You have to wonder what it is about Memphis, Tennessee that so much great music has come out of that city. Sure there are plenty of other cities which are hotbeds of musical talent, but it was two independent record companies out of Memphis that created what are arguably the sounds that have most influenced popular music. In the mid-1950s little Sun Records started putting out records that were a strange hybrid of white country and black blues music. Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and others integrated the music they grew up playing with the music they grew up hearing, and rock and roll was born.
While Sun Records may have taken flack for integrating black and white music, that was nothing compared to what happened a few years later in the converted movie theatre that Jim Stewert and his sister Estelle Axton turned into a recording studio. When they opened their doors in 1957 it was with the intent of recording country music; however they were located in the heart of Memphis' black neighbourhood. When local musicians came knocking on the door, Jim and Estelle threw it open and welcomed everybody. They may not have quite understood what it was they were hearing, but they knew it was good music and Stax Records was born.
The idea of integrated anything in 1961 was miraculous, yet from the moment the doors opened at Stax it was the music that mattered, not the colour of anyone's skin. Although the company went down in flames fourteen years later in 1975, mainly because CBS reneged on a distribution deal, it's now being given new life as part of the Concord Music Group. However, for those of you wanting to take a peek into the past at the remarkable rise and fall of the original Stax company, Concord, through the Infinity Entertainment Group, has released Stax DVD.
The Stax DVD is a two-disc set made up of two previously released DVDs under one cover: a documentary about the company that originally aired on PBS, Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story and The Stax/Volt Revue: Live In Norway 1967, a concert film co-produced with Reelin' In The Years Productions. The two discs complement each other beautifully, for although there are excerpts of performances during the documentary, it's watching the concert film of how Stax performers were received in Europe that you understand how big this little label from Memphis was. There was no way of knowing of course that the European tour was the apex of the innocent early days of that were marked by colour blindness, but innocence died for a lot of the world the year following the tour — 1968 — and Stax wasn't exempted.
Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story is exhaustive in the details it provides about each era of the company's growth. Through interviews with the original core musicians and staff we hear about how various acts, performers, and songs grew out of the company's habit of keeping the doors open to the whole community. The three surviving members of Booker T. and The MGs, Donald "Duck" Dunn, Booker T. Jones, and Steve Cropper, who were the core musicians for almost every album produced until 1968, recount how people like Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes first became part of the Stax family. It was definitely a case of "if you build it, they will come", as talented performers from the surrounding area were drawn to the old movie theatre.
A distribution deal with Atlantic Records, a deal that brought Sam and Dave into the fold as Atlantic sent them down to record with the Stax team and sing the songs written for them by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, not only got their records played across North America, but arranged the Stax/Volt tour of Europe from which the Stax/Volt Revue Live In Norway 1967 footage was taken. While the Stax performers had produced hit records for the North American market, it wasn't until they toured Europe that they received any sort of public adulation. As Booker T. guitarist and songwriter Steve Cropper said, "it might not have been as big as the Beatles coming to America, but for us it felt like it."
In interviews included on the Live In Norway disc, Steve Cropper and Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave) talk about how amazing it was to play in front of audiences in the thousands and to be treated like stars. If the reactions of the Norwegian audience on the DVD are anything to go by, up and dancing from almost the word go, the tour must have been an incredible experience for all involved. A good thing too, for less then a year later the company would be pushed to the brink of ruin, and although it recovered, it would never be the same again.
According to the documentary, the death of Otis Redding in December of 1967 when his plane went down would have been a bad enough blow on its own to have hurt the company. They had lost their biggest and most famous performer, after all. However, to make matters worse, the company discovered that the fine print on their distribution contract with Atlantic meant that they had surrendered ownership of any titles that Atlantic had handled for them, and their entire back catalogue of hits and their potential revenue belonged to someone else. Adding insult to injury was the fact that although Sam and Dave had recorded hits like "Hold On" with Stax and Stax musicians, they were still considered signed to Atlantic, and were called home when it looked like the little Memphis label was going under.
While they were still reeling from this double blow, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. spelled the end of their separation from the reality of the division between black and white people in American society at the time. They had been able to keep the world from the door until then, but the world started to force its way through the door and they could no longer be what they once were. Director of publicity and promotions Al Bell devised a method for the company to survive, but it meant producing twenty-some odd albums in a short period of time in order to restore their catalogue and focusing on the black market for the first time. Thanks to the success of Isaac Hayes' Hot Buttered Soul and signing The Staple Singers to the label, Stax was not only able to recover their lost standing economically, but become a major player in and proponent of the Black Pride movement that filled the vacuum caused by Dr. King's death.
For a while things were great with Isaac winning an Academy Award for the Stax-produced movie Shaft and the success of their concert in Los Angeles for the residents of the ghetto Watts – Wattstax – but the end came bitterly and badly in 1975. Whether it was through mis-management, as their bank claimed when they called in a ten million dollar loan, bad luck, with CBS canceling their distribution deal and denying Stax much needed revenues, or whether the motivations behind both CBS's and the bank's decisions were racially motivated, what the documentary makes clear is the end result was the death of Stax.
The music survived as Fantasy records bought the back catalogue and continued to reissue them, but that must have seemed like small consolation to Jim Stewart who lost everything he owned in an attempt to save the company. Today if you go to Memphis you'll find that the original Stax studio has been rebuilt at its old location and right next door to it stands the Stax Academy of music where neighbourhood kids are being taught music by the musicians who made Stax what it was in its heyday. As part of the Concord Music Group the Stax label is once again recording and releasing new soul recordings and the legacy of Otis Redding and Booker T. And The MGs lives on.
Watching the concert footage from Stax/Volt Revue: Live In Norway 1967, even in spite of the spotty sound quality, one can't help but be blown away by the performances. Listening to Booker T. and The MGs playing the opening bars to "Green Onions", watching Sam and Dave propel themselves into orbit, and feeling the power and charisma of Otis Redding is as much a testimony to the importance of Stax to popular music as anything anybody could say. While the documentary half of the Stax DVD set, Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story does a great job in tracing the company's history, and does a really good job of letting the viewer make their own decisions about its chequered past, it occasionally seems to lose focus and wander away from what made Stax really important — the music.
Together, the two discs that make up The Stax DVD make a convincing argument that if Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton hadn't opened their recording studio and started Stax in 1961, popular music would have missed out on something incredibly special. In fact it's impossible to imagine what pop music would sound like if the doors to that movie theatre in downtown Memphis had never opened.