CUTTING HEADS AND HAIR
Jim Stewart sat in his barber's chair. Jim's hair was short, his face boyish and scrubbed clean. He wore thick-rimmed glasses and a necktie, his jacket on the barber's coat hook. It was 1957 and Jim was twenty-seven years old, working in a bank and taking business classes at night on the GI Bill, with an eye toward becoming a lawyer. He played fiddle in a country swing band on weekends.
Within ten years, this man would be responsible for some of the most soulful, swinging, and hip music ever made. Black people — of which he presently knew approximately none — would be his closest associates. The Beatles, to be unleashed in just a few years, would reach the height of their popularity, and in the thick of Beatlemania, the Beatles would phone Jim Stewart and ask if they could record at his studio. In ten years,
Jim would have a hep goatee and his hair would be much longer than it was before he sat down for this trim. But in this barber's chair, 1957, there was no indication any of that would, or could, happen.
Jim had always inclined toward music. In his rural west Tennessee home, not only did he play country fiddle, but also his sisters, father, and uncle were a gospel quartet. The church music was staid but powerful — big broad notes that moved up and down like ballast on heavy machinery; it wasn't rafter-shaking, but with enough voices this style of "shape note" singing could, like Samson, tear this building down.
Where Jim had been raised, about seventy miles east of Memphis in rural Middleton, Tennessee, his sister Estelle, twelve years his senior, had been his schoolteacher in the one-room school house. She soon moved to Memphis, the middle sister followed, and then Jim arrived after finishing high school in 1948. He worked a couple years as a stock clerk, finished his military ser vice in February 1953 (his fiddle got him into Special Services), and went to college. With his degree in business, he took a job in the bond department at Memphis's First National Bank. He'd finish the desk job, attend law school at night, and still find time to play fiddle in the Canyon Cowboys — "My love in music was Bob Wills, Leon McAuliffe, Spade Cooley — Texas western swing," Jim says. "If I could only fiddle like Johnny Gimble ... "
Snip snip. Snip. Back in the 1957 barbershop, Mr. Marshall E. Ellis worked the scissors. Jim had become particularly interested in Ellis's recent experience with a record label. A fiddle player himself, Ellis had invested in a portable tape recorder, and he'd made records for a few bands around town. His deal was pretty simple: It would cost the artist nothing, and if the record became successful, they'd get better gigs that attracted more people. If the distributors paid Erwin Records — Erwin was the barber's middle name — then he'd pay the artist. The trick, Jim's barber explained, was to make sure that the song was an original and that the artist signed over the publishing. Because — and surely the snipping stopped here — the money in the music business was in owning the publishing rights. For every record sold, a penny or two always went to the publisher. The publishing company filed some brief paperwork, and then if anyone else ever covered the song, the publisher got a check in the mailbox. And out of the dozen or so records that Ellis had been involved in, one had led to good money when country music star Hank Locklin released his own version. Ka-ching — the publisher had to be paid. The artist might get screwed by the label, the label might get screwed by the distributor, the musicians may never see a dime, but the publisher who registered his song in Washington, DC, was paid. Ellis hadn't made hit records, but they'd sold farther than he could throw them, and twice a year he opened his front door and money walked in.
Jim fancied this scenario. "I recognized my limitations," says Jim. "I knew that I could not make it as a musician, so producing was the next best thing. It was an outlet for me to express myself musically. I knew nothing about copyright, publishing, BMI — absolutely no knowledge how to get a record pressed, how to get a label started."
A little more than a year before this haircut, in November 1955, a former mortuary employee and radio technician across town named Sam Phillips had made a fortune selling the contract of his star player, Elvis Presley, to RCA Records. Now Phillips had a bundle of money and a stableful of other artists who were selling nationally. Ellis pointed out that if you looked on the re ords themselves, you'd see that Phillips also controlled the publishing rights for the original songs, so you could be sure that he was making more money than you knew about.
A barber. A mortuary technician. In South Memphis, an appliance salesman and some guys associated with Phillips's Sun Records had broken away and formed Hi Records in an old movie theater. How hard could it be?
Stewart, trained in pen to paper, estimated the costs involved in cutting a record would be more than he could handle himself, so he pooled $1,000 by partnering with a country singer, bassist, and disc jockey named Fred Byler; with a rhythm guitarist named Neil Herbert; and with a blind female songwriting piano player named Nadine Eastin, for whom Jim named the publishing company, East. They called the record label Satellite, since Russia's October 1957 Sputnik launch was the hottest topic in years. Jim composed the song "Blue Roses" (it would be his only recorded composition), Fred sang it, and they hired Jim's barber to bring his recording deck to Jim's wife's uncle's garage, where they'd hung a few drapes so they could call it a recording studio. The recording deck was monaural, meaning the singer and all the instruments had to be recorded at once onto one track, and if anyone messed up, everyone would have to redo the whole thing. Technically, the project was a success, in that a song was recorded. The slow, controlled rhythm indicates promise from Jim as a producer. But the melody and production are so sappy that by song's end your teeth hurt. Jim remembers the record being so bad that he couldn't get a single station to play it.
From Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion by Robert Gordon. Copyright 2013 by Robert Gordon. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury.