Seasonal High Notes
Characters referenced, Stax recalled, and the South defined.
(page 2 of 3)
Where are your charts?” the sound engineer in California asked.
“What charts? We ain’t got no charts, man,” the musician replied.
“You don’t have charts!”
“Just roll the film, man.”
The sound engineer worked for the MGM movie studio. The musician was Isaac Hayes. The film was Shaft. And the recording of its soundtrack was scheduled to take several days, but Hayes and his musicians from Memphis finished way ahead of schedule.
“This is head-arranging at its finest!” Hayes said, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences agreed. In 1972, “The Theme from Shaft” won the Academy Award for best original song.
Again, to quote Conaway: “Where is the Memphis that asked you to not just listen to the music but to write it?”
That Memphis is still at the corner of McLemore and College, site of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and Stax Music Academy (where music is being made by a new generation), but those buildings, it’s true, have replaced the famed studio’s original building, which functioned first as a movie theater, then as a Pentecostal Holiness Church. But when Jim Stewart and his sister, Estelle Axton, opened shop there in 1960 — with a recording studio and record store —they never suspected that over the next 15 years, the little studio that could would play a major role in the history of American popular music. The subtitle to Memphian Robert Gordon’s new book says as much: “Stax Records and the Soul Explosion.” Main title (and it says a lot about the role of Stax Records in American civil rights history): Respect Yourself (Bloomsbury).
What has Gordon — author of It Came From Memphis (a history of the city’s garage-rock scene), a biography of Muddy Waters, and books on Elvis Presley, in addition to penning scores of articles, creating more than a half-dozen documentary films, and winning a Grammy Award for his liner notes to a Big Star boxed set — done here that Robert Guralnick in Sweet Soul Music did not? He’s focused squarely on Stax and covered not only its rise and fall (warts and all) but the promise and misfortunes of Memphis during this period. He’s drawn from his own interviews with Stax musicians, singers, and executives — and especially from interviews conducted for his 2007 documentary with collaborators Mark Crosby and Morgan Neville: Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story. Guralnick shared interviews he’d conducted in the past. Writer Barney Hoskyns did too. And in his acknowledgments Gordon doesn’t forget Rob Bowman, author of Soulsville USA: The Story of Stax Records, which Gordon calls “exhaustively researched” and “encyclopedic.”
Early in Respect Yourself, Memphis is described as “the town where nothing ever happens, but the impossible always does.” And so it did when Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla, age 17, walked unannounced into the doors at Stax, and next thing they knew, they had a local hit record. The guys in the smoking room at Messick High School? They went on to make up the Mar-Keys and, some of them, the Stax house band, the MG’s. Otis Redding? He was the driver for guitarist Johnny Jenkins, who was at Stax to cut a record. That session wasn’t going well, so the driver got his chance at the mic on a song called “These Arms of Mine.” The rest is music history. Isaac Hayes? He had a day job at a Memphis meatpacking plant. And David Porter, songwriter extraordinaire, used to sack groceries across the street from Stax, which had an open-door policy. Black or white, you say you’ve got talent? Show us what you can do. What the singers, the musicians, the producers, and the Stax owners did was help usher in the soul explosion of the ’60s in a city where racial tensions, never at rest, were about to reach the breaking point.
Then tragedy: Otis Redding and most of the band members in the Bar-Kays killed in a plane crash; Martin Luther King assassinated. Terrible contracts Stax signed with Atlantic Records, then Columbia Records. Transformation of a loosely run company of talented people into a workplace focused on time management and product quotas. And, finally, discovery of a kickback scheme and evidence of embezzlement by a loan officer who handled Stax’s bank accounts. By the mid-1970s, Stax faced bankruptcy. Stax co-owner Al Bell faced a gun when he was escorted out of the building on charges — later cleared — of bank fraud. And Jim Stewart? To raise capital, he put everything he owned up for auction in 1981.
Let’s end here, though, on a high note. Stax certainly did with its last release and last single, in 1975, by the re-formed Bar-Kays: “Holy Ghost” — and, God, what a high note. And what a run of hits by the artists, writers, and producers inside that former movie house on McLemore at College: among them, Booker T. Jones and his MG’s (Al Jackson Jr., Steve Cropper, and Donald “Duck” Dunn), Eddie Floyd, Wilson Pickett, William Bell, Albert King, Johnnie Taylor, Sam (Moore) & Dave (Prater), Memphis Horns Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love, the Staple Singers, the Soul Children, Luther Ingram, the Emotions, producer Chips Moman, a comedy album by Richard Pryor, the triumphant Wattstax concert and film, and … Lena Zavaroni. Who’s she? A 10-year-old from Scotland with a voice like Rosemary Clooney.
Trouble here is, as soon as you mention one Stax great, you’ve failed to mention another. Robert Gordon in Respect Yourself reminds us of them all.