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Stax Records: The ABA to Motown’s NBA

Posted by mcorcoran on August 3, 2011

MEMPHIS – There’s almost nothing in this world cooler than driving down McLemore Avenue blasting “Green Onions,” the 1962 hit by Booker T. and the MGs that let the world know there was an imposing musical force coming from a South Memphis neighborhood. It was a time of racial upheaval in the South, but a full year before Martin Luther King Jr. took his dream of equality to the nation’s capital, a group of young white and black men and women were building a legendary record company out of an old movie theater.

During the ’60s, Stax Records was a big pot of spicy, Southern, help-yourself stew to Motown’s candlelit steak dinner. Where Motown’s dream machine was driven by the ruthlessly ambitious Berry Gordy, whose master plan was to sweeten soul music and sell it to white America, Stax Records just kinda happened. Motown was the NBA – the big game in town – while Stax was the ABA, with the big ‘fros and the funky ball and the underdog ghetto swagger. Motown was “Hitsville U.S.A.” while Stax, which celebrated its 50th anniversary at South By Southwest a few years back with a show starring Booker T. and the MGs, William Bell, Eddie Floyd and Isaac Hayes, was “Soulsville U.S.A.” The labels were as different- and as similar- as Detroit and Memphis. Think of all the classic music that came out of the old Capitol Theatre, at 926 E. McLemore Ave., in a neighborhood that was changing from all white to all black in a hurry. “In the Midnight Hour” by Wilson Pickett, “Hold On I’m Comin’ ” by Sam & Dave, everything by Otis Redding, “Walking the Dog” by Rufus Thomas, “Respect Yourself” by the Staple Singers, “Born Under a Bad Sign” by Albert King, “Knock On Wood” by Eddie Floyd and on and on.

But when you’re cruising down East Mac for the first time, the song you want to play is “Green Onions.” It’ll turn your midsized rental car into a long, black Lincoln Continental.

Looking for history

The first time I went looking for Stax, which went out of business in 1976 but has been revived by California’s Concord Music Group, the only evidence that there was once an incubator of talent at McLemore Avenue and College Street was a

Booker T. and the M.G.'s: Duck Dunn, Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper and Al Jackson

historical marker. The old movie theater, on land sold by the city to a Pentecostal church, was razed in 1989, an unconscionable act that would be like if Austin had torn down the Armadillo World Headquarters or Liberty Lunch. Someone was having a garage sale on the barren ground where Stax once proudly stood and I bought a three-quarter length brown vinyl coat for $3, the closest thing to a piece of Stax I could walk away with.

But today, the spiritually invigorating Stax Museum of American Soul Music sits at the old East McLemore Avenue address. To its credit, the museum doesn’t just celebrate Stax, but Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records, which made all those great Al Green records just a few blocks away, as well as the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, Atlantic Records and even the old rival, Motown Records. The 17,000 square feet of exhibit space contains more than 2,000 artifacts, but first visitors watch a 20-minute film on the history of Stax. Then, the theater doors open to a facsimile of a ramshackle country church circa 1920.

“The Stax sound had strong gospel roots,” says Deanie Parker, the former Stax publicity director who started out working at the record shop at the front of the building as a

Carla Thomas had an early hit for Stax with "Gee Whiz."

16-year-old. Parker was a guiding force behind raising the money, which came from local and federal entities and private donors, to build the museum and the adjacent Stax Music Academy, where innercity children learn to play musical instruments. “There are some people who I’ll never forgive,” says Parker, still bitter about the demise of the label that had been her life. “People at the city knew what was going on and they just looked the other way.” With the 1972 purchase of Stax by the label’s promotional wizard Al Bell, the label was the fifth largest black-owned business in the U.S. And the city of Memphis let it die. “When they were going to tear down the old studio, I had some friends say, ‘Aren’t you going to do anything?’ ” Parker says. “But a building is just a building. I’d seen people’s hearts and souls ripped out. After all the pain we had gone through, it didn’t mean anything at the time to see that building go.” But Parker got nostalgic when she and guitarist/producer Steve Cropper worked together to recreate the studio as the museum’s crowning exhibit.

The two didn’t always agree on what went where. “We had a big fight about where the space heater was,” Parker says. Cropper was sure it was next to Al Jackson’s drum kit. After all, Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn often had to play in coats during the winter while Jackson was toasty warm. “But I distinctly recall that the gas heater was over by where Otis used to sing,” Parker says. “He’d always take out his partials (dentures) when he sang and he’d put them on top of the heater. And every time he’d forget them and I’d have to mail them back to Georgia.” A third former employee settled the disagreement; there were two space heaters in the studio, but only the one near Jackson worked.

It’s not the real Stax studio, but the full-scale facsimile gives you an idea of how all that sweet soul music came together. You can see where Jackson, the mesmerizing tempo king of Stax, set up his drums, where Cropper and Dunn stood and faced him and where Booker T. Jones took flight with his Hammond B3 organ. Those four MGs didn’t use headphones and they were so spread out in the former movie theater that they’d all take their cue from Jackson’s snare hand, which created the slight delay that became a Stax trademark.

