave the introduction: “Tonight is about some very special music,” he said in his famous low-register voice, known today from the `South Park’ character Chef. “It’s about 50 years of soul music. Can you dig it?”
His question was answered with an emphatic “yes.” Even with hip-n-hot acts like Amy Winehouse and Kings of Leon in town, the Stax show became the high point of musicianship and the epitome of cool at this year’s SXSW fest. That test-of-time thing was a piece of cake.
As recounted in PBS’ “Great Performances” special “Respect Yourself: The Story of Stax Records,” the label was created in 1957 as Satellite Records by a white country musician, Jim Stewart, and his sister, Estelle Axton.
The siblings (who combined their last names for the Stax moniker in 1960) knew next to nothing about black music. But it didn’t matter. They opened their studio in the former Capitol Theater in south Memphis, the black neighborhood where Aretha Franklin and Al Green grew up. So black musicians came to know all about Stax.
“It brought a lot of pride to the neighborhood, as well as some much-needed jobs and money,” recalled Stax’s veteran publicist Deanie Parker, who started there at age 16.
The integration at Stax began almost immediately, and the hits soon followed: The biracial instrumental groups Booker T. & the MGs and the Mar-Keys hit the R&B and pop charts in 1961-63, as did father/daughter singers Rufus and Carla Thomas.
Soon, singers started coming from beyond Memphis. Stax’s biggest star, Otis Redding, arrived from Georgia in 1962, driving the vehicle for another band and talking his way into a studio tryout that yielded his first hit, “These Arms of Mine.” Atlantic Records then sent down two of its burgeoning acts, Sam & Dave and Wilson Pickett, to benefit from the Stax magic (beginning Stax’s forever-tenuous relationship with bigger labels).
Unlike its Detroit rival, Motown, Stax didn’t cater to white teenagers. The so-called Stax Sound maintained a looser, livelier quality that sounded even better on stage than on the radio. As Hayes described it, “It had a church feel, with parts of blues, rock, country and some jazz.”
Initially a songwriter and arranger (his solo debut came in 1967), Hayes remembers the early Stax era as being “a lot of fun, but a lot of work.”
Said Cropper, “We had fun, but the studio time at Stax was very, very serious. I averaged 15 hours a day, 7 days a week.”
You won’t likely catch him complaining, though. “I was involved in 19 Top 10 hits,” Cropper bragged, his smile proving it was worth it.
The first heyday of Stax ended with two well-known tragedies. Redding’s plane crashed into Lake Monona in Madison, Wis., on Dec. 10, 1967, killing the singer and four band members.
“I’ve always wondered how Otis and those guys got booked into Madison, of all places, especially in December,” said Curt Obeda, leader of the Stax-copping Minneapolis band the Butanes.
King’s assassination the following spring also left its mark. The label’s harmonious biracial makeup was put to the test as tensions in Memphis heightened. Most of the artists agree, “It was never the same after that.”
The label’s focus became more distinctively African-American, driven in large part by Al Bell, a black executive who took the label’s reins from Stewart in the `70s.
Before Stax, “we didn’t own our own talent,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson says while praising the label in the PBS special.
The high point of `70s-era Stax was the 1972 mega-concert Wattstax, designed as “a black Woodstock” to heal the scars of the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles. It drew 100,000 people and was turned into a movie by Stax’s own film production company, which also churned out “Shaft.”
Eventually, Stax got involved with everything from a basketball team to comedy, and creditors thought it was spread too thin. Its bank and CBS Records abruptly called in its debts, and the FBI began investigating Bell on fraud charges (he was cleared).
“If it had not been an integrated company, but had been an all-white company, Stax would have still been in business today,” Parker claimed. “Memphis was not sophisticated or forward-thinking enough to embrace it then.”
The city did finally embrace Stax in 2003, when it put up money to open the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and its adjoining Stax Music Academy on the site of the old studio. A few hundred thousand visitors later, the museum sparked interest in reviving Stax as a label.
So what will the Stax of 2007 and beyond look like?
The label is quickly updating itself. Many of its old titles have been newly released on the Internet via iTunes, eMusic and its own site, Stax50.com. There are also new reissues on CD, including a two-disc 50th anniversary best-of (out now) and a three-CD “Wattstax” set (coming Aug. 28).
