50 Years of Stax Concert Set for July 18 at Hollywood Bowl

The “50 Years of Stax” concert – set for this Wednesday, July 18, at the Hollywood Bowl – should be the most soulful local summer soiree since the storied record label promoted the semi-legendary “Wattstax” festival that reportedly drew 100,000 people to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum back in 1972. That event – a sort of black Woodstock with all the performers drawn from a single record label – was immortalized on film, and eventually issued on DVD (and reviewed in L.A. CityBeat on September 9, 2004).


For openers, we’ve got a band led by organist Booker T., who fronted the hit-making MG’s (“Green Onions,” et al.), the outfit that provided backing tracks for most of the Stax acts – represented this evening by singer-songwriters Eddie Floyd (“Knock on Wood” and “Raise Your Hand”) and William Bell (“You Don’t Miss Your Water” and the Judy Clay duet “Private Number”) as well as cult heroine Dr. Mabel John (“Your Good Thing Is About to End”) – 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 that’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 “Chef” on South Park.

As for the evening’s “special guests,” we’ll get veteran soul chanteuses Angie Stone and Lalah Hathaway (daughter of deceased soul star Donny Hathaway), both newly signed – along with Soulive and Leon Ware – 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 Austin’s South by Southwest music festival and an even bigger blowout that took place in Stax’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) that’s scheduled to air as part of the network’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 label’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 Redding’s “Respect” and “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay,” Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man” and “Hold On! I’m a Comin’,” Rufus Thomas’s “Walking the Dog,” daughter Carla Thomas’s “B-A-B-Y,” Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” and Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign,” for starters.

Along with the more polished efforts of Detroit’s black-owned Motown conglomerate – and the one-man operation that was James Brown – 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 comin’ on …

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 neighborhood’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 “Last Night,” 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 – derived from the first two letters in the principals’ surnames – and hits from Rufus and Carla Thomas, William Bell, Booker T. & the MG’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 “Southern soul” style was born. A 1967 European tour by the “Stax-Volt Revue” (Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd, Carla Thomas, Arthur Conley, Booker T. & the MG’s, and the Mar-Keys) turned this into an international phenomenon. And Otis Redding’s Mar-Keys/MG’s-backed performance at the ’67 Monterey Pop Festival brought this sock-it-to-ya sound to the nascent “underground” audience.

Unfortunately, Redding would be killed in a ’67 plane crash, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King would be assassinated in Memphis a year later, and then – when it came time to renew the Atlantic distribution deal – Stax discovered it
didn’t own the master recordings rights to its substantial string of hits.

With black promotion executive Al Bell taking Axton’s stake in the company, Stax soldiered on with smashes from Johnnie Taylor (“Who’s Making Love”), the Dramatics (“What You See Is What You Get”), Rufus Thomas (“Do the Funky Chicken”), the Staple Singers (“I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself”), Luther Ingram (“If Loving You Is Wrong”), and Isaac Hayes’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 (“Starting All Over Again”), Jean Knight (“Mr. Big Stuff”), and Frederick Knight (“I’ve Been Lonely Too Long”), Stax expanded into films: the Booker T. & the MG’s soundtrack for Up Tight! (a woefully underrated ’68 black remake of The Informer, helmed by Jules Dassin) and the aforementioned Wattstax concert film – greatly enlivened by candid interviews with various Watts residents and face-breaking comic monologues from Richard Pryor, who recorded That Nigger’s Crazy for Stax’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-hop’s extensive use of Stax samples, such as the transmogrification of Linda Lyndell’s “What a Man” into Salt-N-Pepa with En Vogue’s “Whatta Man” (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 songs’ worth of aural highlights.


While it’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 smokin’. Pass the fried chicken and potato salad.

“50 Years of Stax,” Wed. at Hollywood Bowl at 8 p.m. Info, tickets: (323) 850-2000 or http://www.Hollywoodbowl.com.
 
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