In the latest episode of Great Performances, entitled "Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story," the show makes an attempt to recount the history of Stax Records, one of the most influential, and different, record labels of the last century. There are a number of different threads that the episode attempts to follow, some with more success than others.
The story of the music itself is well told, what Stax was putting out there, who the artists were, and the response in the country. Less well told is the racial aspect of the company and its recordings. Stax was founded by two white people, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton (brother and sister), but ended up with mainly African-American recording artists putting out a "black sound" that tended to find cross-over success. While this was not their intent, they were people to whom race did not matter. And, finally, very poorly told is the story of the internal politics of the record company. These last two threads are, I suspect, often the same, but the documentary never actually ties them together (one of its weaknesses), so I leave them separate here as well.
Most people in this country know Stax music, even if they do not identify it with the label. Otis Redding was a Stax artist, and "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" a Stax song. He wrote and recorded "Respect." Isaac Hayes was a Stax artist and "Theme from Shaft" a Stax recording. It is a record label that lasted from the late 1950s to 1975, and put out hit after hit after hit, defining the "Memphis sound." The story of the records, songs, and artist of the label, is the strongest part of the documentary. It is truly a wonder that such a small label was able to do so much. This thread of the documentary is well told and enlightens people that may not otherwise realize where all this music came from. It also provides a background as to the thoughts, feelings, and motives that went into the songs themselves.