The soul of Stax

This amazing group of two black men and two white men not only played on their own hits (“Time Is Tight” and “Soul Limbo” followed “Green Onions”), but on just about every record made at Stax from 1962 until 1969. (Isaac Hayes sometimes replaced Jones, who attended the University of Indiana from 1962-’66, on sessions.) When the MGs toured Europe in 1967, playing behind a Stax revue featuring Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Rufus Thomas and others, it was like the British Invasion in reverse, as the sold-out tour played to delirious crowds experiencing real live American soul music for the first time. Then the band flew from London to California for Redding’s sensational appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival. “It was surreal,” says Jones. “We looked outside our hotel and there were all these motorcycles and we thought it was the police. But it was a biker gang, coming to escort us to the show. Now that was something you’d never see in Memphis.” Redding and the MGs tore it up in front of the peace-and-love generation, jubilantly parading the Stax sound, which was then mainly played only on black stations. A new market was found, but just months later 26-year-old Redding and four members of the Bar-Kays were killed in a plane crash near Madison, Wis.

After the shock wore off, “the Stax Six” (the MGs, Isaac Hayes and David Porter) went back to work and had big hits with Sam & Dave (“Soul Man”), Johnny Taylor (“Who’s Making Love”) and the Staple Singers. In 1969, Stax was on top of the music world with “Hot Buttered Soul,” the Isaac Hayes masterpiece that contained only two songs per side (including an 18-minute version of “By the Time I get To Phoenix.”) With Hayes’ “Theme From Shaft” winning a 1972 Academy Award (a precursor to “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” by Memphis’ Three 6 Mafia), there seemed to be no limits to what Stax artists could do. “I think what made Stax special was not just that we were able to create musical magic, but that we were able to do it day in and day out,” says Jones, whose production credits include “Stardust” by Willie Nelson. As the Stax house band, the MGs would come to work every morning like they were punching the clock at a meat-packing plant. Nobody ever saw a beer, a joint or a line during Stax’s productive daytime sessions. These were people with a passion for gritty, gospel-fired rhythm and blues, and they were living their dreams.

Estelle Axton and her brother Jim Stewart founded Stax Records.

At the helm of the company, which originated as Satellite Records in 1957, was Jim Stewart, who worked as a bank teller when he wasn’t engineering records by such soul giants as Redding, Sam & Dave and Carla Thomas (who had the first Stax hit with “Gee Whiz” in 1961). Stewart’s the “St” of Stax (a California label called Satellite necessitated a name change). The “ax” refers to Estelle Axton, Stewart’s older sister, who took out a second mortgage on her house to help her brother buy his first Ampeg monaural tape recorder. A Western swing fiddler from backwoods Tennessee, Stewart mainly recorded country acts early on and he might have continued to if he didn’t come across an old movie theater for rent – $150 a month – on East McLemore Avenue. In a stroke of accidental genius, Axton, looking to generate some cash flow, converted the old concession area into the Satellite Record Shop. “She was the greatest salesperson I’ve ever seen,” says Parker. Axton kept an index card for every customer, writing down what records they bought. “If she saw that they liked slow songs, she’d play the newest ballads for them and they’d almost always buy one.” The record shop became a hangout for neighborhood kids such as Booker T. Jones, who lived a couple blocks away, and William Bell. David Porter, who co-wrote all those great Sam & Dave songs with Hayes, worked as a bag boy at Big D grocery store across the street, and he’d pop in during his breaks.

“I’d be browsing in the store and listening to all the new records,” says Jones, “but I always had an eye on the door to the studio. I was always intrigued about what was going on back there.”

Stax: Endings & beginnings

In one of many interview films shown at the Stax Museum, a disgruntled Jones tells the camera that if Martin Luther King Jr. hadn’t been assassinated in Memphis (on April 4, 1968), Stax would still be in business. Fifteen years after that interview, the keyboardist says he regrets having said that. “It was probably a contributing factor,” he says of King’s shooting death at the Lorraine Motel, just three doors down from the room where Cropper and Pickett had written “In the Midnight Hour” a couple years earlier. “But there was a lot more to it than that.” When word of King’s assassination spread through Memphis, a crowd gathered outside the Stax studio and Cropper and Dunn had to be escorted to their

Steve Cropper and Wilson Pickett wrote "In the Midnight Hour" three doors away from where Martin Luther King was assassinated a couple years later.

cars and whisked away. “Everything changed at Stax,” Duck Dunn’s wife June Dunn told Peter Guralnick in the book “Sweet Soul Music.” Because the Stax studio didn’t have air conditioning, the white and black musicians would often cool off at the pool of the Lorraine. But during the summer of 1968, that wasn’t a safe place for whites. “It just all became about race,” says Jones. “We never thought twice about it, but people were always asking us, ‘Why are you playing with those white guys?’ In our minds, we were like brothers.”

Jones says the vibe at Stax and its Volt subsidiary also started changing after Gulf & Western bought the company in 1968. The four MGs had been vice presidents of the company, but the sale was conducted without their input. But what finally ended up toppling the home of deep-fried soul music was a 10-year-old girl from Scotland.

Well, not totally, but the expensive signing and promotion of Lena Zavaroni, whose “Ma, He’s Making Eyes At Me” flopped stateside in 1975, cost an already cash-strapped Stax a lot of money. Later that year, emotions were in a funk when Jackson, the heart of the Stax sound, was murdered at home by unknown assailants. A sour distribution deal with CBS, which inherited Stax from deposed label president Clive Davis, and several millions in unpaid loans eventually sunk the label in 1976. It didn’t help that Stewart had naively, unknowingly, signed away Stax master recordings in a 1965 distribution deal with Atlantic, so the company didn’t even own its lucrative back catalog. This road to the poorhouse was paved with good intentions.

“We didn’t set out to change the world or anything,” reflects Parker, who was often drafted for songwriting help and looked after the gang like a big sister. “We just loved the music so much, and loved each other.”

Much musical history has been built on less.

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