Digging Back Through the Stax

Dr. King, Isaac Hayes, a country fiddler named Jim, and the little label that could

| Utne Reader May / June 2007

It was a moment of violence that would mark the end of an extraordinary relationship among working musicians in a city that never really understood nor approved: a family-like bond between black and white, urban and rural, in one of the country's most stubborn of racially segregated Southern cities.

Late in the afternoon of April 4, 1968, soon-to-be-soul-legend Isaac Hayes was about to leave for the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where he was to pick up a saxophone player in town to do a recording session at Stax Records with 'Soul Man' songwriters Sam and Dave.

The Stax studio, which was located in an abandoned movie theater, had in less than a decade become home to an uncanny cast of emerging talent: William Bell, Otis Redding, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Booker T. and the MG's, and Albert King, to name just a few. Men and women who had mashed together gospel and pop, country and rock, Dixieland jazz and Delta blues to give contemporary rhythm and blues -- at the time being seamlessly arranged and professionally produced at Detroit's Motown label -- a greasier, grittier, rib-sticking resonance.

Instead of being paid by the hour, which was customary in northern studios where musicians were trained to churn out prewritten material, Stax musicians made money by the song, so before rolling tape they would improvise for hours, at all hours, to come up with their signature hooks. Since there was no air-conditioning in the theater, they'd often retreat in the afternoon to the Lorraine, one of the few area motels open to blacks. There they would wait for dusk while sipping lemonade, playing cards, and shooting the breeze with other black celebrities and political figures fond of the motel's proximity to Beale Street.

Just before Hayes left his home for the Lorraine, his wife decided she needed the car, so Hayes called to tell the horn player to hail a taxi. Grabbing a cab for himself, Hayes heard the world screech to a halt on the car's crackling radio. Just a few minutes earlier, at about the time Hayes would have been pulling into the motel parking lot, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, in town supporting a sanitation workers' strike, was murdered on the balcony outside his room at the Lorraine. 'God dawg, man, that just went right through me,' Hayes recalls, still choked up by the memory. 'We had just seen those guys over there. It killed me, just hung over me, turned into a dark storm that lasted for a long, long time.'

Before assassin James Earl Ray poured fuel on black America's pent-up fury, William Bell, who scored his hit 'You Don't Miss Your Water' on Stax in 1962, says the racial dynamic among Stax's regular cast was otherwordly. 'Racism was running rampant at the time, but we were like one family. Sometimes we'd have to go to secret places and have a drink, and talk, and exchange ideas. Sometimes other musicians, like Elvis, would join us. We just cared [about] and loved each other for our musical abilities. We were color blind.

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