How Stax Records Set an Example for America
Nelson “Little D” Ross talks soul and significance with music historian Robert Gordon
I’ve got soul, you’ve got soul
All the people in the world got soul
Soul is not something for just one race
It makes no difference what color your face
— Gene “Bowlegs” Miller, “Everybody Got Soul,” 1969
Memphis’ Stax Records in the 1960s and 1970s created some of the most funky, the most danceable and the most transcendent music of the 20th century. The list of hits and the roll call of artists who recorded at Stax rival the output of any musical entity in American history, including Berry Gordy's Motown dynasty. As the great Memphis soul artist Rufus Thomas put it, "Motown had the sweet. But Stax had the funk." North be sweet. South be funky.
Countless Stax hits became standards, not only within the soul music repertoire but also across the entire canon of American popular music.
At its heart, Stax’s music was church-based. It was Southern through and through. That’s what made it culturally distinctive. What made it socially significant, though, was its back story: the fact that both the music and the business of Stax were created by an integrated team in the late 1950s, working-class white and black people working together in quiet opposition to Jim Crow, right in the middle of the strictly segregated city of Memphis, the same city whose fathers chose to close public swimming pools rather than comply with the Civil Rights Act's directive to integrate them.
Writer and historian Robert Gordon, the author of “Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion,” was growing up in Memphis as Stax gained its first taste of national notoriety.
“I got interested in Stax because of the music — the way it made me move,” he says. “When I realized, as a kid, it was from my hometown, it intrigued me more. Then when I was 15, I began to read more into the music. Like reading someone’s palm, the songs told me about the culture all around me, the oppression, the freedom, the expression. I learned about myself as I Iearned the music.”
Nelson Ross: Stax began in 1957, as you describe it, when Jim Stewart realized that across town, Sun Studios founder Sam Phillips had made a fortune selling Elvis Presley’s recording contract to RCA.
Robert Gordon: And so it begins with Jim Stewart, a banker who was a white country fiddle player at night. He borrowed some money from his sister, Estelle Axton, and they bought some recording equipment and threw open the doors for people to come in and record. Jim Stewart didn't have to let black people in the door, but he did. And he didn't have to keep letting them in the door. And certainly society wasn't encouraging him to do that. And so I felt like I needed to remind the reader, as often as I could, that this world was changed by normal people, by everyday people, by the common man.
Ross: So Jim Stewart sets up a studio in a garage, raises some money to buy better equipment and moves the studio to 926 E. McLemore Ave., which is, I guess, where things really got started.
Ross: Estelle Axton has the Satellite Record Shop in the front, which is a way to raise money for Stax, but it’s also a way for her to keep in touch with the latest sounds. Meanwhile, in the back, you’ve got the recording studio. Talk about that, just about the atmosphere at the beginning when they were just getting going.
Gordon: Stax is just a reflection of Jim and Estelle. Jim is the type … he's quiet, serious, and he's working (at a bank) and has studio stuff at nights and on the weekend. He’s got a day job and a family. Estelle is the face of the organization, and she hangs a speaker out in front of the record shop basically saying, “Come one, come all.” So the kids in the neighborhood are flocking there because she had black music in her shop. William Bell was just a kid in the neighborhood when he got asked to sing backup on “Gee Whiz” (one of Stax’s earliest hits, by Carla Thomas). And you know, word spread. If you hung out there, you might get discovered.
By 1965, Stax was doing well and had scored a few top 40 hits. Rufus Thomas’ “Walking the Dog.” William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water (Till Your Well Runs Dry).” Booker T. & the MGs’ “Green Onions.” The little Memphis label had grown strong enough to earn a deal with Atlantic Records to distribute its records.
In those early days, one of Stax’s best friends was the African-American Memphis DJ Al Bell (née Alvertis Isbell). Bell spun records at WLOK and was a fixture in Estelle’s Satellite Record Shop. Stewart had met Bell in 1959 when he was promoting the first single that Stax recorded for a black group, the Veltones. Late in 1963, Bell took a big-market job in Washington, but in 1965, Jim Stewart asked Bell to return to Memphis and join Stax as its promotion director.
Ross: Can you talk about a little bit about Al Bell, beginning with when Jim Stewart first brought him in?
