Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The History of Stax Records



“Let’s Go to Memphis in the Meantime, Baby”  John Hiatt

   In my newsletter of January 25, I wrote about the experiences Johnny Never and I had in Memphis Tennessee, when we went to compete in the International Blues Challenge. As many of you know, it was a rough trip, with some unexpected happenings that gave a new meaning to the word, “challenge.” But there were some wonderful highlights for me during that trip as well. One of them I mentioned in that newsletter was my trip to the Stax Records Museum on McLemore Avenue. I called it a “pilgrimage,” and indeed it was. Visiting that museum was something I had wanted to do for a while. And it really was a spiritual experience.

   I was and am a giant Stax records fan.  The music of Booker T and The MG’s, Otis Redding, Issac Hayes, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, The Staple Singers, Sam and Dave…these were some of my favorite soul acts during my teens and early 20’s. The unabashed and unapologetic roughness and deep soul in the voices and the instrumental arrangements moved me deeply and brought me great joy. Motown was big then, of course, and garnered a lot of the media notice and attention, but Stax was gradually getting bigger and bigger, and for a while it was a worldwide phenomenon. And it was a big part of my personal soundtrack, along with acoustic and electric blues.

    As the label grew, Stax musicians traveled the country more and more during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. I had the chance to see Sam and Dave and The Staple Singers both live in Philly, and being in the museum helped me relive those memories. There was the organ Booker T used on Green Onions, Al Jackson’s drums, and Duck Dunn’s bass. The museum also featured interviews with musicians, writers and producers talking about how certain songs were written and recorded. It also featured videos of some of the recording sessions. There is an incredibly sad and moving interview with Steve Cropper about having to put together the song Dock of the Bay in the wake of Otis Redding’s tragic death in a plane crash. I cried as I watched that video.

    I mention that now because there is a new music documentary series on Max-HBO network about the history and legacy of Stax Records. Stax: Soulsville U.S.A, tells the history of the label and looks at the incredible roster of writers, musicians, performers, and more that helped what had been a small local label gain worldwide recognition. There are a generous amount of interviews with a lot of the people who were involved with and integral parts of the label and its amazing product. The filmmaker, Jamila Wignot, also looks and the social conditions into which Stax was born and grew, and looks at some effects Stax records and its music had on those conditions. The film also takes a look at the workings of the music industry itself, and the effect that corporate policies can have on a label. It was mostly that and not a decline in the quality of the music that led it to shut its doors in 1975.

   The depth and breadth of this docu-series makes it another addition to my list of great music documentaries. I hope you get to see and enjoy Stax; Soulsville U.S.A. It is a tribute to some of the greatest music and music makers that I have been fortunate  enough to listen to and be inspired by. I am glad to see their story so wonderfully and lovingly told.

(PS- Here is a review of Stax: Soulsville U.S.A.

The Stax Museum: 
 (PPS-There was some dispute amongst some African-Americans and some musicians as to which was the “real” soul music in the 60’s and 70’s-Memphis’ Stax or Detroit’s (later LA’s) Motown. I liked Motown-The Supremes, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson, and especially The Four Tops, but I was a young radical, and I felt I had to criticize Motown’s use of strings and super-polite TV appearances. I have mellowed some, (smile) so I also want to recommend the another great music documentary-Standing in the Shadows of Motown, by Paul Justman and Allan Slutsky Standing In The Shadows of Motown)

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