Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion
An accounting of the monumental Memphis record label that exemplified soul music for black and white alike.
“The Stax story has been told in bits and pieces in countless musical histories over the years; Robert Gordon pulls all that together, fills in the gaps with his own research, and rolls out a cohesive narrative with the arc of great literature.” – David Kirby, Wall Street Journal.
The history of Stax is more than the familiar tale of an independent record label that went from rags to riches only to collapse under the weight of its unprecedented growth. It is also the unlikely tale of white siblings, he a banker, she a school-teacher, and their personal journey from the segregated society of Jim Crow Tennessee to the heart of something they created in an old cinema on 926 East McLemore in South Memphis: Soulsville, a place where blacks and whites could record together at a time that they could not publicly share a dining table together.
It’s a story that Robert Gordon unravels in Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion, and it reads all the better for the fact that Jim Stewart, who ran the Stax & Volt labels, and his sister Estelle Axton, who ran the Satellite record store from the former theater’s concession stand, lacked the nefarious character traits that desecrated many other seemingly great musical exteriors. One would like to believe that their general decency, both culturally and artistically, explains why Stax is so often depicted in the pages of Robert Gordon’s long-awaited book as an integrated family, especially during its initially prosperous phase, when it was home to Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Johnny Taylor, Booker T. and the MG’s, Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla Thomas, Albert King, the Mar-Keys, the Bar-Kays, Mable John, the Mad Lads, Eddie Floyd, Sir Mack Rice and more. Throughout this period, which ran from approximately 1962 and “Green Onions” to the end of 1967, Stax was the gritty southern yin to Motown’s polished northern yan, and by most modern accounts, the more authentically soulful label.
But then came a series of disasters that should have felled the company. First, Otis Redding, Stax’ star artist and most beloved personality, died in a plane crash, taking all but two members of his backing band, the Bar-Kays, with him. (Reading survivor Ben Cauley’s account of staying afloat in a freezing Lake Morona while his teenage buddies drowned around him is truly heart-breaking.) Then Atlantic Records, purportedly just Stax’ distributor, announced its contractual ownership of all the company’s master recordings, leaving the smaller independent without any musical assets. And while the label was still coming to terms with these losses – the posthumous success of Redding’s “Sittin’ On The Dock of the Bay” provided only financial compensation – Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the nearby Lorraine Motel. The cruel home-town blow to the label’s racial harmony was accentuated by the fact that the Lorraine was one of the only establishments that would entertain an integrated social group; it was where Steve Cropper, Issac Hayes, Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn, David Porter, Booker T. Jones, Stewart, Axton and others would regularly break for lunch and dinner. In the wake of King’s death, riots broke out across Memphis (and much of America), and the color of one’s skin became an issue inside Soulsville for what all involved claim to be the first time. Estelle Axton got out soon after.
But Stax fought back, with the former DJ and promotions man Al Bell stepping up to take the helm as the label’s musical visionary, community cheerleader, and staff pastor. A new-look Stax – that of the instantly identifiable snapping fingers – announced itself with Soul Explosion, the near-simultaneous release of some 28 albums in 1969, with Isaac Hayes stepping forward from the relative shadows of his successful songwriting career alongside David Porter to become the very public voice and face of his Hot Buttered Soul. Thanks in equal parts to Hayes’ popularity and Bell’s drive, Stax entered the 1970s as a vital force not just in American soul music, but a strong voice for black self-empowerment. In 1972, the label hosted the Wattstax Festival at the Los Angeles Coliseum, proof that a stadium of over 100,000 blacks from a riot-torn corner of a major city could party peacefully all day long. Featuring performances from Hayes, the Staple Singers, Kim Weston, the Soul Children, Rufus and Carla Thomas, and the Bar-Kays, Wattstax begat a double album and a movie; it was the Woodstock of its generation.
It was also the pinnacle of Stax’ second coming. The unraveling was not so much about black or white as multiple shades of grey. Guns replaced guitars at Soulsville, with the well-connected and equally well-protected Johnnie Baylor, hired after King’s assassination to protect Stax from the new street gangs of South Memphis, working his way up to a position as promotions executive, touring the country with a team of strong-arm men who ensured both that Stax’ records got played, and that Stax Records got paid. When, in November 1972, Baylor was found boarding a plane with $129,000 in cash, along with a check from the Stax Organization for a cool half a million dollars, it appeared to all (except Bell and Baylor, who protested otherwise) that the label was involved in both payola and protection. A distribution deal with Columbia proved disastrous, misunderstandings turning to mistrust and misdeeds, culminating in mutual lawsuits and the eventual return from Columbia of “several eighteen-wheelers” full of not just unsold, but unopened Stax stock. Meantime, the label’s man at its local bank, Union Planters, who had eagerly financed Stax’ rapid expansion, turned out to have left a trail of fraudulent paperwork, and as the Feds and IRS swooped into Memphis, it was the white-owned bank that cleaned up its act first – by bringing down the now black-run label.
