A tribute to the hot buttered soul of Stax

Isaac Hayes, who died last weekend, was a driving force behind the Stax revolution. By Andy Gill
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The Independent Culture

The death last Sunday of Isaac Hayes draws a final curtain over one of American music's most innovative and groundbreaking institutions, Stax Records.

Hayes was integral to the success of Stax. With co-writer David Porter, he composed huge tranches of the label's Sixties output, including classic hits such as "You Don't Know Like I Know", "Hold On, I'm Comin'", "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby" and the emblematic "Soul Man", before developing his own career as a solo artist on the cusp of the Seventies. An accomplished pianist and arranger, he grasped the opportunity to "stretch out" musically that was routinely accorded hippie acts such as Cream, Santana and The Grateful Dead, and invented a whole new genre, sometimes referred to as "boudoir soul" for its employment of sustained, sex-friendly grooves that could comfortably outlast all but the most tantrically self-denying of erotic athletes.

His landmark 1969 album Hot Buttered Soul established the template of long, lush, sensual arrangements, over which Hayes's sultry baritone would furnish lengthy erotic soliloquies that eventually resolved into familiar songs at their climax – notably the 12-minute opening take on "Walk On By" and the 18-minute version of "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" that took up all of the second side. A fixture in the pop album charts for a whopping 80 weeks, it was largely responsible for transforming soul music from a singles form to an album form, enabling the likes of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye to embark on their legendary works of the ensuing decade.

Without Hayes's breakthrough success, Motown boss Berry Gordy would have been unlikely to offer either of these giant talents the latitude to indulge their personal artistic visions; and it goes without saying that all subsequent R&B stars, from Boyz II Men to R Kelly and Usher, owe him an enormous debt: indeed, it's no exaggeration to designate them all as just footnotes to his innovations. Likewise, his adoption of the Black Moses image of oiled torso adrape in gold chains set the style for every bare-chested, six-pack-toting lover-man who wanted to add a little frisson of S&M to their erotic appeal (although at the time, the chains were presented as an empowering, transformative takeover of the symbol of slavery).

Hayes's greatest success, however, came with his iconic soundtrack theme to the movie Shaft, a massive and enduring worldwide hit, and the accompanying album, which secured him the Academy Award for Best Score – the first black composer to be so honoured – along with a Golden Globe and various other awards. It was a remarkable journey for a performer who received his big break only because Stax's session keyboard king, Booker T Jones, left the company to enrol at Indiana University. Jim Stewart, the label's founder, offered him the position, and Hayes jumped at the chance. His first work in this capacity was a 1964 session with Otis Redding, an ambitious newcomer with a headful of dreams and a couple of "flop" singles.

Stax Records was an almost accidental success. It was started in 1961 by Stewart and his older sister Estelle Axton (whose abbreviated surnames provided the company name), as a replacement for their first label, Satellite, when a California-based label with a prior claim on that name threatened to sue. Coming from a white, rural background, they were unlikely stewards of an R&B label: a Western swing fiddler, Stewart's main musical interests were confined to country and bluegrass – as he himself later admitted, "I had scarcely seen a black till I had grown," and he had never heard of Atlantic, Chess, Imperial, Vee-Jay, or the other prominent R&B labels of the Fifties. "I just wanted to be involved with music, one way or another." He was eventually turned on to R&B, like countless other astonished white folk, by Ray Charles's "What'd I Say".

Through his day job in a bank, Stewart found and bought the old Capitol Theatre in Memphis, which would become the home of Stax Records, its projecting marquee proudly proclaiming it "Soulsville USA", a Southern echo of Motown's "Hitsville USA" up in Detroit. Estelle, who had previously raised the money to buy an Ampex recorder, set up their Satellite Records shop in the foyer, while the auditorium was transformed into a studio. Jim and Estelle got a shrewd idea of local music tastes by monitoring record sales to the black teenagers – among them future Stax stalwarts Isaac Hayes and David Porter – who rifled through the record racks, and cut their own cloth accordingly. The theatre's original PA speakers and sloping floor, meanwhile, gave the tracks recorded at Stax a peculiar reverb characteristic that attracted the attention of Atlantic Records' A&R head Jerry Wexler, who set up an arrangement whereby Atlantic would distribute Stax products, and also send their own artists to Memphis to record at Stax. The result was the globalisation of what had until then been a local niche sound, but would become known as Southern Soul – a funkier, grittier, bluesier version of Motown's black pop.

