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Memphis, in the 1950s, 60s and 70s was segregated, and many think that it still is today." "Everything came down to race....Being treated like an equal human being...was really a phenomenon....The spirit that came from Jim and his sister Estelle Axton allowed all of us, black and white, to . . . come into the doors of Stax, where you had freedom, you had harmony, you had people working together." Al Bell recalled in an interview, reported in Robert Gordon's book.
Gordon is obviously enamored with his hometown, but does not shy from describing the discordant race relations and the dystopia of segregation that prevailed; his main subject is music; and what great music it was and still is.
The book gets its name from the title of a song by the Staple Singers,( Mavis on vocals and Pops on guitar), one of many great R & B artists in the talent stable of Stax Records.
The record company was started in 1957, by bank employee and part-time country fiddle player, James Stewart, and his older sister Estelle Axton. Initially they began their enterprise in Estelle's garage, equipped with a mono tape recorder, and named the company Satellite Records. Two years later, Estelle mortgaged her home so that they could rent the former Capitol Theater in a black (not yet called African-American then) neighborhood. They named the studio Stax (Stewart/Axton) and promoted an open-door attitude. This attracted walk-ins, many that would become future stars, such as 16 year old Carla Thomas and her father Rufus; they recorded some of the studio's original big hits.
A few early successes with black musicians and an alliance with DJ/singer Rufus Thomas led Stax to focus on black music, which grew into the sound we that now call soul. Stewart ran the studio; Axton managed the connected Satellite Records Shop, where she conducted market research to boost Stax's sales. She allowed customers to listen to music in the shop for hours "That's the first place I heard Ray Charles, the first place I heard John Coltrane," one of the neighborhood high school student remembered. "I listened to hundreds of records, for hours."
That student was Booker T. Jones, who was to lead Stax's house band and the author of their hit "Green Onions". Booker T. and the MGs (Steve Cropper and Donald"Duck"Dunn, the white classmates of Axton's son and Al Jackson, virtuoso black drummer) were the back-up band for many of the hits produced by Stax.
The book is a treasure trove of stories and anecdotes about many artists, how they were discovered (Otis Redding came in as chauffeur for guitarist Johnny Jenkins...who? and stayed on to dazzle the band with his rendition of "These Arms of Mine"), their careers, successes and tragedies; but it is mostly about the complicated story of Stax Records, from its modest genesis and its meteoric rise to its vertiginous descent into bankruptcy, due to mismanagement, greed and corruption.
Stax's first phase through the early 60s was managed by Jim and Estelle, but it was the addition of disc-jockey-promo-man extraordinaire, Al Bell, "six-feet-four bundle of joy, two hundred and twelve pounds of Miss Bell's baby boy. Soft as medicated cotton and rich as double-X cream. The women's pet, the men's threat and the playboy's pride and joy." that turned Stax into a successful business. In addition to his business talent, Bell, as a black man, Gordon writes, "would enhance the administration's credibility among the [mostly black] employees."
"We weren't a professional company before Al," says Booker T. Jones. "We didn't have big business going on. We had big music going on." They certainly had that with Otis Redding, Issac Hayes, The Staple Singers, Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave and Wilson Pickett to name a few.
National success ushered the next phase when rival companies and mega record enterprises began poaching many of the artists of Stax records. Atlantic Records handled the distribution of Carla Thomas and other artists' records, and eventually took them over and owned all the copyright to the songs. "First was the issue of authorship and its rewards...The money from a hit goes to the songwriters." but in the early days at Stax no one cared too much to protect their rights, until it was too late.
Poor business decisions and missed opportunities, such as not signing Aretha Franklin or Gladys Knight and competition for the same talent from Motown et al. ushered in the third and final phase in 1967.
Its major international star, Otis Redding and several members of the rising band The Bar-Kays died in a plane crash. The following year, a sniper assassinated the Reverend Martin Luther King at the Lorraine hotel that was a favorite hangout for the Stax musicians and writers. This tragedy put a major damper on their creativity for months.
Stax did not back-up or promote Issac Hayes "Shaft" music, in 1971. He ended up being the first black artist to receive a Oscar for a movie theme song and a Grammy in 1972.
Estelle was pushed out of the business; her brother, Jim made disastrous business deals with the unscrupulous sharks at Atlantic Records that ended up owning all the rights to the original songs of Stax, without paying a cent. Al Bell, vice president of marketing, bought out Stewart in 1972 taking full possession of Stax and began an era of rapid growth, big money, greed, extravagant spending and corruption. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, the semblance of racial unity that existed at Stax, and in Memphis, faded.
"Resentment, hostility and fear were roiling among Memphis business elite...They [Stax management] were afraid someone would hide drugs in Stax, then try to bust them." Al Bell felt that guns were "an American institution" used mainly "by the white majority" to maintain and consolidate power. He relates that he felt trapped, and forced to defend himself and his employees.
On top of these problems, new considerations suddenly influenced creative decisions. Bell told Gordon, "We're talking about major Wall Street corporations and how their decisions and their thinking impacted with us and interfered, and in some instances, prohibited us" from producing certain music.
Bell hired the brutal Johnny Baylor to manage protection and as distribution manager. Baylor's tactics were often illicit and even felonious; he developed new clients with a handshake, a bribe, a fist or a gun. It was the time when "payola" was common. Baylor was eventually arrested.
Stax grew to have the fifth-highest revenue of any black-owned business in the nation in 1973. Despite this, the company "didn't have a real, structured management system," writes Gordon. Two years later, the white-owned Union Planters National Bank, Stax main financial backer, framed Stax management with fraud charges and Al Bell went to trial; he was acquitted but Stax was bankrupt and finished.
The book is based on extensive research, primary sources and personal interviews that were originally conducted for the 2007 PBS documentary by the same name. It is an easy read full of interesting characters and insider information about "Soulsville, U.S.A." and an important era in genuine American music. If you are a fan of R&B music and curious about its provenance and history, this book is for you. I found it to be better than Rob Bowman's "Soulsville, U.S.A." that is simply a series of interviews collected in a book, and more informative than the segment in Peter Guralnick's "Sweet Soul Music".
In 1995, during a visit to Memphis I went looking for "Soulsville, USA" on McLemore street, only to find that nothing was there. I was told by a local that"the Stax/Capitol building had been bought for one dollar by a church group in the late 80s and torn down to eradicate the source of devil-music."
In the early 21st century a museum of American soul music was erected on the site, it included a recreation center and a school for the arts, the Stax Music Academy, for local talented youngsters.
I wrote this review while listening to music from "Stax 50: A 50th Anniversary Celebration (9 CDs).