[27 March 2007]
A few years ago, my family took a road trip to Memphis. We hit up Graceland and Sun Studios, walked up and down Beale Street, and only the news that Al Green was out of town stopped us from getting all sanctified up in his church. But I couldn’t bring myself to go to my favorite address: 926 E. McLemore Ave., where Stax Records once stood. I know I should have brought my children there and told them all about all the great songs that had been recorded there by so many talented people. But I just couldn’t stand the idea that Stax was gone, razed to the ground, replaced by a parking lot.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one. In 2003, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music opened on McLemore Avenue. It is devoted to all kinds of soul music, but its main attraction is the fact that more than 2,000 photos, instruments, and other Stax-related artifacts are on display. (The museum even features, to quote the SoulsvilleUSA.com website, “Isaac Hayes’ restored, peacock-blue 1972 Superfly Cadillac El Dorado complete with television, refrigerator, and gold trim.” Damn.)
But the picture wasn’t complete until Concord Jazz bought the Stax catalog last year. This revived Stax will issue new albums this year from Isaac Hayes, Angie Stone, and other great soul artists. They have also announced an ambitious re-issue program, vowing to bring this amazing music back to the nation’s attention. They have already started this process with records from Carla Thomas and Johnnie Taylor, among others. But the biggest salvo in this process truly kicked off earlier this month with the release of a two-disc sampler of some of the label’s greatest songs. The Stax 50th: A 50th Anniversary Celebration gives us a chance to revisit these songs and the talented men and women who created them.
The Stax story begins in 1957. Jim Stewart, a fiddle player, founded Satellite Records in a north Memphis garage, focusing mostly on country and rockabilly. He convinced his older sister, Estelle Axton, to mortgage her home and go into business with him. They released a few singles that didn’t go anywhere. In 1960, Stewart and Axton (now on her second re-finance) bought the Capitol Theatre building on McLemore. They built a studio and converted the theater lobby into a combination candy shop and record store. There, they could make some money on the side, and Estelle could play brand new releases and see if they caught the ears of the teenaged clientele—virtually all of them African American.
Booker T & the MG’s
Local legend Rufus Thomas, a charismatic disc jockey, recorded a duet for Satellite with his 17-year-old daughter Carla. “Cause I Love You” didn’t take off, but Carla’s first solo song sure did. This compilation begins with that single, “Gee Whiz”. Not only did this song get to #5 on the R&B charts and #10 on the pop charts, but it landed Satellite a distribution deal with Atlantic Records. The hits kept coming for the rest of the year, and the company underwent its big name change; Satellite was already taken, so they changed the company’s name to Stax (check the first letters of their last names).
Like Motown, Stax created a house sound by using the same group of musicians to back many of its artists. A lot is made of the fact that the classic Stax house band contained both black and white musicians, and it is true that Steve Cropper’s country-fried guitar licks played wonderfully off Booker T. Jones’ gospel organ lines. But this compilation reminds us that even the early Stax sound was mostly rooted in African-American forms. Not only are the singers all black—Sam and Dave, Mable John, William Bell, and the incomparable Otis Redding—but so were the label’s top songwriters, David Porter and Isaac Hayes. Still, the idea of Eddie Floyd and Steve Cropper sitting down together in Memphis in 1966 to write the smash “Knock on Wood”… well, there’s just something very awesome and American about that.
A lot of people mark the 1967 death of Otis Redding as the end of the “real” Stax era. (I drive past the lake where his plane crashed twice every day.) Others say that Stax was doomed the day that Al Bell, a Detroit disc jockey, bought out Estelle Axton’s half of the business in 1969. But one of the great things about this set is that it disproves these tired theories. Stax just kept on going after its biggest star left us, and a lot of its material was just as strong and strange as anything Redding released. Try to stay in your seat while Booker T. and the MGs pound out “Time Is Tight” or “Soul Limbo”; try not to sing along with Johnnie Taylor as he asks the musical question, “Who’s making love with your old lady / While you were out making love?” (A live version of this, already featured in the film Wattstax, is also one of the tracks on Taylor’s newly-issued Live at the Summit Club. It is a MOTHER.)
There was a dramatic shift in Stax at the end of the 1960s. Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper both left, and outside producers and artists started to dominate the discourse. Part of this was sheer marketing by Bell, who thought Stax had to diversify its sound to really break through on a national basis. Another part was the fact that other American acts had learned a lot of lessons from Stax Records. It is hard to imagine integrated rock acts like Love and Sly and the Family Stone existing without the MGs and the Bar-Kays, and the sonic template laid down by these house bands influenced artists all over the world. And there is something somewhat dispiriting about “the little label that could” suddenly relying on piecemeal recordings in large studios instead of live sessions in its tiny little rooms in South Memphis.
But this is a very romantic, and somewhat reductive view of things. In fact, as the entire second disc here proves, Stax continued to be a wild weird force throughout the early 1970s. This was the era of Isaac Hayes as a solo artist. Hayes, bald head shining with passion and creativity, started to stretch out on classic albums such as Hot Buttered Soul—where he was backed by the (integrated) Stax funk-rock band called the Bar-Kays—and Black Moses. Critics still don’t know what to make of Hayes’s records, with their 19-minute Glen Campbell covers and hot jams like “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic”, but one cannot deny that the “Theme From Shaft” has become encoded into our national DNA.
Stax also rocketed many other wonderful acts onto the airwaves. The classic Staples Singers songs “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There” are in full effect here, as is Shirley Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff” and “I’ll Be the Other Woman” by the Soul Children. And a good case is made for the re-appraisal of Tony Hester as the great lost American songwriter with two unbeatably funky mini-operas by the Dramatics: “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get” and “In the Rain”. Stax eventually dissolved into bankruptcy in 1975, but this second disc makes a good case that the label didn’t just fade away.
Look, I’m a fanatic—I spent the last $99 of our wedding money on the original Stax nine-disc compilation. (Don’t tell my wife.) But you don’t need to be any kind of Stax freak to get into this music, and the new compilation makes for a great starter drug. It’s awesome for people who do not have the originals all on vinyl or eight-track or lousy CD masters from 17 years ago. It is also probably a good thing for people who do have them all already anyway. Listening to songs like “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”, “B-A-B-Y”, “Do the Funky Chicken”, and “Starting All Over Again” is like taking a stroll through the garden of sublime American soul music. But the most important thing about it is that it augurs well for the new era to come. If Concord continues to pump out high-class re-issue material like this, then we will see an undreamt-of Stax renaissance in the next few years. The liner notes (by Stax historian Rob Bowman) and the photos are beautifully done, and the sound is as crisp as the creases in the Mad Lads’ pants.
I think my family might be due for another trip to Memphis. This time, we’ll be hitting McLemore Avenue first.