Jim Stewart, tiring of the politics and the payola, had by now followed his sister and effectively sold out – only to return and bet his entire $6,000,000 payday on bringing the company he founded back into the black. He lost it all, his possessions eventually sold at auction. Al Bell was found innocent of charges that he engaged in $18,000,000 of fraud and slowly fought his way back into the music business to become President of Motown. Isaac Hayes had jumped ship before the collapse, but without the royalties from his platinum Stax albums, could not support his extravagant lifestyle, and declared bankruptcy. Estelle Axton, having turned her own payday into a profitable real estate business, returned to the music business with “Disco Duck” (of all things!) and promptly blew every last penny of profit; she ended her days as a cafeteria cashier. As the label was proclaimed insolvent, Stax’ masters and its publishing company copyrights were sold for a metaphorical song (nobody capable of predicting their enduring value), the company’s physical assets stripped to the bone, and Soulsville all too literally brought to the ground. The city of Memphis almost willfully erased all memory of its monumental contribution to soul music.
It’s not an easy story to tell, but fortunately, in Gordon’s skilled hands, Respect Yourself is a deft one to read. Gordon conducted the interviews for the 2007 documentary of the same name, and along with loaned interviews from other writers (several lead characters having passed away), those accounts largely inform his book. Gordon’s tone is frequently conversational, and liberally peppered with first-hand quotations, but it contains just enough colorful prose and political analysis to establish the proven writer behind it. He is unforgiving in his historical accounting of Memphis’ institutionalized racism, weaving in the accounts of the sanitation workers’ strike that led directly to MLK’s assassination, along with details of the desegregation of the city’s schools, the busing and white flight that followed, and how it all played into the culture of Stax. For a Memphis home boy, Gordon reveals deep shame for its history – but, of course, great pride in its music. It makes for a riveting account.
In the summer of 2012, my family took a road trip across America, stopping in at as many musical museums as we could manage. We spent two nights in Memphis, camping at and touring Graceland, and additionally visiting Sun Studios. Given my own musical tastes, however, the highlight was always going to be the Stax Museum of American Soul, housed at none other than 926 East McLemore, within an exact replica of Soulsville, down to the marquee outside and the sloping studio floor within. If it seems blasphemous to have torn down the original building (though no more so than the city of Liverpool ripping down the Cavern Club to build a car park), then the Memphis community leaders who came together to resurrect the physical Stax deserve all commendations for addressing that error.
Specifically, in rebuilding the Soulsville community, they got their priorities right. In the year 2000, they opened a Stax Academy, where the likes of Isaac Hayes, Wayne Jackson, Mavis Staples, and Rufus and Carla Thomas would stop by to provide neighborhood students with free after-school tutoring. Next came the Museum, and in 2005, the Academy begat the Soulsville Charter School where, writes Gordon, “the school days are long, and part of the reward for good work is getting to make music; suspension from music rehearsal is a punishment.” For the most part, I’m not a proponent of charter schools, but in a city that has endured so many years of under-funding for its children of color, there appears little doubt that Soulsville, the school, just like Soulsville, the original home of Stax, has been a force for good. As for the Stax Museum, it offers the finest display and the clearest depiction of black American music that I have yet experienced. Also, it’s fun – there aren’t too many museums that replicate the Soul Train dance floor. (Photographs from the tour follow at end of review.)
In essence, Respect Yourself presents Stax as a microcosm of the American experiment. Racism is ably countered by harmony; co-operation is ultimately swallowed by corruption; brotherhood gives way to its share of brutality, and the goodness that lies within the heart of Stax is challenged by the evil that waits outside. But always, there is the music. And right until the end – when Al Bell outbids various major labels for the rights to release the debut album by Lena Zavaroni, as sure a sign that the end is nigh as his eventual escort from the building by armed Fed bailiffs – that music is amongst the finest that the nation has ever had to offer.
Epic heroes make epic mistakes. Jim had never done the expected. He’d been told it was unwise to have blacks in the studio, that it was stupid to leave banking. Jim acted from the contradictory heart of humanity: People do things romantic and heroic and regrettable. There may be no sense to it, but the act itself is powerful, emotional and unforgettable. Jim’s bet turned out wrong, but what if he’d been right?