The real heart of the Stax sound, however, and the label's most groundbreaking achievement, was its unprecedented inter-racial attitude, an extraordinarily courageous and far-sighted approach at a time, and in a place, where black and white band members still had to billet at different hotels. The label's first session crew, The Mar-Keys, was a white septet, two of whom – bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn and guitarist Steve Cropper – would go on to form The MGs with black drummer and keyboardist Al Jackson and Booker T Jones; and before Cropper became established as the studio helmsman, the producer of many Stax soul classics was Chips Moman, another white kid with a good ear. To this day, many listeners eulogise over the funky "black" grooves of Stax Records, not realising that the black singers were in many cases backed by white musicians. It was a formula that extended when the label began farming out recordings to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, in Sheffield, Alabama.

Indeed, it was this generation of colour-blind musicians and singers that arguably did more to break the colour bar in the American South than anybody other than Martin Luther King: here was a living, breathing example of the benefits of racial co-operation, most spectacularly realised in the hits co-authored by Cropper and Otis Redding. Otis was the genius behind the horn punctuation so characteristic of many Stax arrangements.

In 1965, Jim and Estelle brought in the young black promoter Al Bell to oversee Stax's marketing, and he swept through the company like a whirlwind, bringing in new talent, expanding the label's profile, and reassuring the likes of Isaac Hayes and David Porter that black talent could prosper in the Stax hierarchy. A form of profit-sharing was established for Hayes, Porter, and Booker T & The MGs. Under Bell's de facto stewardship, Stax scored hit after hit with Otis Redding, Booker T & The MGs, local DJ Rufus Thomas, his daughter Carla, and backing bands The Mar-Keys and Bar-Kays. In 1966, they sold six million singles. But the company tried to expand too fast, enlarging its roster from a dozen acts to a hundred between 1965 and 1967.

In the Seventies, Hayes's success and the grandiose gesture of the Wattstax festival and film papered over the growing cracks at Stax. Stewart and Bell – by then the label's president – grew increasingly estranged, the Atlantic distribution deal was replaced by a less simpatico one with Columbia, the MGs were farming their talents out elsewhere, Hayes filed for bankruptcy, and the once close interracial relationships were strained to breaking point.

As Bell's business dealings grew more serpentine, the writing was on the wall, with IRS audits and grand jury investigations leading to Bell's indictment on charges of conspiring to secure fraudulent bank loans. He was acquitted, but the label went bust in January 1976.

But for a brief decade, Stax Records provided a beacon of racial harmony and artistic authenticity that lit the way to the possibility of a more equitable, music business.


Sam & Dave - 'Soul Man'
Because their vocal synergy so gloriously transcended deep personal enmity. And because Steve Cropper's wheedling guitar fills send shivers up the spine every time.

Otis Redding - 'Try A Little Tenderness'
Because of the way it teeters on the edge before tumbling into the exultant resolution. And because it captures Redding at his peak, rather than at the end.

Booker T & The MGs - 'Green Onions'
Because this classic track is the definitive Memphis groove. And, once again, because Steve Cropper's less-is-more guitar break is simply so slide-rule perfect.

The Staple Singers - 'I'll Take You There'
Because the groove takes its own sweet time stalking the song. And because Mavis Staples merely grunting is more expressive than most orators in full flow.

Isaac Hayes - Theme from 'Shaft'
Because of the propulsive energy and rhythm of Skip Pitts's definitive wah-wah guitar licks. And because they say this cat Shaft is a bad muthaf- "Shut your mouth!"