The â€œ50 Years of Staxâ€ concert â€“ set for this Wednesday, July 18, at the Hollywood Bowl â€“ should be the most soulful local summer soiree since the storied record label promoted the semi-legendary â€œWattstaxâ€ festival that reportedly drew 100,000 people to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum back in 1972. That event â€“ a sort of black Woodstock with all the performers drawn from a single record label â€“ was immortalized on film, and eventually issued on DVD (and reviewed in L.A. CityBeat on September 9, 2004).…
For openers, weâ€™ve got a band led by organist Booker T., who fronted the hit-making MGâ€™s (â€œGreen Onions,â€ et al.), the outfit that provided backing tracks for most of the Stax acts â€“ represented this evening by singer-songwriters Eddie Floyd (â€œKnock on Woodâ€ and â€œRaise Your Handâ€) and William Bell (â€œYou Donâ€™t Miss Your Waterâ€ and the Judy Clay duet â€œPrivate Numberâ€) as well as cult heroine Dr. Mabel John (â€œYour Good Thing Is About to Endâ€) â€“ back in the day.
Aside from these face cards, the real ace-in-the-hole is headliner Isaac Hayes, who in partnership with David Porter wrote two fistfuls of Sam & Dave hits before embarking on a solo career thatâ€™s stretched from the groundbreaking Hot Buttered Soul LP, to the Academy Award-winning Shaft film soundtrack, to a variety of film and TV roles: Truck Turner, Escape From New York, the voice of the late, lamented â€œChefâ€ on South Park.
As for the eveningâ€™s â€œspecial guests,â€ weâ€™ll get veteran soul chanteuses Angie Stone and Lalah Hathaway (daughter of deceased soul star Donny Hathaway), both newly signed â€“ along with Soulive and Leon Ware â€“ to the recently revived Stax label.
This particular Bowl show is part of a year-long celebration, spurred by the 2005 acquisition of the Stax name and (partial) catalog by the Concord Music Group (now owned by TV impresario Norman Lear).
As such, it not only follows in the footsteps of a little fete held at Austinâ€™s South by Southwest music festival and an even bigger blowout that took place in Staxâ€™s home base of Memphis (the latter lensed for an imminent DVD release) earlier this year, but also precedes a two-hour PBS special (Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story) thatâ€™s scheduled to air as part of the networkâ€™s Great Performances series on August 1.
Produced and directed by music journalist/author Robert Gordon and documentarian Morgan Neville, Respect Yourself balances fresh interviews with the labelâ€™s stars and behind-the-scenes players with a wealth of vintage performance clips and home movies to tell the rather improbable tale of the racially integrated record label from a virtually segregated Southern city. As such, Stax was responsible for literally hundreds of chartbusting records: Otis Reddingâ€™s â€œRespectâ€ and â€œ(Sittinâ€™ on) the Dock of the Bay,â€ Sam & Daveâ€™s â€œSoul Manâ€ and â€œHold On! Iâ€™m a Cominâ€™,â€ Rufus Thomasâ€™s â€œWalking the Dog,â€ daughter Carla Thomasâ€™s â€œB-A-B-Y,â€ Wilson Pickettâ€™s â€œIn the Midnight Hour,â€ and Albert Kingâ€™s â€œBorn Under a Bad Sign,â€ for starters.
Along with the more polished efforts of Detroitâ€™s black-owned Motown conglomerate â€“ and the one-man operation that was James Brown â€“ it was Memphis-based Stax and its subsidiary/distributed labels (Volt, Enterprise, Koko, Ardent, etc.) that provided the soundtrack to the African-American experience for the better part of a decade. Tickle the ivories, Professor Longhair, I feel a historical digression cominâ€™ on â€¦
Yes, Virginia, Stax started in 1957 when banker-by-day/country-fiddler-by-night Jim Stewart decided to form a record label called Satellite Records. Nothing much happened until he enlisted his ex-schoolteacher sister, Estelle Axton, and they set up shop in a converted movie theater located at 926 E. McLemore in South Memphis.
