I read an electronic version of this book compliments of NetGalley. The opinions expressed here are mine alone.
From beginning to ending this book is the story of Stax Records. Stax was founded by a brother and sister, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, who were interested in music and wanted to promote the funky music that was being created in their home base of Memphis. Financed primarily by a second mortgage on Estelle's home, they worked on a shoe string budget that required day jobs to pay the bills and studio business was transacted in their spare time.
In its entirety this is an interesting story. These were two people with a dream, but not exactly positioned to run a business and have it become hugely successful. Even more improbable, Stewart and Axton were white and most of the people who worked for them and also comprised their talent base were black. While segregation was huge in the south, once inside Stax there was racial equality and an intoxicating sense that the music would bring this diverse group forward both professionally and personally. Unfortunately, Jim's relative lack of expertise as the business grew and Estelle's role of mother hen had them often at odds with one another. Eventually, Jim nudged Estelle out of the company that she co-founded and Jim took on an African American partner who took the company to national prominence. Eventually, Stax became a victim of its own success and crashed and burned only to be revived again for another generation.
Though not exactly heavy reading, I found this book consistently interesting as an equally interesting cast of characters came and went which included Carla Thomas, Booker T and the MG's, Issac Hayes, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Donald "Duck" Dunn, Steve Cropper, and the Staple Singers. I grew up on these people's music and had no idea how or if they were actually connected in some way. I also had no idea that initially cutting a record did not guarantee tangible wealth in the early days of Stax. The company's initial growth started out very slowly in the early years despite some bonafide hits. Clearly there was a huge learning curve as the brother/sister team tried to develop their business and searched for the talent to get to the top. This book provided me with a sense of how the record business worked and why promotion was so important in its overall growth.
There were funny stories about a group of these performers going to Europe to be swamped by fans and hanging out with the Beetles or Jim Stewart not picking up Aretha Franklin's contract when he had the opportunity to do so. No wonder he needed a savvy partner to recognize a great opportunity should it present itself again.
This book conveyed a lot of intimacy and made me feel like I knew these people personally. I'd turn a page and hit on how the song Green Onions got its name or how someone contributed a riff to a song that changed it completely. In viewing Stax and its liberal atmosphere where there really was no racial discord, it foreshadowed changes in american society that would occur in the years to come.
Overall, the family drama and the collaborative efforts to bring soul and funk to a greater audience made for a great story.
"Artist after artist, song after song, Stax gave voice to the hearts and minds of a people too long silenced. And with that voice, Stax brought power to its artists and also to its audience. Stax had become the song of a nation." - page 341
As a collector of popular music for nearly a half century I was pretty familiar with the story of how Stax records was founded in Memphis, Tennessee in the late 1950's by a most unlikely duo. Jim Stewart was a fiddle player in a country swing band who decided to start a record company. His sister Estelle was so taken with the idea that she convinced her husband to mortgage their home in order to help the company that would become Stax get off the ground. What was really kind of bizarre was that Jim Stewart wanted to record black artists. Conventional wisdom said that the odds were stacked against them. But Jim Stewart and his fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants record company proved the skeptics wrong. Over the next two decades Stax would become a major force in American popular music. Robert Gordon has been writing about Memphis music and history for more than three decades. His latest effort "Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion" is a meticulously researched and downright entertaining book. It turns out that there was a whole lot about the history of Stax that I was unaware of. I simply could not put his one down.
In "Respect Yourself" you will learn about all of the major players at Stax, from the management to the extremely talented stable of house musicians to the major stars like Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Carla Thomas and The Staple Singers to name but a few. In addition, Gordon offers up the story behind the story on so many of the label's major hits including "Gee Whiz", "Green Onions", "Who's Makin' Love?", "Theme from `Shaft" and "I'll Take You There". The author also recalls the heartbreaking plane crash that claimed the lives of four members of The Bar-Kays and the label's biggest star Otis Redding on a frigid night in Wisconsin in late 1967. Many thought that Stax would never recover. Then you will meet Al Bell who would eventually become a co-owner of Stax. As you will discover, this was the man who was largely responsible for the spectacular rise and ultimate demise of the company. Under the leadership of Al Bell Stax would enter into a number of questionable deals with other labels in an effort to expand into new markets and to increase distribution. Robert Gordon also spends considerable time profiling other influential people at the label such as Steve Cropper, Johnnie Baylor, David Porter and Booker T. Jones. What Gordon provides for his readers is a comprehensive and no holds barred history of the label. He pulls no punches and shows a willingness to call `em as he sees `em. What would ultimately become of Stax was truly an American tragedy.
