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RESPECT YOURSELF by Robert Gordon Kirkus Star


Stax Records and the Soul Explosion

by Robert Gordon

Pub Date: Nov. 12th, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-59691-577-0
Publisher: Bloomsbury

A spellbinding history of one of the most prolific hit-making independent record companies in the history of American music.

What made Stax Records so fascinating was its context in time and place: Memphis in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Gordon (Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters, 2002, etc.), who is from the city and has written and made films about its music for two decades, is uniquely qualified to tell the studio’s rather complicated story. Its beginnings as a side interest of banker and swing fiddle player Jim Stewart and his musically adventurous elder sister, Estelle Axton, were simple enough. Then, almost by accident, the open-hearted white siblings began recording songs by black neighbors of the studio’s location at College and McLemore, beginning with R&B veteran Rufus Thomas (“Walking the Dog”) and his daughter, Carla (“Gee Whiz”), who would continue to make hits with black and white listeners for Stax in the decades to come. In 1965, Stewart brought in African-American promotions man Al Bell to guide the company’s growth. This interracial partnership, echoed by the studio’s house band, Booker T. and the MGs, was unusual anywhere, let alone the segregated city where Martin Luther King would be murdered during a labor dispute between the white mayor and black sanitation workers. King’s assassination, within a year of the loss by plane crash of the label’s major star, Otis Redding, marked a stark line in the histories of Stax, Memphis and America, opening a period of revolutionary rhetoric and action and a coming-of-age of soul music as personified by a new kind of superstar, Isaac Hayes. In zesty prose, Gordon ably narrates this whole story, ending with the convoluted financial machinations that led to the label’s stunningly rapid collapse.

Deep cultural and social history enlivened by a cast of colorful characters.