Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion

 

Reading Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion caused me to wax nostalgic. In the mid-sixties, every community had their ma and pa record store. We had a little one that sold nothing but 45rpm singles. If you don't know what a 45rpm single is, ask your parents. If you are under twenty, ask your grandparents. In Pacoima, our store of choice was off the corner of Nordhoff and Woodman. The walls had w riting on them that kept track of all the weekly hit lists including Billboard, the local radio charts (which unlike now, tended to have a lot of regional bands next to the national stars), and the R& B charts. My interest was always the R&B chart. For even if this was California, where surf music and the British invasion held reign, I lived in an ethnically diverse community which stoked my love of soul music next to my original love of Jazz. The R&B and Billboard charts mainly had the sophisticated urban sounds of Motown but some of us craved the coarser more soulful sounds of Stax, Volt and Atlantic. The singles out of Stax include "Green Onions" by Booker T. and the MGs, "Try a Little Tenderness by Otis Redding,"Knock on Wood" by Eddie Floyd and "Respect Yourself by the Staples Singers including many others by Sam & Dave, Rufus and Carla Thomas, The Bar-Kays, and other too numerous to mention. The Stax registrar later included the more polished Isaac Hayes, Luther Ingram, and the Staples Singers. But these earthy records were frowned on by our parents. They were too coarse, too loud, too sexual, too black. "Why couldn't you listen to those nice Beach Boys or even those Beatles?" was their question. We had no answer. It just felt right.

Respect Yourself chronicles the rise and fall of Stax Records. Stax was like many of the small record companies in the U.S. in the 50s and 60s that served up a local sound, in this case the Memphis sound. Ran by a white man and his sister, they opened their studio to the community and began a place where black and white could buy records together and record their own music together. While most of their artists were black, they were backed by the integrated house band, the MGs. This was a major thing in the 60s, especially in Memphis, Tennessee whose segregation and violent history is also well documented in this book. Like many locals, Stax reached national distribution through an agreement with the larger Atlantic Records. The Stax sound, at least at first, was instantly recognizable. the owner Jim Stewart and producer/arranger and house band leader Booker T had a style that was all Stax.

Robert Gordon knows his music and he writes expertly about what that Stax sound was and how it originated. Some of hallmarks he discuss include the rise and death of Otis Redding, the ascent of Isaac Hayes from arranger to star, and the recording of hits like "Hold on. I'm a'coming" by Sam & Dave and "Walkin' the Dog" by Rufus Thomas, and "Respect Yourself" by the Staple Singers. Gordon also writes well about Stax's place in Memphis as a cultural icon and a place of community. One of the things that interested me was how long these legendary singers had to continue their day jobs while making regional hits that we now consider soul classics. Otis Redding worked as a limousine driver while Isaac Hayes worked in a slaughter house. But that was not much of a surprise to me since, in the 70s, I was playing sax in bars on the weekends and washing dishes on weeknights while going to college. But then again I never had a hit record, but I digress..

Yet there was a dark side too. As Stax become more popular, they grew out of their tight knit family environment and became a corporation. The author is also writing about the decline of the local record company and the rise of the conglomerate. At the height of their success in the early 70s, Stax became gobbled up by large corporations and pretty much became one themselves, leading to a glut of financial scandal, criminal activity and often violent episodes. Their sound changed and the company collapsed under its own weight bringing in mind the old saying that nothing fails like success. Gordon's book is as much about the fall of the regional record company and the rise of the music conglomerates as it is about the music.

It's a mesmerizing story of "rise and fall" and Robert Gordon tells it well. The story goes from Jim and his sister Estelle recording country Western acts as a hobby to a small but active company thriving on the enthusiasm of its black community to a profit above all else concern led by Music mogul Al Bell and plagued by guns and drugs. But the core of this book is about the music and the dedication lesser known musicians like Donald "Duck Dunn, Steve Cropper and, of course, Booker T gave to the music. If you have any interest in popular music, especially soul and R&B, this is an essential read.