The neighborhoodâ€™s racial demographics were changing, and the combination of a recording studio and retail record store attracted a mixture of local black talent and R&B-besotted white boys, the latter of whom brought the label its first real hit (the 1961 instrumental â€œLast Night,â€ credited to the Mar-Keys) and cemented a distribution deal with New York-based Atlantic Records. (The previous existence of a Satellite Records prompted a name change to Stax â€“ derived from the first two letters in the principalsâ€™ surnames â€“ and hits from Rufus and Carla Thomas, William Bell, Booker T. & the MGâ€™s, and Otis Redding soon followed.)
When Atlantic-signed artists Wilson Pickett and Sam & Dave began rocketing up the pop charts with tracks waxed at Stax, an entire â€œSouthern soulâ€ style was born. A 1967 European tour by the â€œStax-Volt Revueâ€ (Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd, Carla Thomas, Arthur Conley, Booker T. & the MGâ€™s, and the Mar-Keys) turned this into an international phenomenon. And Otis Reddingâ€™s Mar-Keys/MGâ€™s-backed performance at the â€™67 Monterey Pop Festival brought this sock-it-to-ya sound to the nascent â€œundergroundâ€ audience.
Unfortunately, Redding would be killed in a â€™67 plane crash, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King would be assassinated in Memphis a year later, and then â€“ when it came time to renew the Atlantic distribution deal â€“ Stax discovered it
didnâ€™t own the master recordings rights to its substantial string of hits.
With black promotion executive Al Bell taking Axtonâ€™s stake in the company, Stax soldiered on with smashes from Johnnie Taylor (â€œWhoâ€™s Making Loveâ€), the Dramatics (â€œWhat You See Is What You Getâ€), Rufus Thomas (â€œDo the Funky Chickenâ€), the Staple Singers (â€œIâ€™ll Take You Thereâ€ and â€œRespect Yourselfâ€), Luther Ingram (â€œIf Loving You Is Wrongâ€), and Isaac Hayesâ€™s abovementioned album-length monsters.
Note: All Atlantic-era Stax discs feature the famous blue, stack of wax logo; all subsequent Stax records sport the equally legendary, yellow, finger-snapping logo.
Beyond picking up hits from Mel & Tim (â€œStarting All Over Againâ€), Jean Knight (â€œMr. Big Stuffâ€), and Frederick Knight (â€œIâ€™ve Been Lonely Too Longâ€), Stax expanded into films: the Booker T. & the MGâ€™s soundtrack for Up Tight! (a woefully underrated â€™68 black remake of The Informer, helmed by Jules Dassin) and the aforementioned Wattstax concert film â€“ greatly enlivened by candid interviews with various Watts residents and face-breaking comic monologues from Richard Pryor, who recorded That Niggerâ€™s Crazy for Staxâ€™s spoken-word subsidiary label, Partee (labelmates included Moms Mabley and Jesse Jackson).
However, an unholy trinity of questionable investments, problems with its distributor and banker, and FBI and IRS investigations forced Stax into bankruptcy in 1975. Two years later, Fantasy Records snatched up the Stax post-Atlantic catalog for $1.3 million and proceeded to make a wide buttload of cashish reissuing much of this material on CD and collecting monies derived from hip-hopâ€™s extensive use of Stax samples, such as the transmogrification of Linda Lyndellâ€™s â€œWhat a Manâ€ into Salt-N-Pepa with En Vogueâ€™s â€œWhatta Manâ€ (1994).
Meanwhile, the old Memphis neighborhood deteriorated and the Stax headquarters was razed, before the Stax Museum of American Soul Music (and an adjacent music academy) rose phoenix-like from its ashes in 2003. Another recent Concord Music Group reissue, the two-CD Stax 50th Anniversary Celebration, distills this history lesson into 50 songsâ€™ worth of aural highlights.
While itâ€™s not likely that an outdoor event at the, ahem, rather more upscale Bowl will approach the olfactory sensation of this sort of wake-up-and-smell-the-Naugahyde scene, it should still be smokinâ€™. Pass the fried chicken and potato salad.
â€œ50 Years of Stax,â€ Wed. at Hollywood Bowl at 8 p.m. Info, tickets: (323) 850-2000 or http://www.Hollywoodbowl.com.