LYNN NEARY, host:
There's been a lot of buzz about Stax Records lately. Soul and R&B fans have been celebrating the 50th anniversary of the legendary Memphis label. Founded by banker and sometime fiddler Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton, it was an integrated music house in a segregated city.
Stewart sent out to make country music but the location of the label in an old movie theater in Memphis began attracting black musicians. And eventually Stax became famous for its roster of soul and R&B stars. Stax Records folded in 1975 but now has been reborn. Robert Smith is a senior vice president of the Concord Music Group which has brought the label back to life.
Mr. ROBERT SMITH (Senior Vice President, Concord Music Group): I grew up with some of the Stax music - Otis Redding, Staple Singers, Booker T & the MGs. Stax always - it was a part of the fabric or part of the music.
NEARY: They really were a part of the sort of political life of the nation, or they reflected what was going on, I think, politically, in terms of race, in this country. It was the head of the curve in terms of integration and then, later on, sort of associated with the Black Power movement. Is that going to be part of the new Stax as well?
Mr. SMITH: I think it's hard to predict where history and culture take us. But I'm hopeful that Stax will be just as integral part of the fabric of music and politics. What Stax went through is so unique to it in the time. It was an odd thing to have this biracial soul music label in the middle of Memphis in '60s. And it became very much a part of the civil rights movement. But Memphis was odd. It was a place where blacks and whites really couldn't swim in the same swimming pool together. They would drain the pool after it was used by blacks. And so there was a place called Lorraine Motel, which is now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum and where Martin Luther King was assassinated, where Stax musicians used to go when the studio was too hot to be in. And they would swim and hang out and write songs. And some of the most amazing Stax music was written there.
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Mr. SMITH: Eddie Floyd and Steve Cropper, Booker T & the MGs and Otis Redding and most of the artists stayed there because it was too hot in the studio, and created really amazing music. And it was a haven that even they, at the time, weren't completely aware of how unique it was. It's such a forward-looking attitude that really was reflected in the music. And it's an unusual phenomenon. And I think that wouldn't happen again, but Stax will remain close to the heart of what that label was about.
NEARY: So now that the label is being revived, now that Stax is being revived, what do you wanted to be known for at the moment and as you look toward the future? What do you want the sound to be?
Mr. SMITH: It's harder to find the specific sound. It's more about carrying forward a tradition. The heritage of Stax music and soul music in America is really important. You can't recreate old sounds without sounding nostalgic, but you can carry forward the same approach. And what Stax will become and is becoming is home for contemporary R&B and soul artists, and quite varied already.
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NEARY: Earlier this year, the first release of the new Stax featured various artists in a tribute to Maurice White from Earth Wind and Fire. On the horizon are new releases from singers Angie Stone as well as Stax's (unintelligible) and soul icon Isaac Hayes. The New York-based group Soulive is the first newly signed group to release on Stax. Just this past week, their CD " No Place Like Soul" hit the record stores.
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SOULIVE: (Singing) There's a place that I did understand that you like to go. Go, yeah. Only requirement to enter is a little bit of soul. Soul, yeah.
NEARY: We spoke to drummer Alan Evans and guitarist Eric Krasno from Soulive. Eric admits they're a little odd to be part of a label with such a huge legacy.
Mr. ERIC KRASNO (Guitarist, Soulive): You know, we're just really fortunate and like proud to be proud of something that has such an amazing history and legacy to it, you know? And it was really - actually, I just saw the special that they did on PBS. And it was like so cool just to see all of the artists that came out of Stax and that they are really - mostly from Memphis, you know? It's just amazing and, you know, all the talent that came out of there, you know, from Otis Redding to Sam and Dave and just, you know, Rufus Thomas - all of these people that were just kind of legendary - Isaac Hayes. I mean, it's been great we got to go down and do the 50th anniversary concert, where we got to meet everybody and kind of play, you know, amongst all of those people. And it's been a really, really cool experience.
