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TV Review: Great Performances – “Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story”

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The story of Stax Records is a tale of triumph and tragedy in 20th century American music. From the time they first generated national attention in 1960 until they were shut down by the courts in 1975, Stax was the ambassador of deep fried Southern soul, and introduced the world to such acts as Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Booker T. & The MGs, and Isaac Hayes.

To celebrate the legacy of Stax in honor of its 50th birthday, PBS, as part of its acclaimed Great Performances series, has produced "Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story", which will air on PBS stations across the country beginning Wednesday, August 1 (check local listings).

"Respect Yourself" traces the history of the label, and features interviews with many of the names connected with Stax, including founders Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton (Stax took its name from the first two letters of their last names), all three living members of house band Booker T. & The MGs, Isaac Hayes, eventual owner Al Bell, and Jesse Jackson. Most moving is when Zelma Redding, Otis's widow, talks about the last conversation she ever had with her husband on the day of the plane crash that took his life on December 10, 1967.

Founded in 1957, Stax began as a country and pop label, but switched to R&B when they converted an old movie theater in the heart of a black neighborhood and discovered a wealth of talent within the local community. After a few hits, they signed a distribution deal with Atlantic, and with songs like "Hold On, I'm Coming," "Raise Your Hand," and "Soul Finger," Stax provided a grittier counterpoint to Motown's polished pop-soul, which they dubbed "Soulsville, U.S.A." in response to the Detroit label's "Hitsville, U.S.A."

As the show points out early on, Stax was where "people who couldn't eat together, joined together to make music." "Respect Yourself" does a great job of showing how the label reflected the tenor of the civil rights movement, first as an example of integration in the still-segregated South (half of Booker T. & The MGs were white, as was trumpeter Wayne Jackson), then as a model of black economic empowerment in the early '70s when Al Bell took over the label.

Redding's death coincided with the end of the Atlantic deal, which stripped Stax of its masters, meaning that the label had to start from scratch with its two biggest acts (Sam and Dave were loaned to Stax from Atlantic) now gone from the roster. Fortunately, one of Stax's in-house writers decided to step into the spotlight, and Isaac Hayes' Hot Buttered Soul, one of 27 albums released at once as part of the "Soul Explosion" campaign to re-build a catalog, redefined the artistic possibilities of soul years before Marvin Gaye's What's Going On and Stevie Wonder's run of brilliant albums in the early '70s.

Thus began the second era of Stax, which saw the ascension of Hayes to superstardom with his iconic "Theme From Shaft", the signing of The Staple Singers, and arguably Stax's greatest moment, Watttstax, a 1972 festival concert that was made into a remarkable feature film.

But the show also points out the consequences of this new direction. After the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Memphis' Lorraine Motel (a popular hangout for Stax musicians because it was desegregated), the neighborhood around the Stax studio grew hostile towards the label. This killed the family atmosphere fostered by Stewart and Axton, and one-by-one, many of the old guard left the company.

The last ten minutes of "Respect Yourself" chronicles the last days of Stax. A badly timed new distribution deal with CBS Records coincided with financial problems to Union Planters Bank, Stax's creditors, who called in their debts. The actions forced Stax into bankruptcy court, who shut its gates and auctioned off its assets. The building was abandoned and eventually demolished.

About Dave Lifton