Friday, March 19, 2010

Rock Doc Stax Up

Every once is a while I weigh in on one of the many music documentaries in circulation these days. There are a lot of them out there, and I have an increasingly crowded DVD closet bursting with them. It’s a far cry from when I was a teenager and the only way you could see concert films or documentaries on your favorite artists was to go to a rare midnight showing at a local cinema or catch Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert on TV.

This week, I was enriched by Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story. It’s a fascinating tale of the little independent record company out of Memphis that defied all odds to become an unprecedented cross-cultural stew, resulting in the unique and powerful “Memphis soul” sound of the 1960s before eventually succumbing to tragedy, greed and racism in the early 1970s.

Not only does the film remind us of some truly remarkable music of a bygone era, it also serves as a civics lesson. If there was ever any doubt about the power of music to build bridges and unite people, then the Stax story (at least the early part of it) makes the case. In the early ’60s, Memphis was one of the most racially divided cities in America. Blacks and whites couldn’t eat together, share a swimming pool or stay in the same hotels. Yet, in the midst of this, Stax Records grew, nourished by the astounding music that came out of here-to-fore unthinkable collaborations between black and white musicians, proving that not only could they make incredible music, but also run a successful business and happily socialize together.

Nowhere was this creative camaraderie more in evidence than in the phenomenally talented, half-black, half-white quartet Booker T. and the M.G.s, who served as the label’s house band backing all of the Stax artists as well as having several noteworthy hits of their own.

Besides the social significance of the Stax story, the documentary explores the rivalry between the upstart Stax and Detroit’s well-established Motown Records – both out to capture the emergent black-white crossover market. While Motown had the lock on the polished smooth sounds of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye and the Supremes, Stax had the funkier, soulful groove of Otis Redding, the father-daughter team of Rufus and Carla Thomas, Booker T. and the M.G.’s, Sam and Dave, the Staples Singers and Isaac Hayes.

Started by Jim Steward and his sister Estelle Axton in 1959 as Satellite Records (before adapting the conjoined surnames as the company’s moniker in 1961), the fledgling label quickly tapped into the upbeat, “soul” of its surroundings and distinguished itself from the slower, traditional blues sounds of the previous decades – in effect updating the popular R&B genre for a younger, and wider, crossover audience.

For cultural reasons, as well as sonic ones, the Stax sound is clearly stamped with trademarks of the era, yet the pure, gospel-infused soulfulness of so much of the music gives it timeless appeal. I defy anyone to listen to instrumental Booker T. and the M.G. gems, such as “Green Onions,” “Time Is Tight” or “My Sweet Potato,” and not find them as resonant today as ever. And, that’s not even considering the impact of the group’s work backing Otis Redding on classics such as “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay.”

Despite the label’s impressive array of talent, it was Redding who most represented Stax, almost-single-handedly building its stature way beyond its humble origins.

Like most fans of 1960s’ music who didn’t actually live through the ’60s (well, I did but I wasn’t yet grooving to the sounds of Memphis soul!), I never fully appreciated the magnitude of Otis Redding’s fame and impact. Sure, I knew he wrote “Respect” and had a string of impressive hits, such as “Dock of the Bay,” “These Arms of Mine,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song),” “Pain in My Heart” and “Shake.” I knew that he was a big influence on the early Stones (they covered several of his tunes and he returned the favor with an energetic cover of “Satisfaction”). And I was aware that he made a big crossover impact at 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival. But I wasn’t really aware of the star power to which he was ascending. With some notable help from Booker T. and the boys and, later, the Bar-Kays, Otis essentially made Stax records. Not only did he sell a lot of records, he wowed audiences from California to Boston and all across Europe, where he was ecstatically embraced headlining concerts featuring Stax artists.

But in riding Redding’s fame to business success, the label was dealt its first knock-down blow in December 1967 when Otis’ tour plane crashed in Wisconsin, extinguishing his incendiary career at only 26 years of age. The technical knockout came a few months later in April 1968 when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in Memphis to show support for the local sanitation workers’ strike, was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel, where the Stax folks often hung out. This deflated the sense of racial harmony that Stax had fostered. In some ways, it was the beginning of the end for the company, though that would take another half-decade to play out.

Over time, the Stax execs learned the hard way that the distribution deal they’d cut with Atlantic Records, giving the little label clout well beyond its means, ultimately proved to be an exploitative relationship (according to this film, at least) to Stax’s detriment.

The extent of Isaac Hayes’ early and evolving role at the label was a revelation to me. Like most people, I knew Hayes as the 1970’s soul-stirrer most famous for the Shaft movie theme. I didn’t know that he and writing partner David Porter had been a mini hit factory for Stax through the 1960s and that, in his own way, Isaac was nearly as important to the label’s sound and success as Booker T. and the M.G.s.

By the turn of the decade, Hayes had emerged as a star in his own right. The film frankly details the changing dynamic and growing internal discord this introduced at the label as, in the wake of King’s assassination, they embraced the Black Power movement, held the huge “WATTSTAX” concert in L.A., began to dabble in film production and comedy (most notably early Richard Pryor albums), nearly purchased the Memphis Tams A.B.A. basketball team, embarked on an ill-fated partnership with CBS Records and, eventually – amid allegations of greed, financial shenanigans and bank foreclosure – went bankrupt.

The Stax journey had been a decade-long shooting star with a brilliant rainbow tail.

One huge oversight in the film, however, is the almost complete lack of mention of Albert King. The big Flying-V-playing bluesman was a hitmaker for Stax and had played a key role in bringing soulful blues (sharp, biting blues guitar licks coupled with swinging horns) to the hippie masses. In so doing, he became a favorite on the late-’60s Fillmore concert circuit. The far-reaching influence of his playing is plainly evident in the guitar chops of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Cream-era Clapton. I have to wonder whether King’s estate simply refused to cooperate with the filmmakers.

Nevertheless, as Chuck D. notes in the film’s final, celebrity tribute-filled moments, the sign on the marquee of the record company reading “Soulsville U.S.A.” really said it all.


• In addition to the aforementioned DVD, the following Stax sampler CDs provide concise overviews of the label’s impressive catalog: Stax 50th Anniversary Celebration [Box Set] and The Stax Story [Box Set].

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