Stax Today

by Carl Wiser

Founded by the record producer Jim STewart and and his sister Estelle AXton in 1961, Stax Records in Memphis was home to Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave, The Staple Singers, Johnnie Taylor and many other superstars of soul. While their rival Motown Records operated under Berry Gordy's assembly line work ethic and went for mainstream hits, Stax kept their grip loose and focused on the black listener - at least before their meltdown.

The Stax legacy is clouded by a spectacular financial downfall in the mid-'70s. Looking back on reports from that time, we see a mess of lawsuits, bankruptcy filings, and federal investigations - Jessie Jackson even got involved, trying to raise money to keep the label afloat. With Stax and their master tapes tied up in court, the music didn't get the exposure it deserved, and the remasters, outtakes and other goodies from this vast collection have been slow in coming.

The Stax catalog is now controlled by Concord Music, which is putting a lot of care and feeding into their compilations. In an era of Katy Perry songs about hangovers and covers by the cast of Glee, it feels really good to put on the Staple Singers Be Altitude: Respect Yourself remaster, find out from the liner notes where the reggae influence in "I'll Take You There" came from, and go to a better place.

As for the Stax legacy, the good people at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis are making sure it lives on. This was no easy task: until the museum was opened in 2003, all that honored the legendary label where it once stood was a historical marker surrounded by overgrown weeds in a vacant lot. They've done a great job sorting through the cluttered history of Stax to reveal the inspirations and tell the stories of the people who made the music possible.

To find out more about Stax - the music and the heritage - we asked Nick Phillips at Concord and Tim Sampson at the museum to tell us about it.
How much was Stax modelled on Motown, and what were the key differences?

Tim Sampson: Stax was not really modeled on Motown or any other label. The main differences were that Motown gave the artists their songs, taught them how to dress, and cranked out hits. At Stax, the executives wanted the artists to be themselves and tell their stories through songs that were more gritty.

The Staple Singers recorded what they called "message music" for Stax. Were the staff writers trying to come up with specific songs to fit their style?

Tim: Yes. As Al Bell (Stax Vice President) says in the opening film at the Stax Museum, after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis, many of them wanted to individually reach out and take the baton. I think Stax was also poised for message music because of the times and its location in the South.

How does it work with the reissues? I'm wondering if you have to hunt down master tapes or do any kind of production work on them.

Nick Phillips: When we're planning a reissue we always carefully search our vault, looking not only for the best possible master source of the original album, but also for potential bonus tracks. In our Stax Remasters series of reissues, we go back to the analog tapes and do new 24-bit hi-res digital transfers as part of the remastering process.

Are the Isaac Hayes Stax recordings in your vault, or did he get the rights to those when Stax went under?

Nick: Yes, we do have the Isaac Hayes Stax recordings in our catalog and we have done a number of reissues since Concord acquired these masters in our merger with Fantasy back at the end of 2004, including deluxe, remastered editions of Shaft, Black Moses, and Hot Buttered Soul. We're planning to release, in October, a 4-disc box set collecting these definitive, remastered editions of these albums. We've also issued several terrific compilation CDs including Ultimate Isaac Hayes: Can You Dig It?, The Very Best of Isaac Hayes, and Stax Profiles.

There seemed to be a lot "happy accidents" on the Stax recordings, like the scat singing on "Respect Yourself." Why do you think this is?

Tim: Because the writers, singers, and musicians at Stax had a lot of freedom to be individuals and they liked to experiment.

I heard a mesmerizing outtake of "Dock Of The Bay" without the birds and waves. Is there more where that came from?

Nick: These alternate takes (takes 1 and 2) are on the Otis Redding album Remember Me, and they are mesmerizing, indeed! Otis's vocals sound simply amazing on these alternates - there's such a pure, relaxed, and authentic quality to these takes. Remember Me is a 22-song collection that Bill Belmont had assembled in the early '90s and is replete with insightful liner notes by Rob Bowman. It features all the then-previously-unreleased studio recordings by Redding. Amongst many other gems in this collection, there's also a great alternate take of "Try A Little Tenderness," the song that was sampled in Jay-Z and Kanye West's recent hit "Otis."

