It's appropriate that a little Memphis label known as Satellite Records would take off in 1957, the same year the Soviets launched Sputnik I to great international uproar. By the time Satellite changed its name to Stax Records four years later, it was already becoming one of America's most important record labels. In 1975 the company was forced into involuntary bankruptcy, ending its run as an influential force in both music and race relations.
"Respect Yourself," a huge hit for Stax by the Staples Singers, is also the name of a 1997 documentary Memphis author Robert Gordon made for PBS' Great Performances series. With a stack of transcribed interviews on hand, Gordon believed that putting together a follow-up book would be easy enough. In fact it took six years, but next week, Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion hits stores. The book is a propulsive page-turner about a white fiddler and bank employee named Jim Stewart and his sister, Estelle Axton, who built the Stax label in the Soulsville neighborhood of Memphis. Together with Al Bell, who came on board later, they made Stax home to Southern soul music from the likes of Carla Thomas, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes, and Booker T. & the MG's. What follows is an edited excerpt from an hourlong conversation with Gordon. It took place at The Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library in Memphis, which holds The Memphis Music Collection.
In the music world, "cutting heads" is the term for an informal competition between two musicians, like saxophone players or guitarists, who trade off playing solos to decide which one is best. But cutting heads in the literal, barber-shop sense is what led to the formation of Stax Records. As I was getting deeper and deeper into these interviews, I was finding bizarre facts, like that Stax started because Jim Stewart's barber explained the music-publishing business to him. The barber comes and helps them record the first records, but then Jim loses his barber. Oh no! But wait: His new barber has a barn out in the country that Jim can use as a studio, so the new barber saves the day!
Publishing has always been the secret story of popular music — all of which was explained to Jim by his barber as his hair was being cut. Jim knew from the get-go that he needed a publishing company, and the publishing company became the cash cow for Stax. Because as they recorded and published songs like "Hold On, I'm Coming," "Soul Man" and "If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don't Want to Be Right," anytime someone else recorded the songs, Stax got paid.
Jim Stewart was short of cash when he was just starting up, so he had to ask his older sister, Estelle Axton, for some help. Jim's initial direction was toward kind of white, schmaltzy music. He was a country fiddle player with an appreciation, we could say, for Perry Como. Estelle always had an affinity for the dance beat, so she pushed it in that direction. Then Jim hears Ray Charles. It's like a lightning bolt. Ray Charles opened a door inside of Jim, and he walked through it and didn't look back.
It's amazing that Estelle Axton is this 40-year-old white woman who just loves the soul beat. She had an amazing career. Stax was full of triumph and tragedy, and she's the only one who really came out making a bunch of money.
But she did suffer. Of all the tragedies that hit Stax, probably none was more pointless and unnecessary than the death of her son, Charles "Packy" Axton, tenor saxophone player for The Mar-Keys. I think Packy had a death wish. He wanted to die through alcohol abuse and set off to do just that. It took him less than 20 years, quite an astounding feat.
Donald "Duck" Dunn, legendary bass player for Booker T. & the MG's, said, "He wasn't the greatest sax player in the world, but he had the heart of the greatest sax player in the world." I love that line! I remember when Duck said it. Packy was enthralled by rhythm and blues. It's hard for us to imagine a time when black people listened to black music and white people listened to white music and the twain didn't meet. Memphis was a black-music capital, a place where you could find this music being played live down in South Memphis, or across the bridge in West Memphis. Packy brought that back to Stax.
Of course we're talking about Memphis music, but 70 miles southwest of Memphis is the little town of Brinkley, Ark., birthplace to one of the most important players in the Stax story, Al Bell. Al Bell was pursuing the ministry at Philander Smith College in Little Rock and started booking gospel bands; he met The Staple Singers early on. He was a man possessed of large vision. At one point, he's in a meeting with Philips Electronics, the owner of the label which is a distributor that Stax works with. And on a tour of one of their facilities in the early '70s, well before the Betamax and VHS were introduced, Al sees these ideas for videocassettes being developed. He immediately thinks, If we are already involved in the manufacturing and distributing of records, then we can make money out of these videocassettes because it's the same audience. We can put our songs on videos or in movies, and then pay ourselves for the publishing, for the use of the songs. He began to have huge ideas.
Here's the challenge portion of the interview: Can you pronounce the name of that Isaac Hayes song "Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic"? Oh, I cannot, man. I cannot. That's a really good song. The album it's on, Hot Buttered Soul, is recorded because Stax is trying to come back from its gutting by Atlantic Records, when they have no catalog of past recordings anymore. They're going to release about 30 albums and 30 singles at once, and Isaac Hayes asks if he could do one. They give him carte blanche to do whatever he wants. He and David Porter have written tons of hits, produced lots of stuff, so Isaac can kind of stretch out and be his own self in the studio without worrying that it will be a hit. And of course, since he's chasing his own artistic vision, his album, of those 30, becomes the biggest seller and the new sound of soul.
To read an uncut version of this interview — and more local book coverage — please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.