Stax is also operating as a label for current artists. It issued an Earth, Wind & Fire tribute CD featuring Chaka Khan, Angie Stone and Mint Condition. Stone has a Stax album due this fall. And on Tuesday, Boston jazz-funk ensemble Soulive puts out its latest CD via Stax.
“There’s a lot of good new stuff,” said Hayes, who also plans to issue his first album in 30 years, probably next year.
No one from Stax’s history is pretending it will be the same label as before, though.
“Music has changed. It’s not like it was,” Hayes admitted, pointing to the social significance of the original Stax.
“The musicians, black and white, got together to make music. That was a unique thing then. That’s what made the sound. That’s not a big deal now.”
If, in fact, the label’s racial legacy doesn’t matter today, then Stax can claim its greatest succes yet.
STAX’S BIGGEST HITS
“Green Onions” Booker T. & the MGs (1962)
“Soul Man” Sam & Dave (1967)
“(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” Otis Redding (1968)
“Theme From Shaft,” Isaac Hayes (1971)
“I’ll Take You There” Staple Singers (1972)
FAMOUS STAX COVERS
“Respect,” Otis Redding (redone by Aretha Franklin)
“What a Man,” Linda Lyndell (Salt-N-Pepa & En Vogue)
“Wrap It Up,” Sam & Dave (Fabulous Thunderbirds)
“That’s How Strong My Love Is,” Redding (Rolling Stones)
“I Can’t Turn You Loose,” Redding (Blues Brothers’ theme)
“I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down,” Sam & Dave (Elvis Costello)
“I Thank You,” Sam & Dave (ZZ Top)
“Hard to Handle,” Redding (Black Crowes)
THE MAKING OF ...
”(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” remembered by Steve Cropper: “Probably the toughest job of my whole life was mixing that record. I did it in a 24-hour period. They still hadn’t found Otis yet. That was tough. I’m not even sure why I said yes. They called and said, `We’ve got to get a record out on Otis real quick. What have you got?’ I started it on a Tuesday morning, put it on a plane on Wednesday. They didn’t find Otis’ body until that Friday, I think. So it’s not always fun to reminisce about `Dock of the Bay.’”
“Hot Buttered Soul,” by Isaac Hayes: “I figured out what I had to say couldn’t be said in 2 minutes, 30 seconds. So I just went off. (Stax president) Al Bell said, `Do what you wanna do,’ and that’s what I did. I told the musicians what I was going for, they played it, and then I ended it. That’s the record.”
“Knock on Wood,” by Eddie Floyd: “We came up with the title of it first. I didn’t know it at that time, but Steve actually took `In the Midnight Hour,’ turned the chords around in reverse, and that’s `Knock on Wood.’ So getting the lyrics together, I told him the story about being from Montgomery, Ala., and how the storms are, `Thunder and lightning and so frightening you’d hide under the bed.”
FAVORITE HIDDEN GEMS
Isaac Hayes: “Some of the Luther (Guitar Junior) Johnson records. He did a lot of good songs that me and David (Porter) wrote. I think some of those songs got lost.”
Deanie Parker (longtime Stax publicist): “‘Live Wire Blues Power,” by Albert King. You gotta get that record! But fasten your seat belt before you put it on.”
Steve Cropper: “The `Jammed Together” album (featuring Cropper, Albert King and Pop Staples). Even when I listen to it, I can’t believe we were never in the studio at the same time. That record was all overdubs. It worked well.”
Duck Dunn: “I think Otis’ version of `Respect’ deserves more respect. I heard that Paul McCartney based `Drive My Car’ off my bass line in that song. I hope that’s true.”
THE STAX MUSEUM
Officially dubbed the Stax Museum of American Soul Music (unofficially: Soulsville, U.S.A.), it has become a shrine for rock and R&B fans. It opened in 2003 on the demolished site of Stax Records, at 926 E. McLemore Ave. in Memphis, with the old theater marquee and even the recording studio resurrected. Inside, there’s a colorful and absolutely electric array of displays on the label’s history. When visiting Memphis, true music nuts go to Soulsville before Graceland.
// Notes from the Road
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