The 1960s and 70s were the creative periods of two iconic soul, blues and R&B labels – Stax and Motown. One label – Motown – became justifiably known as the “Sound of Young America.” Stax went by the appropriate title of “Soulsville USA.”
While Motown and its artists easily found their way into the hearts and consciousness of America, Stax the label and the artists had a tougher time. Part of that struggle stems from the fact that the label’s biggest star, Otis Redding, died at the moment that he was about to become a major crossover star. Another problem relates to the Stax’s distribution struggles that put the label’s fate in the hands of corporations that cared little about the vision of founders Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, executive Al Bell or the many talented artists who made great music for the label. That in turn resulted in the company’s executives entering into partnerships that ensnared Stax in a series of scandals resulting in bankruptcy and nearly 20 years of dormancy. The label mainly released reissues between 1982 and 2003, when Stax was revived as a music studio.
Robert Gordon outlines all of these factors in his new book on the history of the label, Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion. Gordon identifies one more factor that encapsulates the class and racial dynamic that existed in Memphis from the late 1950s to the mid 1970s, which was when Stax was most active. The city of Detroit embraced and continues to embrace Motown and the label’s legacy in a way that Gordon’s hometown of Memphis never embraced Stax.
In Respect Yourself, Gordon shows that Stax the record label and the business could not be divorced from its location. Nor could the label be disconnected from the civil and human rights movement taking place in Memphis and across the south. The city’s power structure erected a regime of cradle-to-grave segregation that dehumanized and marginalized the city’s black population. And Gordon intertwines Stax’s story with that of major civil and labor rights movements taking place in the Memphis. The late 1950s and 60s involved the struggle of the city’s sanitation workers to gain civil and human rights that culminated in the 1968 sanitation worker’s strike that brought the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis in late March and early April, when he would be assassinated. (Gordon makes one factual error in the book. He identifies Clayborn Temple as the site of King’s last speech. The speech actually took place at Mason Temple.)
While the sanitation workers openly challenged the city’s racist power struggle, Stax covertly undermined Memphis’ apartheid regime. Stewart and Axton were whites that hoped to make a mark in the music industry. Stewart tried to produce a series of white artists, but had little success. His success came when he produced the black artists who found their way to his studio, so he moved the studio to an abandoned movie theater located in a neighborhood with a changing racial demographic. His sister, Axton, financed those initial efforts.
A core of integrated musicians who evolved from the Royale Spaded to the Mar-Keys and eventually came to be known as the MG’s or Booker T. and the MG’s created the Stax sound. The white musicians such as Steve Cropper, Packy Axton and Donald “Duck” Dunn were drawn to the sound of black music they heard on the radio or in nightclubs in Memphis and West Memphis, Ark. They worked with and befriended black artists such as Booker T. Jones and Al Jackson, Jr. to form that fat, driving, brassy funk sound on classic hits such as “Gee Whiz,” “These Arms of Mine,” and “Soul Man,” just to name a few. All of this was done unbeknownst to a power elite so intent on maintaining white control and the myth that blacks had nothing to contribute that they had no idea of what was happening at Stax until The Beatles unsuccessfully tried to record at the studio in 1966.
Friendships formed at this creative colony that became an outpost of racial harmony and cooperation in a sea of racial hatred. The Stax Records described by Gordon in Respect Yourself is the musical version of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Like SNCC, the racial and economic realities of the late 1960s and 70s eventually overwhelmed Stax.
However, one reality that shines through is the great music made by this group of geniuses, and Gordon’s love of the music comes through in his description of recording dates. Respect Yourself is a book tailor made for the YouTube era. Readers will find themselves going there to hear the familiar favorites and forgotten gems described by this son of Memphis. That might slow the reading process down, but it will make the experience of reading Respect Yourself even more enjoyable. Recommended.
By Howard Dukes