The Rise And Fall of Memphis’ Record Label

I just finished reading a great book titled Soulsville USA: The Story of Stax Records by Rob Bowman. For those of you who don’t know, Stax Records happens to be one of the greatest independent record labels that ever existed, and is one of the most important ones in music history. There were 3 great soul and R&B labels in the 1960s: Motown (in Detroit, Michigan); Atlantic (in New York City); and Stax in Memphis, Tennessee.

If you listen to a lot of music, and actually study the sound of it, you can definitely tell if it was Motown, Stax, or Atlantic. Most Atlantic records had the Doo-Wop sound (stuff like the Coasters and the Drifters); Motown had a really great R&B feel; Stax had a bluesy feel, mixed with a little bit of jazz fusion. All 3 labels had these same fundamentals, but each label recorded in different styles and sounds so not to sound like somebody else.

Stax was founded by brother and sister team Jim STewart and Estelle AXton in 1957. They originally called it Satellite Records, but because of a small label in California having the same name, they changed the name to STAX. They opened it up in an old movie theater in a neighborhood that some really great musicians (whom all eventually became famous) lived in. Memphis Slim, Booker T. & The MGs, and Aretha Franklin have all lived in this neighborhood. Al Bell, who would later become president of Stax Records in the late 1960s and go on to produce some of the greatest songs Stax had put out in the 1970s, did not come to Stax until 1965.

Some of Stax’s important musical lineup include: Sam & Dave (“I’m A Soul Man”); Isaac Hayes (Who with David Porter wrote a lot of the great songs that were released on Stax and also put out the popular 1970s funky track “Theme from Shaft”); Albert King (“Born Under a Bad Sign”); Booker T. & The MGs (“Green Onions”); and the Staple Singers (“Respect Yourself”); Otis Redding (“Sitting On The Dock of The Bay”); among others.

At a point in time when most businesses were segregated, especially in the south, Stax Records was one of the few businesses that was integrated proving that music really knows no colors.

Stax’s greatest years were between 1957 and 1968. This was when Booker T. & The MGs, Albert King, Sam & Dave and Otis Redding were all big hits. Isaac Hayes did not start his recording career until 1969. During the 1960s he and songwriting partner David Porter wrote songs for some of Stax’s greatest acts. The biggest hit they wrote together was “I’m A Soul Man” which was famously recorded by Sam & Dave.

Unfortunately, nobody’s perfect in this world and bad business moves can cause for a company’s downfall. In December 1967, Otis Redding was killed in a tragic plane crash at the age of 26. When he was killed, Stax lost their most important recording artist. Also, in April of 1968, Martin Luther King was gunned down by James Earl Ray outside of his motel room at the Lorraine Motel, also in Memphis (on an interesting note, during Stax’s hey-day in the 1960s, the Stax artists would hang out at the Lorraine Motel and work on songs – writing or rehearsing – when not recording in the studio). When Martin Luther King was assassinated, the black Stax artists were furious, upset, and mad. They didn’t want to work with their white counterparts anymore. Also, Steve Cropper left a year later because he was getting sick of being treated like he was an “Employee” – working like it was shift work. Booker T. would also leave, and in 1969 Isaac Hayes would begin his recording career which eventually ended his relationship with David Porter. Apparently, since Isaac started a recording career he didn’t want to write or produce songs for other people anymore. Estelle Axton also left the company, and around the same time Jim Stewart thought it would be a good idea to sell the company, so he sold it to Gulf & Western, the owners of Paramount Pictures. Later, he realized it was a bad idea and so he tried to buy it back without much success, he and Al Bell tried to sell it again to regain some finances, and this time to probably the biggest corporate label: CBS records. CBS at the time mainly had a line-up of rock artists and country artists and was looking to purchase a label so they could have a soul roster. Little did Jim or Al realize was that CBS mainly wanted to buy the company so they could put Stax out of business. When CBS tried to purchase Stax, they had a distribution deal with Stax, yet when Stax would send CBS records to distribute, those albums and 45s didn’t get properly distributed. Stax decided to cut off the deal with CBS, which was in breach of contract meaning Stax would owe CBS money. Because of Stax owing CBS money, and never having finances gained back to them because of the business deal with Gulf & Western they worked with Union Planters bank in Memphis on there finances, which also was a bad business deal. In 1976 Stax ended up owing so much money, that the famous recording studio ended up getting locked down by security guards who kicked everybody out, only giving them 15 minutes to get there personal belongings and had to leave, never to come back. Such bad deals ended up forcing Isaac Hayes into bankruptcy some years later, and Jim Stewart never recovered either.

Sadly, the building remained empty for over 11 years and even though it should’ve been saved and put on the national historic landmark registry, it was demolished in 1988, leaving an empty lot until 1999, when the city of Memphis realized the historic aspect of it, and rebuilt it to look just like the original building and now housing a Stax museum there with historical Stax artifacts.

I’m happy to inform you that 2007 marked Stax’s 50th anniversary. To mark the occasion, Stax is making a comeback. Isaac Hayes’ next album will be released on Stax Records (which is now owned by Fantasy Records). There will also be a couple of other modern soul artists who will have albums released this year on Stax. Also released this Year is “Stax: 50th Annversary” 2-disc set of all the greatest songs released on Stax including Booker T. & The MGs – Green Onions; Otis Redding – “Respect”, “Sittin On The Dock of The Bay”; Sam & Dave – Soul Man; The Staple Singers – Respect Yourself; among other great songs. There also was a Stax Documentary on PBS in August. Be on the lookout for these great Stax releases from “the little label that could.”

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