‘It became a beacon of hope’: the incredible story of Stax Records

<span>‘It was very difficult getting our music played on major Black stations at the time, let alone white stations’ … a still from Stax: Soulsville USA.</span><span>Photograph: HBO</span>
‘It was very difficult getting our music played on major Black stations at the time, let alone white stations’ … a still from Stax: Soulsville USA.Photograph: HBO

During its breakout phase in the mid-1960s, Stax Records seemed to be soaring. The small company from Memphis managed to score huge, international hits with the new stars it introduced, like Booker T & the MGs (Green Onions), Otis Redding (I’ve Been Loving You Too Long), and Sam & Dave (Hold On, I’m Coming). Just one year later, however, the label teetered on the edge of collapse. “Stax had to come back from the dead,” said Jamila Wignot, who has directed a new, four-hour documentary on the legendary company titled Stax: Soulsville USA. “In that way, it became more than a record label. It became a beacon of hope.”

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Unfortunately, the label needed that hope as much, if not more, than the millions of fans who came to its music for inspiration. In its classic years, between 1962 and 1975, Stax was nearly killed off several times by forces larger than itself, before the final blow came from a foe no one saw coming. The label’s story, which brims with as many triumphs as tragedies, not only says a lot about the ruthlessness of the music business but about the treatment of many Black-run companies in corporate America. “Some of those who had power and influence in the world were repulsed by Stax as a money-making and creative venture for Black people,” said Deanie Parker, who served as an executive for the label in its prime. “They were singing from the sheet music of hate and envy – and that had a terrible effect.”

Some of the company’s troubles came as a direct result of the innocence of its orgins. “All of us were neophytes in the music industry,” said Parker. “We were just trying to keep up.”

The company came to its mission, in part, by accident. Its co-founder, Jim Stewart, was a country fiddler when he started the venture with his sister Estelle Axton in 1957. Initially, they recorded country songs, but none struck a nerve. That began to change after Stewart met DJ and musician Rufus Thomas who, along with his daughter Carla, cut the R&B song ‘Cause I Love You at the company’s new studio in South Memphis. It became a local hit, attracting Atlantic Records, which inked a deal to help with manufacturing, promotion, and distribution. The added muscle helped Carla’s next song, Gee Whiz, break into the national top 10 in 1961, even if that meant the majority of its profits went to the larger company.

Along with the recording studio, Stax also ran a successful record store, Satellite Records, where Parker worked while finishing high school. “You definitely wouldn’t go there looking for a Beethoven symphony,” she said. “But everything else, we had.”

The store became a prime way for Stax staff to test what R&B fans responded to, while doubling as a hangout for both Black and white local musicians, some of whom went on to become part of the Stax house band. Though Memphis was strictly segregated at the time, all the musicians worked and socialized together in the studio, a profound rarity in the South at the time. “As a Black woman, I remember my mother telling me about going to a large department store in downtown Memphis and wanting to try on a hat,” Parker said. “The salesperson told her, ‘If you try on that hat, you’ve got to buy it, whether it fits or not, and whether you like it or not. You can’t put it back on the mannequin.’ That’s how we were treated.”

In the documentary, Stax executive and later president Al Bell recalls walking on a sidewalk in front of the company’s studio with Jim Stewart when police officers jumped out of their cars and ordered them off the street. “We don’t allow ‘N-words’ with white people,” the officer said.

The white musicians who worked at Stax, including guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, discovered R&B as kids after crossing the river to the Black area of West Memphis. “They went into these little dives to hear groups like the ‘5’ Royales,” Parker said. “In the studio, they emulated what they heard and put their own twist on it. Along with what the Black musicians played, that helped create the Memphis sound.”

Booker T & the MGs were at the center of that sound, led by the surging organ of the titular keyboardist in tight interplay with the terse guitar of Cropper, the funky bass of Dunn and the inventive rhythms of drummer Al Jackson Jr. Key to the development of their sound was the company’s philosophy. “There was no boss at Stax,” said Wignot. “The musicians would work things out in a collaborative spirit.”

The freedom they experienced contrasted sharply with the control exerted at another major force in Black music at the time: Motown. Its founder, Berry Gordy, oversaw every aspect of his company’s recordings, aiming for a sleek sound designed for a mass audience. By contrast, Stax’s sound was organic, raw, and regional, with a distinct southern flair. “Stax wasn’t interested in altering itself to satisfy market demands,” Wignot said. “They believed the audience would come to them.”

Not that it came to them easily. “At that time, radio was everything,” said Bell, who came to the company as its head of promotions in 1965. “It was very difficult getting our music played on major Black stations at the time, let alone white stations.”