As I indicated earlier I could not put "Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion" down. This is at once a well-written, extremely informative and highly entertaining book that would be a perfect choice for music enthusiasts, history buffs and general readers alike. History comes alive in this book and "Respect Yourself" deserves a place in every library in America. Very highly recommended!
on January 2, 2014
Robert Gordon has outdone himself again. His "It Came From Memphis", is a wonderful chronicle of that city's pop/soul music heritage. In "Respect Yourself" he narrows his focus to the history of Stax Records, one of America's great record labels. But narrowing the focus to one label opens up the book to virtually the post '50s history of Memphis and the history of some of the greatest music ever recorded in America. Stax, a small label founded by two white siblings, a sister and a brother, was located in a small studio and office building in the heart of Memphis. After creating a catalog of wonderful music they entered into a near-disasterous agreement with Atlantic Records, then righted themselves and created another catalog of tremendous soul music. The pressures of success led to further complications,from without and from within, until the whole company imploded. This is a book which ties the history of soul music with the civil rights movement, the death of the small independent music distributors, the rise of the corporate giants, the twisted world of radio promotion and the hubris of many in charge. Great anecdotes and stories about Otis Redding,Isaac Hayes, The Staples Singers, Booker T and the MGs, Eddie Floyd, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Wattstax, Rufus Thomas and many many others. Highest recommendation!
on April 23, 2015
We passed on Graceland and went straight to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. It was a moving and informative experience, and I came away with a naive, romantic notion of a happy place where hometown geniuses gathered in an atmosphere of of creative joy and color-blindness. After reading "Respect Yourself", I now know that it was that kind of a place, but that there was so much more to the story. Gordon presents an engaging tale of the place and the players, with a degree of detail that makes you think that he was there, making notes on everything that happened. The "rest of the story" is inspiring, depressing, disgusting, and ultimately forgiving. The achievements were crazy high and the failures tragically low. I found it a gripping read, and as others have noted, learned a lot about the music business. There are so many stories about how the hits happened. The one that stands out for me is how David Porter and Isaac Hayes came up with "Hold on, I'm Coming" - it's hysterical.
Memphis, in the 1950s, 60s and 70s was segregated, and many think that it still is today." "Everything came down to race....Being treated like an equal human being...was really a phenomenon....The spirit that came from Jim and his sister Estelle Axton allowed all of us, black and white, to . . . come into the doors of Stax, where you had freedom, you had harmony, you had people working together." Al Bell recalled in an interview, reported in Robert Gordon's book.
Gordon is obviously enamored with his hometown, but does not shy from describing the discordant race relations and the dystopia of segregation that prevailed; his main subject is music; and what great music it was and still is.
The book gets its name from the title of a song by the Staple Singers,( Mavis on vocals and Pops on guitar), one of many great R & B artists in the talent stable of Stax Records.
The record company was started in 1957, by bank employee and part-time country fiddle player, James Stewart, and his older sister Estelle Axton. Initially they began their enterprise in Estelle's garage, equipped with a mono tape recorder, and named the company Satellite Records. Two years later, Estelle mortgaged her home so that they could rent the former Capitol Theater in a black (not yet called African-American then) neighborhood. They named the studio Stax (Stewart/Axton) and promoted an open-door attitude. This attracted walk-ins, many that would become future stars, such as 16 year old Carla Thomas and her father Rufus; they recorded some of the studio's original big hits.
A few early successes with black musicians and an alliance with DJ/singer Rufus Thomas led Stax to focus on black music, which grew into the sound we that now call soul. Stewart ran the studio; Axton managed the connected Satellite Records Shop, where she conducted market research to boost Stax's sales. She allowed customers to listen to music in the shop for hours "That's the first place I heard Ray Charles, the first place I heard John Coltrane," one of the neighborhood high school student remembered. "I listened to hundreds of records, for hours."
That student was Booker T. Jones, who was to lead Stax's house band and the author of their hit "Green Onions". Booker T. and the MGs (Steve Cropper and Donald"Duck"Dunn, the white classmates of Axton's son and Al Jackson, virtuoso black drummer) were the back-up band for many of the hits produced by Stax.
