What’s the greatest soul music label of all time?
With all respect to Philadelphia International Records, which places a strong third, the battle royal ultimately comes down to Motown — Berry Gordy’s Detroit hit factory that achieved its goal of becoming “The Sound of Young America” — and Stax, the Memphis label that made stars out of Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Wilson Pickett, and many others.
Some argue that because Motown aimed above all to produce sleek, polished pop music (sung, albeit, by supremely soulful artists), Gordy’s enterprise was principally a pop label. Valid, though debatable. That would leave us with Stax, whose sound was always grittier, funkier and brassier. The sign Gordy hung outside his Detroit garage, after all, read, “Hitsville, U.S.A.”
Stax, in deliberate counterpoint, identified its studio in a converted movie theater in earthier terms:
Robert Gordon’s Respect Yourself tells of the precipitous rise and dramatic fall of Stax, which went into bankruptcy in 1975 after a spectacular run that ended with the label’s last hit, Shirley Brown’s “Woman to Woman” in 1974.
The label was founded as Satellite Records in 1957 and changed its name four years later, with the new moniker combining the names of banker and fiddle player Jim Stewart and his big sister Estelle Axton, who mortgaged her house to pay for the company’s first tape recorder.
Stewart and Axton were white, as were guitarist Steve Cropper and bass player Donald “Duck” Dunn, one-half of Booker T & the M.G.’s, the house band that served up one of the label’s early enduring hits, with the delectably greasy instrumental “Green Onions” in 1962.
But the other half of the M.G.’s — Hammond B-3 player Booker T. Jones and sublime drummer Al Jackson Jr. — were black, as were virtually all of the other significant players in the Stax story.
“Funky Chicken” auteur Rufus Thomas was one of scores of talented Memphians who walked into Stax off the street. “If you had talent — if you thought you had talent — you could go there,” Thomas says in Respect Yourself. “No studios — no nothing — ever gave any of the black artists that kind of chance.”
How that cooperation between the races worked — and then ceased to — in the segregated South is a unifying thread running through Gordon’s page-turner of a musical history. In 1961, Carla Thomas’ “Gee Whiz” lured Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler to town. But the parties to the meeting had to travel to Wexler’s hotel room hiding in the freight elevator, because blacks and whites could not be seen congregating in public.
Memphis, of course, is the city where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 at the Lorraine Hotel. The Lorraine was the Stax musicians’ second home, where out-of-town players would stay and where Cropper and Eddie Floyd wrote “Knock on Wood”. As Jones tells Gordon: “It couldn’t have been any closer had he been shot at 926 McLemore.”
Gordon is a University of Pennsylvania grad and the author of books such as Can’t Be Satisfied, the definitive Muddy Waters biography; and It Came From Memphis, a celebration of the city’s musical outliers. (Full disclosure: I knew Gordon when he lived in West Philly in the 1980s.) He tells the Stax story with flair, packing it with amusing anecdotes. (Hayes and David Porter composed Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming” while Hayes sat at the piano and Porter hollered out the song’s title to be from the bathroom down the hall.)
The Memphis of “Respect Yourself” was a racially divided city ripped apart when King was killed, less than four months after the plane-crash death of Redding, the commanding soul man who was the label’s biggest star. Those two blows, coupled with Stewart’s realization that he had handed over ownership of master recordings to Atlantic in a previous handshake deal with Wexler, seemed to do Stax in.
But the Stax story is a tale of resiliency and ingenuity, much of it embodied in Al Bell, innovative African-American executive. In 1969, Stewart bought Axton out and handed over the reins of the company to Bell, who turned it into a symbol of black pride.
It was Bell who engineered Stax’s impressive second act, riding hitmakers like Johnny Taylor, Hayes, and the Staple Singers, whose 1971 “Respect Yourself” gives the book its title. Bell, who wrote the Staple’s “I’ll Take You There,” signed acts like Richard Pryor and masterminded Wattsstax, the 1972 Los Angeles music festival that became a feature film.
He also brought dubious types to Stax, like Johnny Baylor, the intimidating radio promo man arrested in 1972 at the Memphis airport with $129,000 in cash in his briefcase, strongly suggesting payola. During the bankruptcy trial, Bell was indicted on (and acquitted of) bank-fraud charges. Gordon clearly believes the label was brought down, in part, because it was a black-run company that rankled the city’s white establishment.
Much of the ground Gordon covers is familiar and can be found in Peter Guralnick’s broader Sweet Soul Music and Rob Bowman’s label history, Soulsville U.S.A.. But “Respect Yourself” shines because the thoroughness of Gordon’s research doesn’t stop him from keeping a complicated story moving quickly, while doing evenhanded justice to the dozens of characters who brought this gloriously gritty music to the world.