Gordon: Well, when Jim has his (first African-American group) Veltones early on, he's got to go to the black radio stations to promote it. Al Bell was a black disc jockey, and he remembers meeting Jim there. Al makes a name for himself on WLOK and gets a job in an even bigger market in Washington. A couple or three years pass, and Stax is having hits. They are aware that their hits could be bigger if they had a promoter on staff, because they were relying on Atlantic but they realized that Atlantic promoted its own records first. Al is the one they think of, and they have to draw him back to town.
Ross: You write that Jim Stewart actually offered Al Bell equity in the company, a pretty bold act at the time.
Gordon: He was drawn by equity in the company and also by a return to his home and knowing that this was an enterprise he could help build.
Ross: I was particularly touched by the scene in your book of these two executives in Memphis in the 1960s, one black and one white, sharing an office.
Gordon: Yeah, Jim is on one side and Al is on the other, and they would share a desk. Not only were they going to share a desk, but they were going to share a telephone. But what doesn't happen is what Al feared — which would be that Jim would pick up the phone to make his call, pull his handkerchief out of his pocket and give the earpiece and the receiver a wipe-down to, you know, wipe off the black. And with that assurance and that sense of equality, Al Bell was off and running.
Every story that’s ever been written about Stax correctly points out the enormous significance of the label’s house band, Booker T. and the MG’s — two young white country boys, guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, and two young African-Americans, keyboardist Booker T. Jones and drummer Al Jackson. But the keen ears of the banker and founder Jim Stewart were another of Stax’s secret weapons.
Ross: What was Jim Stewart’s importance to the music itself?
Gordon: On the one hand, Jim was the luckiest guy in show biz. He created a studio, and it attracted great musicians. But also, Jim had the ear that determined when most of the records were finished. Duck Dunn thought the MG’s were “playing our asses off,” he told me, and he couldn’t understand why Jim was looking so glum in the control room. But they’d keep playing until Jim was in there dancing, and sure enough, those are the takes that we all know today. So Jim set the standards and had the ears.
Ross: Horns were integral to the Stax sound. Stax music is just horn-driven, from the way they make the dance music more insistent to the way they sweeten the ballads.
Gordon: The horns are, on the one hand, replacing background vocalists. Stax didn’t have ready access to a group of background singers, but they had horns. And the horns add so much energy. They’re essential to the Stax power. Think about (Sam & Dave’s) “Hold On, I’m A-Comin’” or “Soul Man” or (Otis Redding’s) “I Can’t Turn You Loose.” Without horns, no way. The horns don’t enter through our ears, they come in through our guts. They lift our bodies, they propel us to the dance floor. Gotta, gotta, gotta have the horns.
By 1965, Stax had developed what Gordon calls “a Midas touch.” Almost everything the label released climbed the R&B charts, and many of its hits were crossing over to the pop charts. Atlantic Records, which was already distributing Stax’s records nationwide, began to send its own artists to Memphis to record. From 1965 to 1968, Stax gave birth to a remarkable string of hits from Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd and many others. And during those years, the people of Stax were living in a world of their own making — one quite different from the world that existed outside their studio’s doors.
Ross: There was this dichotomy going on. When they were in the Stax studio, it was an integrated environment, but then when they took the music on the road, they were back in the segregated reality of the time.
Gordon: It was a revolution, nothing short of a revolution. That’s what makes this story so epic. They stuck to what they thought was right.
Ross: And they did have one place they could go for fun outside the studio, and that was the Lorraine Motel, which would soon become famous as the site of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
Gordon: You know, Stax had no air conditioning, and so the guys would have to cool off. The MG’s could make international hits together, but they couldn’t go to a burger stand to be served together. But at the Lorraine they could. At the Lorraine, they could swim in the pool together unbothered. They could be served coffee and a sandwich at the coffee shop of the Lorraine. And the Lorraine was where Stax housed its visiting artists, such as Wilson Pickett. They had a good relationship with the owners of the motel.
Ross: But then, on April 4, 1968, Dr. King was killed there.
Gordon: Like Booker said, “It couldn’t have happened any closer to us than to have happened at that motel.”
Ross: Everything changed after that, right?
Gordon: Yes. Three events happened between late December of 1967 and April 1968 brought the company to a screeching halt. On Dec. 6, Otis Redding goes on a three-day weekend gig and his plane goes down. Not only do they lose Otis, but they also lose the Bar-Kays. The Bar-Kays are kind of the heart of his band, and they represent the next generation. They're kids from the neighborhood who had come into Stax and were adopted by the MG’s. Then, a few weeks later, Atlantic is given an offer it can't refuse to sell itself to Warner Bros.
