Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion
by Robert Gordon
What's the greatest soul music label of all time?
With all respect to Philadelphia International Records, which places a strong third, the battle royal ultimately comes down to Motown - Berry Gordy's Detroit hit factory that achieved its goal of becoming "The Sound of Young America" - and Stax, the Memphis label that made stars out of Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Wilson Pickett, and many others.
Some argue that Gordy's enterprise was principally a pop label. Valid, although debatable. The sign Gordy hung outside his Detroit garage, after all, read, "Hitsville, USA".
Stax, in deliberate counterpoint, identified its studio in a converted movie theatre in earthier terms: "Soulsville, USA".
Robert Gordon's Respect Yourself tells of the precipitous rise and dramatic fall of Stax, which went into bankruptcy in 1975 after a spectacular run that ended with the label's last hit, Shirley Brown's Woman to Woman, in 1974.
The label was founded as Satellite Records in 1957 and changed its name four years later, with the new moniker combining the names of banker and fiddle player Jim Stewart and his big sister Estelle Axton, who mortgaged her house to pay for the company's first tape recorder.
Stewart and Axton were white, as were guitarist Steve Cropper and bass player Donald "Duck" Dunn, one-half of Booker T & the MGs, the house band that served up one of the label's early enduring hits, with the delectably greasy instrumental Green Onions in 1962. But the other half of the MGs - Hammond B-3 player Booker T. Jones and sublime drummer Al Jackson Jnr - were black, as were virtually all of the other significant players in the Stax story. Funky Chicken performer Rufus Thomas was one of scores of talented Memphians who walked into Stax off the street. "If you had talent - if you thought you had talent - you could go there," Thomas says in Respect Yourself. "No studios - no nothing - ever gave any of the black artists that kind of chance."
How that co-operation between the races worked - and then ceased to - in the segregated south is a unifying thread running through Gordon's page-turner of a musical history. Memphis, of course, is the city where the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jnr was assassinated in 1968 at the Lorraine Motel. The Lorraine was the Stax musicians' second home, where out-of-town players would stay.
The Memphis of Respect Yourself was a racially divided city ripped apart when King was killed, less than four months after the plane-crash death of Redding, the commanding soul man who was the label's biggest star. Those two blows seemed to do Stax in. But the Stax story is a tale of resiliency and ingenuity, much of it embodied in Al Bell, an innovative African-American executive.
It was Bell who engineered Stax's impressive second act, riding hitmakers such as Johnnie Taylor, Hayes, and the Staple Singers, whose 1971 Respect Yourself gives the book its title. He also brought in dubious types such as Johnny Baylor, the intimidating radio promotion man arrested in 1972 with US$129,000 in cash in his briefcase, strongly suggesting payola. During the firm's trial, Bell was indicted on (and acquitted of) bank-fraud charges. Gordon clearly believes the label was brought down, in part, because it was a black-run company that rankled the city's white establishment.
Much of the ground Gordon covers can be found in Peter Guralnick's broader Sweet Soul Music and Rob Bowman's label history, Soulsville USA. But Respect Yourself shines because Gordon's thorough research doesn't stop him from keeping a complicated story moving quickly, while doing justice to the characters who brought this gloriously gritty music to the world.