Stax Records may not be recognizable to many people these days who were born after the tumultuous end of the Peace & Love ’60s. A brief glance at the track lists from Stax ’68: A Memphis Story will begin to open your eyes, but the history of the record company from 1968 will blow your mind. The 50-page story included in the box set tells of Stax Records existing on two sides of a very dangerous coin. On one side, it was a bastion of race integration living and breathing the colorblind world of music. The other side showed it right in the middle of Memphis, a city ready to burn itself to the ground while the racist power brokers were knocking at their door for help to “calm the N*****s.”
1968 began with Stax Records reeling from the deaths of Otis Redding and four members of the Bar-Kays in a plane crash on December 10 of the previous year. They were not just loved by the Stax family, they also represented the top of the money-making acts on the label. Things needed to move fast if the doors to this soulful island in a sea of hate were to stay open.
This impressively crafted box set goes step by step through this momentous year in history, both in the history and the music. Moving through the discs you can hear the sound of Stax adapting to the times and influences of new voices. An unreleased track at the time of Redding’s death sat on top of the emotional rubble he left behind. His longtime producer and friend finished up the track as a tribute because Redding told him this was going to be his first million-selling hit.
It was. The song was “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”
The thoughtful and soulful tones open the entire box set experience and the importance of it is impossible to overstate. It kept the doors open and lights on until Stax was ready to push the envelope forward.
Each disc represents another piece of Stax’s year of constructive and destructive change, both inside the company and out on the streets. If it hasn’t registered yet, Memphis in 1968 is also the owner of one of our nation’s most tragic moments. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel, a regular hangout for musicians and staff from Stax due to the ability to mix races and relax there.
From that tragic moment, Stax Records suffered its first crack in the mirage that would eventually lead to a full schism inside the musical haven. The music they made was hopeful, soulful, and necessary, while the world around it got angry, militant, and destructive.
Stax ’68: A Memphis Story stands as a testament to the ability of music to assimilate. The 50-page book included is written powerfully and with reverence to make an indelible mark in your brain. The music, well, it skips the brain, going straight for the heart with the voices of people living in that very moment, likely unaware of the importance of each new song. History never looked so bleak while sounding so good.