Neil Spencer in Observer 19.1.14, at
reviewed Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion, by Robert Gordon, and provided a link to Carla Thomas singing Gee Whiz, which was the studio’s first big hit –
Here follows most of Spencer’s essay (with thanks for the tolerance I have assumed), with some of his llnks left in, in the hope they still work, and at the end, some others, provided by Observer readers …
When Stax Records renewed the contract of its biggest star, Isaac Hayes, in 1972, it sugar-coated the deal with a custom-built, gold-plated Cadillac Eldorado. Thirty-year-old Hayes had recently become the first black musician to win an Oscar for his Theme from Shaft.
Hayes’s gilded Caddy marked the pinnacle of Stax’s fortunes, from which the company soon fell into bankruptcy and ruin. For a label that had created some of the greatest pop of the 20th century, making the careers of Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, the Staple Singers and scores more, it was a shocking fall from grace.
Stax’s demise was made the more poignant by the label’s idealism. Founded in 1957 by a white brother and sister, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton (hence St-Ax), it had turned its studios into an oasis of racial harmony in a city still riven by segregation. The label’s mixed house band, Booker T and the MGs, was emblematic. “Colour never came through the doors,” said the MGs’ white guitarist Steve Cropper, whose terse, stinging licks helped define the Stax sound.
The 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King on the balcony of Memphis’s Lorraine motel, a musicians’ hangout, soured the atmosphere inside an organisation still reeling from the death of its star turn, Otis Redding.
Otis had arrived as driver for guitarist Johnny Jenkins, but stunned the studio with his audition piece, These Arms of Mine. They cut the song then and there. Redding’s aching vocals, straight from the pews of a southern congregation, came with winning charisma and ferocious onstage presence. After Otis, everyone (including the Beatles) wanted a piece of the Stax sound.
The international success of Redding, Sam and Dave and the MGs themselves – 1962’s Green Onions was an early triumph – brought acclaim and problems. A rapturously received 1967 European package tour opened the musicians’ eyes to the scale of their achievements and the corresponding shortfall in their earnings. Worse was to follow. Atlantic Records had been Stax’s partner since Carla Thomas’s 1961 breakout, Gee Whiz, had brought the New York label calling, eager for distribution rights. Atlantic’s sale to Warners in 1967 activated an unnoticed contractual clause that awarded Stax’s entire back catalogue to Atlantic in what Gordon terms “an act of corporate homicide”.
The devastation continued with King’s assassination. The ensuing riots and arson left the Stax studios unscathed, but, as singer Rufus Thomas put it, “the complexion of everything changed”. Determined to rebuild, Stewart entrusted operations to vice president Al Bell, a former radio DJ turned civil rights activist. Bell envisioned Stax as a model of black advancement through economic empowerment, and created an instant catalogue with the simultaneous release of 27 albums by almost as many new acts. For capital, a controlling interest was sold to Paramount Pictures,.
Stax’s open door promptly slammed shut. Harassment of musicians by local thugs ensured that. Bell’s solution was Johnny Baylor, an ex-special ops ranger who fixed problems with gun and fist. The harassment stopped but Baylor became a toxic presence, on one occasion hospitalising a musician for ordering too much room service.
“The family feeling was suddenly gone,” said sax player Wayne Jackson. “There were people with guns in the house. They put up a big fence with a guard: Fort Stax.”
But Stax prospered, with massive hits from Johnny Taylor, the Staple Singers and Ike Hayes. Bell celebrated with 1972’s Wattstax, an all-day festival at LA’s giant Coliseum. Compered by the Rev Jessie Jackson (an old Bell buddy), Wattstax was part label showcase, part black pride rally, and spawned a celebrated documentary film.
Behind Stax’s hip, happening facade lay a bloated organisation of 200 employees, where excess flourished and rumours of gangsterism and payola flew. The IRS opened investigations. Owed $10m, the Union Planters Bank pressed for bankruptcy and the closure that arrived early in 1976.
Respect Yourself is not the first history of Stax but Memphis-born Robert Gordon writes with infectious brio and devotion.
One reader supplied a link to Wattstax, a 1973 documentary film by Mel Stuart that focused on the 1972 Wattstax music festival and the African American community of Watts in Los Angeles, California –
Another recommended a link to Sam & Dave performing Hold On I’m Coming on a European Stax Tour –
Yoboboy supplied a link to There’s Gonna Be a Showdown by Rance Allen, a Stax artist and “a gospel singer with the greatest singing voice in the whole wide world”.
transheldrake recommended an early Ike Hayes LP …”Chicago Blues” or something: an early recording of Hayes in a Chicago night club, not on the wiki discography. Hyprebolic was the piece that turned me on to Hayes, the piano playing is fantastic.”
Rockinghammer mentioned: “The recent Oxford American magazine is chock full of great articles about the music and practitioners of the music of the South, including some Stax tales.”
RedFlame said: “I still listen to ‘Otis Blue’ regularly, recorded in just two sessions in 1965, accompanied by Booker T and MG’s – surely the greatest soul album ever!
All to be checked out later. But you might want to get there first.