NEARY: Alan, did you grow up with an awareness of Stax? I mean, did you listen to the music that came out of Stax?
Mr. ALAN EVANS (Drummer, Soulive): I mean, I definitely listen to the music but - it's funny, we had this discussion last night about Motown and Stax. And my brother Neal is like, you know, I didn't really know what Stax was until a couple of years ago. I never really knew what the label meant to music and to our culture just until recently. And really, not until the other night, when I watched the same documentary that Eric watched, and it really just brought to light a lot of things that have affected me as a musician and as a person. But I just - I had no idea.
NEARY: Do you mind by asking you guys how old you are?
Mr. KRASNO: I'm 31. Eric.
Mr. EVANS: And I'm 33.
NEARY: So everything that happened at the old Stax really happened before you guys were born.
Mr. KRASNO: Pretty much.
Mr. EVANS: Pretty much. Yeah. I mean Stax folded, you know, in '75. I was born in 74. So, yeah.
Mr. KRASNO: Yeah.
NEARY: It's quite a legacy that you're carrying on here. Do you feel the weight of it? I mean…
Mr. EVANS: You know, it's funny, I didn't until we went down there and did this 50th anniversary concert and just met everybody and saw, like, all the emotion involved in it and getting to see them all perform and then us having to perform like in between, maybe, Staples and Isaac Hayes was a pretty serious moment. I've haven't felt nervous like that since I was probably about 15 or something.
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SOULIVE: (Singing) Take me down to the wide above so I can watch my mind free.
NEARY: How would you describe the Stax sound and do you - has it influenced what you do with your music today, Eric?
Mr. KRASNO: Well, I think that the - I mean, the Stax sound to me is like that soul feel-good music. You know what I mean? And they incorporated - there was little rock and roll. There's a little bit - it was a lot gospel. But it created it's own thing, you know? Like you know when it comes on now. I know when it comes out there's a sound to it.
NEARY: Well, you know, your Web site describes the music on this CD that you're chewing up a deep Memphis soul riff. I kind of like that phrase. And I wondered what that means.
Mr. EVANS: I mean, I guess the thing with us is that we have many influences, you know? We've always kind of soaked things up like a sponge, you know, and take things that we like and make them our own.
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NEARY: Looking ahead 50 years from now, how do you think people will look back on this new era, the sort of reincarnation of this label?
Mr. KRASNO: That's a good question. I think we'll kind of realize that over the next couple of years, you know? We'll see how - I mean, this is - it's just beginning. And it's definitely very different now because it was originally a group of musicians that just backed up all the different artists and everybody was in this little community. Now, it's obviously - it's based in a different place and it's all a bunch - you know, it's a different thing. But I think that, you know, the content and heart of that music will carry on the same, you know, in the same light as the original Stax, you know?
Mr. EVANS: Yeah. I mean, you know, the thing is to - I mean, if you probably just asked that question back to the original owners of Stax, it'd be really hard for them to answer because they went through so many changes.
Mr. KRASNO: Right
Mr. EVANS: I mean, they started off just with a couple of microphones and just want to record some people. I mean, they could never have, you know, imagine where that would take them. So, you know, it's - well, you kind to have to just take it, you know, day by day and album by album and we just have to focus on making music, to having a really good time.
NEARY: Because it feels good to be a part of that tradition, I would think.
Mr. EVANS: It's great.
Mr. KRASNO: Absolutely, yeah.
Mr. EVANS: It's beautiful.
NEARY: Alan Evans and Eric Krasno from Soulive. Their CD, "No Place Like Soul," is the first newly signed artist release on the revived Stax Record label. They joined us form out Chicago bureau.
Thanks so much for being with is.
Mr. KRASNO: Thank you.
Mr. EVANS: Thank you.
NEARY: You can hear cuts from Soulive's new CD and some classics from Isaac Hayes at our Web site, npr.org.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Liane Hansen returns next week. I'm Lynn Neary.