The book is a treasure trove of stories and anecdotes about many artists, how they were discovered (Otis Redding came in as chauffeur for guitarist Johnny Jenkins...who? and stayed on to dazzle the band with his rendition of "These Arms of Mine"), their careers, successes and tragedies; but it is mostly about the complicated story of Stax Records, from its modest genesis and its meteoric rise to its vertiginous descent into bankruptcy, due to mismanagement, greed and corruption.
Stax's first phase through the early 60s was managed by Jim and Estelle, but it was the addition of disc-jockey-promo-man extraordinaire, Al Bell, "six-feet-four bundle of joy, two hundred and twelve pounds of Miss Bell's baby boy. Soft as medicated cotton and rich as double-X cream. The women's pet, the men's threat and the playboy's pride and joy." that turned Stax into a successful business. In addition to his business talent, Bell, as a black man, Gordon writes, "would enhance the administration's credibility among the [mostly black] employees."
"We weren't a professional company before Al," says Booker T. Jones. "We didn't have big business going on. We had big music going on." They certainly had that with Otis Redding, Issac Hayes, The Staple Singers, Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave and Wilson Pickett to name a few.
National success ushered the next phase when rival companies and mega record enterprises began poaching many of the artists of Stax records. Atlantic Records handled the distribution of Carla Thomas and other artists' records, and eventually took them over and owned all the copyright to the songs. "First was the issue of authorship and its rewards...The money from a hit goes to the songwriters." but in the early days at Stax no one cared too much to protect their rights, until it was too late.
Poor business decisions and missed opportunities, such as not signing Aretha Franklin or Gladys Knight and competition for the same talent from Motown et al. ushered in the third and final phase in 1967.
Its major international star, Otis Redding and several members of the rising band The Bar-Kays died in a plane crash. The following year, a sniper assassinated the Reverend Martin Luther King at the Lorraine hotel that was a favorite hangout for the Stax musicians and writers. This tragedy put a major damper on their creativity for months.
Stax did not back-up or promote Issac Hayes "Shaft" music, in 1971. He ended up being the first black artist to receive a Oscar for a movie theme song and a Grammy in 1972.
Estelle was pushed out of the business; her brother, Jim made disastrous business deals with the unscrupulous sharks at Atlantic Records that ended up owning all the rights to the original songs of Stax, without paying a cent. Al Bell, vice president of marketing, bought out Stewart in 1972 taking full possession of Stax and began an era of rapid growth, big money, greed, extravagant spending and corruption. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, the semblance of racial unity that existed at Stax, and in Memphis, faded.
"Resentment, hostility and fear were roiling among Memphis business elite...They [Stax management] were afraid someone would hide drugs in Stax, then try to bust them." Al Bell felt that guns were "an American institution" used mainly "by the white majority" to maintain and consolidate power. He relates that he felt trapped, and forced to defend himself and his employees.
On top of these problems, new considerations suddenly influenced creative decisions. Bell told Gordon, "We're talking about major Wall Street corporations and how their decisions and their thinking impacted with us and interfered, and in some instances, prohibited us" from producing certain music.
Bell hired the brutal Johnny Baylor to manage protection and as distribution manager. Baylor's tactics were often illicit and even felonious; he developed new clients with a handshake, a bribe, a fist or a gun. It was the time when "payola" was common. Baylor was eventually arrested.
Stax grew to have the fifth-highest revenue of any black-owned business in the nation in 1973. Despite this, the company "didn't have a real, structured management system," writes Gordon. Two years later, the white-owned Union Planters National Bank, Stax main financial backer, framed Stax management with fraud charges and Al Bell went to trial; he was acquitted but Stax was bankrupt and finished.
The book is based on extensive research, primary sources and personal interviews that were originally conducted for the 2007 PBS documentary by the same name. It is an easy read full of interesting characters and insider information about "Soulsville, U.S.A." and an important era in genuine American music. If you are a fan of R&B music and curious about its provenance and history, this book is for you. I found it to be better than Rob Bowman's "Soulsville, U.S.A." that is simply a series of interviews collected in a book, and more informative than the segment in Peter Guralnick's "Sweet Soul Music".
In 1995, during a visit to Memphis I went looking for "Soulsville, USA" on McLemore street, only to find that nothing was there. I was told by a local that"the Stax/Capitol building had been bought for one dollar by a church group in the late 80s and torn down to eradicate the source of devil-music."
In the early 21st century a museum of American soul music was erected on the site, it included a recreation center and a school for the arts, the Stax Music Academy, for local talented youngsters.
I wrote this review while listening to music from "Stax 50: A 50th Anniversary Celebration (9 CDs).