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The Soulful, Swinging Sounds Of Stax: A Look Back

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The Soulful, Swinging Sounds Of Stax: A Look Back

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The Soulful, Swinging Sounds Of Stax: A Look Back

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That's Sam and Dave performing "Hold On, I'm Coming," one of the hundreds of hit songs from the Stax label in the '60s and '70s.


SAM AND DAVE: (Singing) Don't you ever be sad, lean on me, when times are bad. When the day comes, and you know you're down, in a river of trouble and 'bout to drown. Just hold on...

GONYEA: The Staples Singers, Booker T and the MGs, Isaac Hayes and more - but the Stax tale isn't just one of another record company that became an international sensation. It's a story of tragedy - business and personal. But most importantly, it's a tale that features racial harmony in a city with a troubled racial history. In the late '50s and early '60s, Memphis, Tennessee was a city divided.

ROBERT GORDON: It was a city that you might say had hate pulsing through its veins.

GONYEA: That's author Robert Gordon. He lives in Memphis. His new book is "Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion." But Stax didn't start as an explosion of soul. The owners of Stax Records, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, set out to do something very different.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) I sent you roses for the bride's bouquet...

GORDON: They were two white siblings. Jim was a white country fiddle player. You just wouldn't believe how far black music was from their minds at the time.

GONYEA: It got a lot closer when they moved their operation to an old movie theater in a neighborhood in south Memphis that was becoming more racially mixed, and the talent began to come to them.

GORDON: Rufus Thomas was a black entertainer in Memphis who gave Sun Records its first hit, and then walks in the door...

GONYEA: With his 16-year-old daughter.

GORDON: Yes, yes.

GONYEA: Carla. And they record a song.


CARLA AND RUFUS THOMAS: (Singing) Well, you lied about me, lied about Louie too. Oh no, oh no, yeah. You lied about me, you lied about Louie too. Oh no, oh no...

GONYEA: OK. Things are starting to click here clearly. What does that recording say about where Stax was going?

GORDON: Stax is picking up the sound of the street and embracing it. And even though these are white people and black people making the record, there's none of the strife that's outside the door.

GONYEA: In the book, you describe what could be seen as a very mundane moment. Stax's owner, Jim Stewart, seated at a small desk in a small office. And across from him at the same desk is a man named Al Bell. I'd like you to read just a little bit for us.

GORDON: (Reading) Jim was white. Al was black. Jim owns Stax Records. Al was joining the staff to promote the records - get them played, get them sold. It was 1965 in Memphis, Tennessee, the heart of the American South. Throughout this wide region, race mixing was nothing short of an assault on the social realm. Inside Stax Records, whites and blacks had worked side by side for half a decade. People who couldn't publicly dine together were making beautiful music that the public - black and white - loved to hear.

GONYEA: There was a core group that became kind of a house band.

GORDON: Booker T and the MGs.

GONYEA: And in 1962, did something that house bands don't usually do - they had a big hit of their own. And that song was called "Green Onions."


GONYEA: Tell me what you're hearing.

GORDON: I hear - in a way, I hear the future foretold. I hear that sense of menace that underlies the city.


GORDON: That's Booker's organ there, and you can hear him kind of furtively looking around the corner - is everything OK? It's a great groove here, but there's a wariness. There's a cultural comment going on.


GORDON: Now, Steve Cropper has joined on the guitar. You can hear, I think, in those stinging guitar licks, the tanks that are going to roll down the streets of Memphis in 1968 when Dr. King was assassinated. It's snarling.


GONYEA: I hate to see it fade out.

GORDON: Yeah, me too.


GONYEA: There's another story that really sounds like it has to be made up, about the driver who brought a hotshot guitarist from Macon, Georgia to Stax for a session.

GORDON: Yeah. The driver kept bugging the musicians in the studio to give him a chance. And someone had promised him, OK, buddy, you know, chill out for a second. You'll get your chance. When nothing happened with the big talent, people had already started packing up their cars when they remembered, oh yeah, we got to let this guy try.

GONYEA: And here's what he sang that day.


OTIS REDDING: (Singing) These arms of mine, they are lonely, lonely and feeling blue. These arms of mine...

GORDON: I'm getting chills, Don.

GONYEA: Tell us who it is.

GORDON: Otis Redding, man. That is Otis Redding - walked in the door and became the biggest artist that Stax had.