Despite that, the label scored a rash of breakout hits over the next two years for stars like Redding and Booker T, as well as Eddie Floyd (Knock on Wood) and the Bar-Kays (Soul Finger). They all became stars in the UK and Europe as well, where they appeared on a package tour in 1967. The trip proved a dream for the artists, who didn’t have to deal with the humiliations of Jim Crow laws overseas. At the same time, they faced “a different kind of prejudice,” said Wignot. “British and European audience have always been interested in ‘authentic Black art’. There’s a certain fetishization in that,” she said.

Back in America, they wound up facing something far more direct and dire. At the end of 1967, Atlantic was sold to Warner Bros-Seven Arts, which tried to buy Stax as well, but for a figure so piddling the Memphis label pulled out of its distribution deal. Only then did Stewart discover that the original contract he signed with Atlantic – a document he later admitted to never having read – gave the larger company the rights to all the recordings they made in those years, thereby stripping Stax of its entire legacy. “We’d been screwed without a kiss,” says Parker in the documentary.

That was hardly the only trauma they faced that year. Several months later, the label lost Otis Redding in a plane crash that also took the lives of almost every member of the Bar-Kays. “It was an unbelievable blow,” Bell said.

The assassination of Martin Luther King in the label’s home town the next year brought another level of pain. King’s death also wound up making plain the racial divisions that existed even in an integrated company like Stax. In the documentary, Booker T talks about how King’s death heightened his awareness of the distinct lives led by the white and Black musicians. “They may have all worked together,” Wignot said, “but when they walked out of that studio, they had dramatically different real-life experiences.”

Within the world of Stax, however, they faced the same problem. In the wake of the Atlantic fiasco, the label needed a full-scale resuscitation. To achieve it, Bell took the reins as label president with a mandate to create as many new recordings as possible, as fast as possible. The result was 27 albums and 30 singles produced in just two years. The urgency of that gave license to the musicians to become even more adventurous, a godsend to an artist as progressive as Isaac Hayes.

Though he was already one of the label’s most important producers and writers (having penned classics with David Porter like Hold On, I’m Coming and Soul Man), Hayes had yet to establish himself as a solo star. His 1969 album Hot Buttered Soul not only made him a one, it introduced a whole new sound to soul, mixing it with sophisticated orchestrations and psychedelic guitar in tracks that snaked on for as long as 18 minutes.

Beyond the music, Hayes became a cultural symbol with his riveting “Black Moses” persona. In a daring move, Hayes adorned himself in chains, in the process turning one of the most horrific images of slavery into a bold symbol of self-determination. According to Bell, the phrase “Black Moses” came from a conversation he overheard between female fans at a show in New Jersey. “They picked up on what Isaac projected as an artist, which was a man coming to liberate our people,” Bell said. “And we ran with it.”

To bring that character to the mainstream, the company mounted a massive campaign in 1972 to earn Hayes an Oscar nomination for his Shaft soundtrack. The documentary details the great resistance they faced from the Academy. In the end, Stax won, helping Hayes become the first African American to earn a best original song honor. The label experienced another high that year, with its historic Wattstax concert, held in Watts, the biggest Black section of LA, to raise money and boost pride in an area still struggling back from the 1965 uprising. Wattstax “was more than a mere concert,” said Bell. “It was a celebration of the African American experience.”

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The label pulled off another coup in that period when Bell signed the Staples Singers, successfully crossing them over from a gospel group to a hit-making pop act. “When I saw them perform, I knew they really didn’t fit a genre,” he said. “There was so much more to them.”

Though the label was hitting creative highs, it continued to struggle with its finances and distribution. That looked to change after Bell negotiated a deal with Clive Davis at CBS Records that, in a revolutionary move, promised to devote the majority of the profits to the label that created the music rather than the one that distributed it. “Clive understood and valued Stax from a cultural perspective,” Bell said.

Unfortunately, several months later, Davis was eased out of CBS, and its succeeding executives balked at the deal he proposed. Worse, they stopped promoting Stax’s music. The final blow came courtesy of the Memphis bank that had loaned money to Stax. According to Bell, when they became embroiled in a major scandal, they tried to make him the fall guy. Even though he was eventually cleared of all related charges, the damage to Stax proved too great to survive. In the decades since, the brand has been revived multiple times, mainly as a reissue label, which has kept its music alive, if largely to benefit others. “As always, the big fish eats the little fish,” Bell said.

Or, as Parker said, “you’ve got capitalism and racism. Stax was a victim of both.”

As a result, Wignot said she felt compelled to present the label’s story as a cautionary tale. “It was important to have audiences wrestle with that discomfort,” she said.

At the same time, the music the label created has provided its own balm. “There’s a reason this music is still sampled and played,” Wignot said. “Stax has a funk and groove and southern flavor that has found its way into all of the music that followed.”

  • Stax: Soulsville USA is available now on Max in the US with a UK date to be announced