Digging Back Through the Stax

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.

‘Stax was out of the church — country and city, white and black. We did things spontaneously. It was a grassroots thing: just country folk and blue-collar folks feeling it.’

Listening to the just-released Stax 50th Anniversary Celebration (Concord Music Group), you can almost see Rufus Thomas ‘Walking the Dog’ in his white knee-high boots. Feel Otis Redding, head thrown back, eyes squeezed tight, begging for a little ‘Respect.’ Sense the heat as Booker T. and the MG’s burn down a patch of ‘Green Onions.’ Laugh out loud when Johnnie Taylor asks, ‘Who’s making love to your old lady, while you were out making love?’

Then you can read the liner notes, composed by Stax scholar Rob Bowman, and consider this: It all got started because Jim Stewart, a white country fiddler inspired by the success of Sam Phillips’ Sun Records — birthplace of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash — decided to start Satellite Records in 1957.

Stewart, initially recording country pop and struggling, found modest success recording a song by an all-black group in 1959. He didn’t know anything about R&B at the time, but the experiment set things in motion, and a year later he and his sister Estelle Axton moved their business back to Memphis and bought a movie theater with a classic marquee that would eventually become a fixture in indie label lore. ‘Soulsville U.S.A.’ earned iconic status in part because of that movie house turned recording studio, with its sloped concrete floor, lack of right angles, schizophrenic sound waves, and freakishly live vibe — conjuring smoke-stained ceilings, sweat-soaked work shirts, and straight whiskey.

Above all, though, it was that palpable sense of community, of like-minded artists trusting one another enough to groove out on a limb, that explains what came out of Stax from 1960 through May 1968, a period considered by Bowman, who also wrote Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records (Shirmer Trade, 1997), to be the first of two distinct eras.

‘Right out of the gate, the eyes of the black community were on Stax Records,’ explains Deanie Parker, who worked at the Satellite Record Shop, which Axton put in the movie theater’s lobby. There, neighborhood kids would come hang out, listen to records, and dream of being stars. The fledgling record producers, in turn, could test musical styles on a tailor-made target audience and look for local talent. ‘If Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton had not been welcoming and respectful of our similarities and differences, the experience and outcome would have been completely different,’ Parker says.

During the next phase at Stax, from June 1968 through December 1975, the label, still a multiracial operation in the front office, produced several smash singles, including Rufus Thomas’ ‘Do the Funky Chicken,’ Isaac Hayes’ ‘Theme from Shaft,’ and a host of memorable tunes from the Staple Singers. The trade-off: Key members of the original Stax family were supplanted by studio musicians from around the country, and recordings were made in other locales where string parts and overdubs, inspired by early-’70s funk, could more easily be incorporated into the mix.

‘After May 1968 everything changed at Stax, including its sound,’ Bowman writes in his liner notes. ‘In December 1967 Otis Redding and two-thirds of the original Bar-Kays perished in a tragic plane crash. In April 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated . . . forever changing race relations throughout the country, in Memphis, and at Stax.’

Concord Music Group, which recently purchased the Stax catalog, will celebrate the label’s 50th anniversary this year by releasing remastered recordings from both periods as well as unheard gems from the vault, and producing related events around the country. Later this year, Concord plans to record brand-new R&B material that will be released on its Stax imprint (Isaac Hayes and Angie Stone are already lined up to record).

Deanie Parker is now president of the Soulsville Foundation, which raises funds for the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, built on the site of Stax’s original studio, and the Stax Music Academy, which uses music to mentor at-risk inner-city youth. She hopes Concord’s promotional effort and the involvement of musicians such as Hayes and William Bell will attract more tourists to Soulsville, make city residents proud, and give the musicians who lived through those dark days in 1968 a sense of closure.

‘The people who produced this indelible soul music did not have an opportunity to exit gracefully,’ she says. ‘Their lives were interrupted for reasons they didn’t understand and over which they had no control. Until now, the city had never had a chance to say ‘Thank you, we appreciate what you did and we’re grateful for what you stood for.’ ‘

UTNE
UTNE
In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.