Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records

by Rob Bowman

(Schirmer Books)

In Rob Bowman’s recent history of Stax, Soulsville, U.S.A., the 1972 Wattstax music festival in LA stands as both a high point and the top of a long slide into the mud for the legendary Memphis record label. The event, which went off without any of the violent hitches that plagued other giant music happenings of the era, featured many of the company’s best artists, including Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, and the Bar-Kays, as well as a speech by Jesse Jackson. Accessible to nearly everyone with its one-dollar ticket, Wattstax raised funds for Martin Luther King Hospital, the Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation, and the Watts Labor Action Committee.

Bowman, coproducer of three acclaimed Stax box sets and a longtime authority on the label, believes Stax’s altruism was sincere: “It’s easy to be cynical about such a stance,” he writes, “but many of those who were central to the Stax experience shared a deep-seated pride that their company was doing more than its fair share to make a difference.” But he also shows how the white founders’ complicated, sometimes pioneering relationship with the black community eventually led to the label’s demise.

Stax was founded in the late 50s by Jim Stewart, a banker who played the fiddle, with help from his older sister, Estelle Axton. (The company name comes from the first two letters of each sibling’s surname.) Stax didn’t set out to record exclusively rhythm and blues–Stewart recalls that its earliest efforts were “washed-out” country pop. But the studio and adjoining Satellite record shop were “in the heart of what was fast becoming a black ghetto,” Bowman writes, and many key players came to Stax just by dint of geography. After Carla Thomas, who’d been trained in gospel and opera at the nearby black Hamilton high school, struck gold with “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes)” in 1960, Axton and Stewart decided to focus on R & B.

In late 1961, songwriter David Porter wandered in from across the street, where he was working at a grocery store; he’d eventually be responsible for all-time great tunes like Sam & Dave’s “Hold On! I’m Coming” and “Soul Man,” many cowritten with Isaac Hayes–a session musician who’d failed several vocal auditions. Guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn of Booker T. & the MG’s fame came into the fold after touring in a band with Axton’s son Packy, and would eventually develop a seminal relationship with Otis Redding. That blend of aching vocals and minimal, funky arrangements became for many people the sound of Memphis soul. Cropper and Dunn were white and Redding was black, so the combination aroused the ire of some locals, but with Atlantic distributing the label’s hits nationwide, Stax was able to triumph over provincial hostility.

Then, in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and Stax was changed forever. Mistrust and animosity grew between black musicians like Hayes, who had marched with King, and white musicians and managers. Trumpeter Wayne Jackson says that after 1968, “white wasn’t really cool over there.” Although Stax stood unscathed through the riots right after the assassination, Stewart and Axton hired a couple of gun-toting black security guards to control some local hoodlums who were extorting money from Stax employees. “They got on me one day,” Cropper tells Bowman, “and accused me of slapping this kid who used to run errands for me. It never happened. They all of a sudden made it a black and white thing, and we had been everybody’s friend there for years.”

But the two security men, Dino Woodard and Johnny Baylor, had their own degenerative impact on the company, making plays for power and threatening and assaulting musicians. During a heated argument over the direction a rehearsal was taking, Baylor threatened to shoot keyboardist Marvell Thomas (Carla’s brother). And when Wayne Jackson heard a rumor that Baylor had pulled his piece on Porter, he and saxophonist Andrew Love left Stax, returning only to do occasional session work.

Not all the ripples from King’s death were negative, though. “When Dr. King was killed I flipped,” Hayes tells Bowman. “I just did a lot of reevaluating and I said, ‘Wait a minute, Jim, this company is selling to predominantly [black] people. You’ve got to get some [black] people working here.’ We spearheaded a lot of that stuff.” Stewart ceded partial ownership to promotions whiz Al Bell, a nationally known black DJ who’d been active in King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Under Bell’s direction, Stax broke away from its old formula to showcase the gospel harmonies of the Staple Singers and the electric funk of the Bar-Kays. And with Richard Pryor’s groundbreaking album That Nigger’s Crazy, released on a Stax subsidiary called Partee, the course of comedy was permanently altered.

It was under Bell, too, that Isaac Hayes made the transition from songwriter to producer to star. Hayes’s trademark spoken-word delivery and sophisticated arrangements exemplified the growing complexity of soul music. Under the influence of his decadently layered four-song LP Hot Buttered Soul (1969), the market quit looking to radio-friendly seven-inch singles for the bulk of its sales. Hayes’s commanding Black Moses persona–his shaved head and vests fashioned from gold chains–became a pop-culture phenomenon, and he helped politicize soul with lyrics like those he wrote for the Shaft sound track in 1971: “Who is the man that would risk his neck for his brotherman? Shaft! Can you dig it?”

Jet magazine writer Chester Higgins popularized Hayes’s Black Moses image, but it was more than just media hype. Hayes organized the Black Knights, who brought discrimination complaints directly to Memphis mayor Henry Loeb and collected food and money for impoverished families. During the riots sparked by the police beating of a black teenager, Hayes took to the streets to help defuse the situation. That he was unable to quell the clashes between Stax’s own security guards and musicians is a poignant irony.

But it wasn’t the guards’ battles with musicians that finally brought Stax down. The label’s demise began for real on the day in 1972–about three months after Wattstax–that officials at the Memphis airport detained Baylor for carrying $130,000 in cash and a check from Stax for $500,000. Neither sum has ever been satisfactorily explained, and the money set the FBI and IRS to sniffing for something, anything, going on under the table at Stax; the U.S. attorney’s office investigated Bell for fraud. A handshake distribution deal with CBS turned into a disaster when the label withheld millions of badly needed dollars, and Stax employees began to suspect a hostile takeover after they heard about a report prepared by the Harvard Business School that suggested Columbia Records “aggressively pursue” the soul market. The Union Planters National Bank, which had previously been generous with Stax, got nervous and demanded that its loans be repaid promptly. Though no one was ever convicted of anything, Stax officially went bankrupt in January 1976, and money that by all rights should have been paid to artists, particularly Hayes, instead went straight into the pockets of creditors.

“Whatever the legal niceties,” Bowman writes, “this is ethically untenable.” And if you need more proof, look no further than the Black Moses himself: Hayes now makes more money as the voice of the lascivious, politically indifferent cartoon character Chef on South Park than he does off all his Stax work combined.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jese Jackson and Al Bell, August 20, 1972 photo courtesy Fantasy Inc.; album cover.