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December 3, 2013 at 12:54 PM

The triumphs and tragedies of Stax Records | Book review

“Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion”

Robert Gordon

Bloomsbury, $30

As an author and documentarian who’s steeped in Memphis music, Robert Gordon is admirably well-suited to write a history of one of the city’s most revered record labels.

Author Robert Gordon also produced and directed the documentary "Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story" (Bloomsbury)

Author Robert Gordon also produced and directed the documentary “Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story” (Bloomsbury)

And it’s as much a social history as a musical one, as Gordon contrasts Stax’s rise with that of the civil rights movement in Memphis. It made quite a statement to operate a company where whites and blacks freely worked side by side in a city where public swimming pools would be closed so they didn’t have to integrate. When Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records came to Memphis he was forced to meet with Stax representatives in his hotel room, as there were no restaurants where the two races could eat together.

Stax Records, co-founded by brother and sister Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton (the label’s name formed from the first two letters of their last names), tapped into the burgeoning rhythm & blues/soul scene in Memphis, releasing early hits by father-daughter team Rufus and Carla Thomas and Booker T. & the M.G.’s (“Green Onions”).

Stax’s open door policy meant anyone could walk in and make a pitch. When the man who’d driven guitarist Johnny Jenkins to Stax for an audition mentioned that he could sing too, Stewart gave him a chance. The driver was Otis Redding; within a year he’d have his first hit on Stax subsidiary Volt.

Gordon carefully traces the development of the label and the many bumps along the way. Neither Stewart or Axton had much experience in the music industry prior to starting the label. A distribution deal with Atlantic turned out to be a mixed blessing when it was discovered that Atlantic actually owned the company’s master recordings. Redding’s death in a plane crash in 1967 was a huge blow, akin to a death in the family.

Free from Atlantic, Stax rebuilt itself, and there were further hits to come, from Isaac Hayes and the Staples Singers, among others. But, for some, the sense of family was gone. One of the best aspects of Gordon’s book is that you get first hand accounts from all of Stax’s key participants.

The story of Stax is one of triumph and tragedy. And Gordon tells that story with the passion of a fan and the authority of a historian.

0 Comments | More in R & B/Hip-hop | Topics: Book review, Otis Redding, Stax Records

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