REDDING: (Singing) I can't turn you loose. If I do, I'm gonna lose my mind, honey...

GORDON: I think you can get the sense from Otis Redding's records what it was like to be around him. And you get the sense that his personality was in constant conflict with his skin trying to bust out even bigger, you know.


REDDING: (Singing) ...I love you baby, yes, I do. Ooh, baby, hip-shaking mama, I know...

GORDON: But I think about the horn players who had been accustomed to playing whole notes for a full measure at a time...


REDDING: (Singing) You gotta promise, baby. Yeah, never gonna turn you loose...

GORDON: ...and Otis is leaning into their faces: no, no, no. Do it like this. (humming) When you're with Otis Redding, it's all about trying to keep up with Otis Redding.

GONYEA: This is where this Stax story also becomes one of tragedy though. Otis Redding and most of the members of his band - again, that was basically a bunch of wildly talented kids from Memphis - they were in a plane crash.

GORDON: Right. Those kids, one of them was a shoeshine guy in the barber shop out front of the building. And his friends, they all just hung around the MGs and got trained. You know, they were the children that Stax had - the Bar-Kays. And Otis has just won the nation's hearts by performing at the Monterey Pop Festival. It seems like nothing can go wrong and Otis's death is the beginning of very wrong and painful moment in the Stax story.

GONYEA: And just before he died, he recorded what would be his biggest song.


REDDING: (Singing) Sitting in the morning sun, I'll be sitting when the evening comes. Watching the ships roll in, then I'll watch them roll away again. Yeah. Sitting on the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away, ooh, I'm just...

GONYEA: Then comes April of 1968 in Memphis. The sanitation workers are on strike. That brought Martin Luther King, Jr. to town to speak and to show support, and that was when he was murdered at the Lorraine Motel. It hit people at Stax especially hard.

GORDON: Yes, because the Lorraine, they had a swimming pool and they had a restaurant that would serve an integrated table, and all the Stax visiting artists would stay at the Lorraine. That was their hangout. So, this horrible event at their second home not far from their own building, it was devastating, just absolutely devastating. Isaac Hayes told me he couldn't write for a year.


GONYEA: I want to talk about a song recorded by the Staple Singers that spoke to the issue of black empowerment.


STAPLE SINGERS: (Singing) If you just think anybody that you run into...

GONYEA: You consider it one of the most important songs the label ever produced - "Respect Yourself."

GORDON: It's a great, catchy pop song with a really deep message - Mavis Staples singing lead and Pops' guitar sound. It sounds like an organ.


SINGERS: (Singing) Then you're dumb enough to think that'll make you a big ol' man, yeah. Respect yourself, yeah, respect yourself, if you don't respect yourself, ain't nobody gonna give a good cahoot. Respect yourself...

GONYEA: We have to talk about business, and I guess that was part of the problem for Stax. For all of its cultural impact, it was still a small entity in a world dominated by these big corporate behemoths. All the legal battles and contract fights and all of the non-music stuff got to be too much. What happened there?

GORDON: Some people at Stax put it real simply and said Stax took its eye off the ball. The payroll at the company became bloated with no one sort of keeping an eye on the recording studio; the hits didn't flow as they should have and the basic story of, you know, expenditures were bigger than income.

GONYEA: I want to end with what was one of Stax Records' last really, really huge moments, provided by a guy who started out as a keyboard player in the house band and became perhaps the label's biggest star, Isaac Hayes - the song "Shaft."

GORDON: Isaac Hayes has become a star recording artist and gets the opportunity to go out West and score a film. The studio isn't really interested in this film. They give him hardly any time on the soundstage. The song with the wa-wa guitar captures the new era. Again, we're in 1972 - black power, hippies, everything is changing, and I think all that's captured in the sound of "Shaft."

GONYEA: It's a hit, he wins a Grammy, he wins an Oscar. He's the first African-American to win an Oscar for Best Song and he brings his grandmother as his date to the Academy Awards.

GORDON: Isn't that great? I mean, what a heart - Isaac Hayes.


ISAAC HAYES: (Singing) Who is the man that would risk his neck for brother man? Shaft. Can you dig it?

GONYEA: Robert Gordon is the author of "Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion."


HAYES: (Singing) Who's the cat that won't cop out...

GONYEA: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea.

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