A Love Letter to Stax Records

02.06.10, Words by: Ruth Saxelby

These kinds of articles, I feel, should have the type of beginning that is often referred to as being a ‘Damascus moment’; this is the epiphany, the revelation, the shining light of realisation; on the road to Damascus St. Paul was struck down, saw Jesus, and converted to Christianity. The Damascus moment in music is the instant when listening to something new you experience the secular epiphany of pop music. This is the time when your friend made you a tape of Bleach by Nirvana when you were both twelve and busy discovering both weed and skateboarding. It’s finding your Dad’s old Rolling Stones records in the attic. It’s taking a gamble on a weird German sounding band called Kraftwerk and hearing a completely different world in it. Except I don’t ever really remember the first time I heard a song from the Stax label. I imagine it was probably Otis Redding’s Sitting On The Dock Of My Bay, with its famous whistling melodies, but I couldn’t say when the first time I heard it was, or that a great Damascus moment occurred when I did, and I certainly didn’t know that it was on Stax. So instead I want to focus on a different type of Damascus moment, a moment inside the history of Black American Music that is Stax itself. This is the secular epiphany of black popular music as a vehicle for radical, social change.

Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton formed Stax records in Memphis, Tennessee in 1957 as Satellite Records, their first release being the Veltones’ Fool In Love. In 1960 they met Rufus Thomas whilst promoting the Veltones single and moved into a disused cinema on McElmore Avenue in South Memphis and turned it into a recording studio. The two white record label heads, Stewart and Axton, found themselves in a poor, predominately black neighbourhood, during a time of mass civil unrest in America. Black American music traces itself from slave history with the Christianisation of the work song and then the blues, jazz, soul and gospel, through to the late twentieth century and Grandmaster Flash, NWA, Public Enemy and the rise of hip-hop. With its turn to Christianity, African-American music developed the gospel style, and to a certain extent the blues, both indicative of the struggle of a people for emancipation and respect. There is something eternal about the wandering bluesman, a shadow musician. With people like Skip James who became a pastor after retiring from music in 30s, there is a link between the suffering and the hope of everlasting life. African-American music is impossible to talk about without discussing the anthropological and folk aspects of it. The nature of the people recording it forces a political dialogue upon it, whether it’s one of salvation through hymn, or a record of the conflict between survival and purity of religion (Skip James was a bootlegger, musician and labourer), and later in the likes of Public Enemy, an all consuming anger and violence at the status quo, the record industry and society.

But Stax is a watershed moment in the history of African-American music. To continue talking of Christian imagery and conversion is a negation of the influence of Christianity on black music because the brand of Soul music espoused and released by Stax-Volt is a secularisation of the gospel tradition. With the Voting Act of 1965, and the broader civil rights movement of the 1960s, many previously disenfranchised black Americans were given the right to vote in elections, allowing them to formally enter the wider American society, even if there was still much resistance to desegregation in the south. But with their formal entrance to American society and culture, the African-American population is open to inclusion in the pantheon of American popular music.

Memphis has a long history of producing these mortal gods of American music, home of Sun Records, who in the 50s gave Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis their breaks in the music industry. These artists’ mixture of African and American musical styles became Rock And Roll and dominated the musical landscape of the later 20th Century. Stax was founded by white businessman Jim Stewart, and along with Motown, took essentially black musical forms and sold them to white audiences as well the African-American population. The style of rhythm and blues they created maintained the call and response vocality and charisma of the gospel singers and developed them into mutually beneficial overlaid harmonies. This is the secular gospel of pop music. Instead of the sufferings and tribulations of faith we have all the dramas of Love and Politics; Stax’s artists haven’t got a political message in their music because the whole enterprise is political on a deeper level, in songs like Respect by Otis Redding and Soul Man by Sam & Dave, black experiences in the south transfer political clashes into the tribulations of emotion in which feeling is shown to be universal. On Cause I Love You by Carl & Rufus we have the first hint of the national ascendency of Stax Records, the first song to be recorded in their old converted cinema building. The building on McElmore Avenue still had the sloping floor of the auditorium that created an unusual, raw and dark acoustic sound that showed up Motown for its preppy pop polish. A young Booker T. Jones played baritone sax on the recording, before forming Booker T. and MGs who would become Stax’s house band playing on most recordings between 1961 and 67. Booker T. & The MGs defined the sound of Stax, all squelching horn hits and boozy bass sounds over soulful, multipart vocals, it is a pure emotional force of celebration of universal experience. Whilst Motown was a predominately black operation, a factory line calling themselves the Corporation, Stax was racially integrated, with Booker T. & The Mgs having two white members, and also releasing odd singles by white artists, like The Fleets’ Please Return To Me. The Mar-Keys who had Stax’s first national hit with Last Night were also a white band, young kids into the sound of black Memphis rhythm and blues. Stax was a colourless enterprise in the midst of segregation, one of the few places in the American South where blacks and whites could freely mix on an equal level; that level being soul music. Stax was also a form of empowerment for black musicians. In the face of white recording artists using black forms of music to make vast sums of money, Stax was reclaiming soul, rhythm and blues and funk for the people who originated the styles.

Otis Redding was the undoubted star of Stax, with a voice of pure emotion; he stumbled into Stax one afternoon in 1962 and convinced them to record him singing a version of These Arms Are Mine. His European tour of 1967 that culminated in a performance at Monterey Pop Festival broke him into the mainstream, backed by Booker T. & The Mgs, his performance wowed the white audience (the first time he had played to a large group of white people in his home country), but within six months he had died in a plane crash in Wisconsin. Three days before his death he recorded what I imagine was the first Stax record I heard, Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay, bringing us neatly full circle.