Ross: And you write in your book about how Jim Stewart, when Atlantic was bought, discovered that he had unintentionally signed away the rights to the master recordings of Stax’s biggest hits when he’d signed his distribution deal with Atlantic.
Gordon: Yes. That’s the second thing. For a company that had just lost its star, it just seems like unbearable news to learn. But it was there in black and white. Jim Stewart had signed away their catalogue. And then Martin Luther King gets assassinated at the Lorraine, which was their home away from home. So for all intents and purposes, the label is dead. The energy of the label is dead. Everyone here is crushed, but that’s when Al Bell had new ideas.
Ross: Like what?
Gordon: Bell said, “Well, what do we have? We have a studio. We have artists. Let’s create a new catalogue, let’s find someone to finance us and let’s rev the engine.”
After the near death of his label, Jim Stewart retreated into a background role and left the management of Stax to Al Bell. Bell believed he could stage a comeback for Stax by transforming its sound from one based almost exclusively on Southern roots to something more universal. Bell brought in outside producers to help craft this transformation, but once again Stax found its secret weapon in another Memphis homeboy. His name was Isaac Hayes, who, as it turned out, was already tuned into psychedelic vibes that were rolling in from San Francisco. (Even though some of our younger readers might remember Isaac Hayes only as the voice of Chef on "South Park.") And Hayes was ready to give the love children a new version of soul music, something more overtly sexual than anything Stax had created in its early days.
Ross: Isaac Hayes was a big part of that second period, right?
Gordon: Al Bell had seen the power of Isaac in the studio as a producer and an arranger, so he says to Isaac, “You can do anything you want.” And that’s what Isaac wanted. He didn’t want to record three-minute songs. He wanted to stretch out and do something different.
Ross: And that was the album “Hot Buttered Soul”?
Gordon: Yes. FM radio was opening up. People were getting into the late-night DJs who had the freedom to play an 18-minute song. All of a sudden Isaac Hayes catches this wind and soars to new heights.
Ross: That album had only four songs on it. One of them was an almost 19-minute cover of Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” and Isaac himself was writing things with titles like “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic.” And he became a symbol of black economic success.
Gordon: He was the modern image of the African-American male, bald, wearing these wild clothes and outfits, cutting these songs unlike anyone else.
Ultimately, the story of Stax Records is the story of the power of the individual to create social change. Jim Stewart, Estelle Axton and Al Bell created a positive, integrated working environment in an era where such arrangements were prevented by law. But even if that achievement is someday forgotten, the music will live on.
Ross: What are your favorite Stax songs?
Gordon: “Walking the Dog” always puts a smile of my face. All songs by Rufus Thomas put a smile on my face. Just thinking about Rufus makes me grin. I love the Staple Singers’ song “When Will We Be Paid (for the Work We’ve Done).” It gets right to the core of 1968. They were moving from gospel to secular music but insisting on having meaning to their songs. It evokes the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike and all that it accomplished, the struggle for equality and fairness. I love Otis’ “I Can’t Turn You Loose” because it’s so funky, so powerful, so loose yet firmly directed. The MG’s could play the phone book, and it would be poetic.
Ross: Why does this music matter so much to you?
Gordon: Music is the nectar of the gods. I love its invisibility, the way it travels on air, reaching everyone with ears. It’s democratic. I liked it as a kid because, well, first, it was cool. But it was cool because it made you move. It changed the molecules in the room. All sound does. Look at music in films; the score changes everything. So I like music because it makes the world a better place, like flowers do. But then, the great discovery for me was that there was more: Music was cultural. Music leads to a culture, and if you begin to investigate that culture, there are stories, there are people. There’s conflict and strife. Worlds exist inside a song, and I’ve been privileged to dig for those worlds, unpack them, dissect and understand them. A little like a scientist, but more like a preacher — sharing my excitement, sharing the feeling and the power.
Ross: And what was the power of Stax?
Gordon: Freedom of choice and the power of the individual. The greatest thing about Stax is that Jim and Estelle and Al were ordinary folks. They came from no great means. They had no more opportunity than anyone else. But they stood up for what they believed in, despite the fact that society thought that was a bad idea, that everyone around them thought they were wrong. Because of that, they brought much good into the world. They became epic heroes by ordinary events. And that’s something we can all do, if we have the guts.