The Stax house band was Booker T. & the MGs, who in addition to backing many of the singers who recorded at the Memphis studios, also released their own material, including the hit Green Onions. They also released their own instrumental version of The Beatles Abbey Road album with the tracks reordered. Named McLemore Avenue after the location of Stax, the album has been reissued. The band members were Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Al Jackson, and Lewie Steinberg. In 1964 Donald "Duck" Dunn replaced Steinberg.
Why did you reissue the McLemore Avenue album? Is a new generation ready for Booker T. & the MGs take on Abbey Road?

Nick: I believe that listeners from any generation can appreciate and enjoy stellar, soulful performances of timeless songs. And that's exactly what you have with Booker T. and the MGs covering the songs from the Beatles' Abbey Road album. Also given that there are several other Beatles songs that Booker T. and the MGs had recorded over the years, it seemed a no-brainer to give this classic album the special Stax Remasters series treatment, adding their recordings of other Beatles songs as bonus tracks (including a previously unreleased alternate take of "You Can't Do That"), upgrading the sound quality by remastering with 24-bit technology, and adding new liner notes by Ashley Kahn that tell the story behind the making of this landmark album.

Did Stax have other house musicians besides Booker T. & the MGs, or did those guys play just about everything?

Tim: Booker T. & the MGs were indeed the house band that played on most of the songs. But there were other house musicians, such as Lester Snell, Marvell Thomas, Howard Grimes, Skip Pitts, and the Bar-Kays.

The Funk Brothers, who were Motown's house band, have earned a documentary and plenty of accolades, but Booker T. & the MGs haven't gotten the same treatment yet. What made them so special as musicians, and on what songs can we hear their best work?

Tim: Booker T. & the MGs received the GRAMMY lifetime achievement award in 2007 and are Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees. They were special because they were an interracial band during segregation and because they constantly challenged each other to be better musicians.

Did Stax ever have their artists do choreographed stage moves or look a certain way?

Tim: Sam & Dave were very choreographed and had hilarious and very energetic stage moves. There was some image work going on with the artists from management, but for the most part they took care of this themselves.

Johnnie Taylor is best known for his hit "Disco Lady," but the Taylored in Silk reissue shows another side of him. What are your thoughts on this album and Taylor's impact?

Nick: Taylored in Silk simply captures a great soul singer in peak form, singing pure, undiluted soul music. Although there's no doubting that he also sings very well on his mega-hit "Disco Lady," and that was inarguably his biggest hit, I certainly hear more of the things that I love about Johnnie Taylor - that unbridled soulfulness and down to earth grit in his vocals - in his performances on Taylored in Silk. And, by the way, Taylor certainly did have a nice share of hits with Taylored in Silk, including a #3 R&B album, and #1, #2, and #5 R&B singles with "I Believe In You (You Believe In Me)," "Cheaper To Keep Her," and "We're Getting Careless With Our Love," respectively. I think the impact of so many Stax artists of the '60s and '70s - including Johnnie Taylor - on American music and culture is immeasurable. It's timeless music than continues to be relevant and influential.

How did Stax release so much material in such a short time? Was there a lot of pressure on the writers and producers to crank out songs?

Tim: There were times like that. After the death of Otis Redding in December 1967 and losing all of the Stax masters that same year, Al Bell had the label record 28 albums in one month as a promotion and to show the world that Stax was not dead. Also, most of the Stax artists just loved being at the studio recording and working, sometimes 18 hours a day.

Were the Stax songs distributed among their artists the way Motown did?

Tim: No. Stax tried more to fit each artist with music and songs for them specifically.

Was Stax trying to cross over to pop radio, or were they mostly focused on black radio?

Tim: Stax was focused mainly on black radio in the early days because so few pop stations would play black music. But they did begin to concentrate on crossing over and even had a pop label, Hip Records.

How did the Staple Singers, who were a Gospel group, cross over to the mainstream with their hits "I'll Take You There" and "Respect Yourself"?

Tim: The Staple Singers were brought to Stax by Al Bell, who had been a big fan of their gospel music. Once they began recording soul music at Stax, they became much more mainstream and exceptionally popular.

