Robert Gordon's "Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion" Reviewed
“Memphis is a town where nothing ever happens, but the impossible always does,” Robert Gordon.
On rare occasions, a book is a perfect project for the subject matter and the author. There could be no better choice than Memphian Robert Gordon, who has been writing about popular culture and music for decades, to chronicle the Stax records story. In his new book, he covers the history of the label, the personalities involved, the business decisions, as well as the social and political climate of the time. Most importantly, Gordon has the critical chops to get to the heart of the matter – all the timeless music that Stax produced. Replete with interviews from the principle figures, Gordon thoroughly describes how a small studio in Memphis became one of the most significant record labels in the history of popular music. It’s not always a pretty tale.
Jim Stewart, a country fiddler who loved Bob Wills, had the original idea to establish a recording studio. His sister, Estelle Axton, provided much of the capital by refinancing her home. (Take the first two letters from their last names and you have the label’s moniker). Memphian “Chips” Moman, who was still in his early ‘20s, but was already a studio veteran and had toured with the Johnny Burnette and Gene Vincent, became a producer and engineer for the new label. After a few years of makeshift studios, the team settled into their permanent home, an abandoned movie theater on McLemore Avenue. A local hit by Rufus and Carla Thomas, “’Cause I Love You,” resulted in a distribution deal with Atlantic Records – and eventually a lesson in the cutthroat world of the music industry.
A group of local high school musicians – whose name evolved from the Royal Spades to the Bar-Kays and later evolved into Booker T. and the M.G.’s – became the house band for the label. As the Bar-Kays, the group hit #3 on the pop charts in 1961 with “Last Night.” By 1962, Moman had left and a teenage Steve Cropper took over many of the recording responsibilities. A young Isaac Hayes came on board in the early ‘60s as a keyboardist and songwriter. For years, Stax had an informal, family feel, not without the tensions that families often have. Atlantic’s legendary studio engineer Tom Dowd was amazed at how relaxed the studio atmosphere was compared to the unionized environment in New York. One Sunday afternoon, Rufus Thomas walked in without an appointment, announced he had a new song, and “Walking the Dog” was cut in a few hours. Most of the musicians continued to work night gigs and other jobs. Jim Stewart kept his position at a local bank for several years.
In the mid-60s, Stax grew exponentially with the signing of Otis Redding and Atlantic sent Sam and Dave to Memphis for Stax to record. Songwriters David Porter and Isaac Hayes wrote “You Don’t Know Like I Know,” “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” “Soul Man,” and “I Thank You,” for the duo that was known for their breathtaking stage shows. In 1965, Jim Stewart hired the aggressive Al Bell to work record promotions and the dynamics of the company would change dramatically.
In the late ‘60s, three major events dealt significant body blows that could have crippled the label. The death of Otis Redding, who was becoming a major crossover star to pop and rock audiences, in a Wisconsin plane crash was a major blow both to the spirit and financial outlook of the company. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King brought to light racial tensions that had always been kept under wraps in the studio. And, perhaps most importantly, the label learned that due to their contract, Atlantic owned the master’s for all of the Stax records that they distributed. The studio that had produced major r&b and pop hits for years owned almost none of their work.
Al Bell, who had already demoted Steve Cropper and pushed Estelle Axton out of the company, became the de facto president of the label. He organized a new massive release of product, made distribution deals, and grew the company exponentially in the early ‘70s. Isaac Hayes became a major star, while the Bar-Kays replaced the M.G.s as the studio band. Stax had transitioned from soul to funk. Bell was a proponent of the “bigger is better” school of leadership and his extensive borrowing combined with a corrosive relationship with a new distributer, Columbia Records, eventually ended the label. Using strong-arm tactics, adding physical threats to payola, to get records played did not establish positive long-term relationships with the radio community. Gordon also takes an unblinking look at the racial dynamics in Memphis and how that led to a negative view of the label within the community in the 1970s.
The Stax record label is a story of triumph and tragedy, of hope and loss. Any quibbles with this book would be minor. For example, I would have loved a more thorough recommended discography, but that could be another book altogether. Gordon has written an exhaustive history that stands with the best by any music scholar. This is a “must have.”
Grade – A