For the folks who haven't dug into the Stax catalog, where is a good place to start?

Nick: Our Stax Number Ones collection is a great place to start. It features 15 chart-topping hits by some of Stax's best-known artists including Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Booker T. and the MGs and The Staple Singers, amongst many others. To dig a little deeper, you can't go wrong with the Stax 50th Anniversary Collection, a 2-CD set featuring 50 classic Stax tracks.

Stax had a lot of financial problems, which led to their bankruptcy in 1975, but did these business issues have any impact on their music?

Tim: I think it did. The feeling of being part of a musical family had disappeared with the financial ups and downs and musicians were being treated like employees.

Peter Gabriel has mentioned Otis Redding as a major influence, notable on his song "Sledgehammer." What are some other popular artists and songs that drew from the Stax sound?

Tim: The Rolling Stones recorded a Stax cover of Rufus Thomas' "Walking the Dog" on their very first album. Others who have covered Stax songs and drawn from Stax include Elvis Costello, Aretha Franklin, Aerosmith, Chuck D, Huey Lewis, and many others, including dozens of hip hop artists.

What are some of the lesser-known works in the Stax catalog that you would recommend, and why?

Nick: Wow, where do I start? I've lately been getting deeper into the Stax recordings of Rufus Thomas, myself. Damn, was that man funky! Although he too had his fair share of hits on Stax, there's so much to appreciate by Thomas in addition to the top hits. We're reissuing his classic album Do the Funky Chicken in our Stax Remasters series, with several of his singles added as bonus tracks.

Also Shirley Brown. What a voice! Although she had a huge hit with the single "Woman to Woman," the rest of the Woman to Woman album may have been somewhat overlooked in recent years. It's also essential listening throughout. We're reissuing that album as well next month as a Stax Remasters edition and it too features several bonus tracks, including a previously unreleased, rousing demo recording of Brown covering Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours."

Additionally, there's one hidden gem after another waiting to be discovered in the boxed sets The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles. We've just recently reissued second editions of the Volume 2 and Volume 3 boxes (the first editions have sold out), which, added together, chronicle the Stax singles from 1968 to 1975.

Who runs the Stax museum, and what are the most popular exhibits?

Tim: The Stax Museum is operated by a board of directors and a talented staff of people who are very passionate about it and Stax. Some of the most popular exhibits are the Hall of Records, where almost all 300 LPS and 800 singles recorded at Stax are on display; a rural church that is over 100 years old, and Isaac Hayes' restored, gold-plated, fur-lined, Peacock Blue 1972 Cadillac Ed Dorado.

August 17, 2011. Learn more about the Stax Museum in Memphis as
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Comments: 8

  • Blizzy from Memphis, TnI've been to the museum a couple of times and it is great...I love living here in Memphis, because this city oozes with musical history. Great interview too!
  • Nick from Boise IdahoBooker T & the MGs are my heroes and I have patterned my playing after Booker's style and B3 registrations. His latest release, "Potato Hole", is excellent. The videos on this page bring back a lot of memories from my "playing years" of 1964 through 1983.
  • Yes from Houston, TxABSOLUTELY a great interview! I've only been alive as long as the CD player has but I do appreciate and enjoy sources of terrific music.
  • Frank from Pleasanton CaThanks for the great interview. I went to the Stax Museum in 2007 and was blown away by the whole experience. The exhibits covered the roots of music prior to and thru the Stax era. They also reflected on the social issues of the times. Everything was really well presented with some damn cool stuff and some damn cool music. I would highly recommend it and look forward to going back.
  • Shawnerz from MarylandI remember listening to my fathers vinyl album of "Be Attitude". I've got to look for a picture of that EL Dorado. That's got to be wild!
  • Dan from Wheaton IlThe Stax story is one of the very best in rock history. A treasure trove of wonderful music.
  • Patrick from Parkaavenue.comMy hat's off to Tim Sampson for a great interview. I enjoyed it immensely. Keep on, keepin' on!
  • Bill from PensacolaFantastic interview! makes me want to play all my Stax tracks, and get the ones I don't have.
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