Black and white and Stax all over

Motown may have been the hit machine, but Stax Records had Otis, Hayes & Porter and a Mississippi soul. Oh... and Lena Zavaroni
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The Independent Culture

To read contemporary accounts of the era, Otis Redding's appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival, less than six months before his death, was the point at which most Americans first became aware of the powerful currents of Southern soul music that had been flowing out of Memphis over the previous few years. Paired alongside Jimi Hendrix on the subsequent live album, he was presented as a bolt from the deepest blue, an anomalous burst of pure R&B energy amongst a sea of laidback proto-hippie longhairs.

To read contemporary accounts of the era, Otis Redding's appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival, less than six months before his death, was the point at which most Americans first became aware of the powerful currents of Southern soul music that had been flowing out of Memphis over the previous few years. Paired alongside Jimi Hendrix on the subsequent live album, he was presented as a bolt from the deepest blue, an anomalous burst of pure R&B energy amongst a sea of laidback proto-hippie longhairs.

In Britain, folks knew better. Long accustomed to concert itineraries that stretched little beyond the black "chitlin" circuit and college frat parties, the musicians that made up The Stax-Volt Revue - Otis, Sam & Dave, Arthur Conley, Carla Thomas, Eddie Floyd, backing band Booker T & The MGs and horn section The Mar-Keys - were astonished at the reception accorded them by British press and fans when they arrived for a series of shows in the spring of 1967.

Stax Records was the home of Southern soul, the company's trademark light-blue label serving as a guarantee of soul authenticity. Compared to the Motown sound of Detroit, Stax's was a rawer, darker, bluer experience entirely, less processed and inarguably "blacker", as if its proximity to the Mississippi mud in which the blues first grew ensured its fidelity to emotional truth. "Motown were more polished and groomed," says William Bell, the label's first singer-songwriter success, "and we were just basically blue-collar type music for the people."

Ironically, while Motown was a black-run organisation, Stax was founded by white siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, and its output was underpinned by a production crew that courageously blended black and white musicians. "At the time, we were really living the integration and the civil-rights movement, and I think our music reflected that," believes Bell. The labels' differing outlooks were cogently summarised in their home-base slogans: while Motown's shopfront studio in Detroit bore the legend "Hitsville USA", the marquee of Stax's converted cinema on McLemore Avenue in Memphis announced it as "Soulsville USA".

Which isn't to say Stax didn't have hits; as a new four-CD box set, The Stax Story, demonstrates, it hit big with several early releases. But Motown had already clocked up a dozen number ones before Stax gained their first - tragically, Otis Redding's posthumous "The Dock Of The Bay". And in their entire history, from 1960 to dissolution in 1975, Stax had only three chart-toppers.

Stax's influence, however, was far more wide-ranging than that suggests, not least in establishing a musical climate that would find British acts like the Beatles and the Stones adapting soul material as they had previously adapted American blues and rock'n'roll songs. In this regard, the company's fortunes were undoubtedly helped, in its early years, by the distribution deal signed with Atlantic Records' A&R head Jerry Wexler, which brought the likes of Otis, The Bar-Kays and Eddie Floyd to a much wider audience. The deal also enabled Wexler to use the Stax studio crew behind other Atlantic artists, most notably Wilson Pickett and Sam & Dave.

At the core of the Stax sound was the house band, Booker T & The MGs, whose ubiquity ensured an overall level of quality, as did the Motown house band of Earl Van Dyke in Detroit. And just as many Motown records bore the production credit of simply "The Corporation", so too did Stax's credits refer to "The Stax Staff" - a six-man aggregation that combined the four MGs with the company's main songwriters, Isaac Hayes and David Porter. But where the sinister-sounding Corporation was a reflection of Motown's regimented production-line approach, the Stax Staff was label boss Jim Stewart's way of introducing a profit-sharing incentive scheme into his organisation.

The working environment was loose and collective in spirit. Stanley Booth's book on Southern music, Rythm Oil (sic), includes a couple of telling portraits, one featuring Redding developing "The Dock Of The Bay" in the studio, the other depicting Hayes and Porter writing at the piano, trying to extend a string of hits that includes "Soul Man" and "Hold On I'm Comin". Both feature anonymous outsiders - a teenage girl brought in by a talent scout to audition for Hayes and Porter, and a young lad who walked in off the street to the Otis session, listening to the playback and offering his unsolicited opinion. The scenes show Stax's open-door policy, which brought local talent literally to their threshold.

The sound of the label's records, meanwhile, was due partly to the converted-cinema studio - with its raked auditorium floor and enormous, bass-heavy U-8 movie speakers - and partly to the collective process of "head" arrangements used by the musicians. Otis Redding was the acknowledged master of this method, the distinctive unison horn parts on his records derived from lines he would "sing" to players who, in Isaac Hayes' memorable phrase, "listened with one ear between them". Redding's slow-burning ballads like "I've Been Loving You Too Long" and "Try A Little Tenderness" remain, 30 years after his death, the platonic form of the deep soul style.

Stax's success grew rapidly through the mid-Sixties. A flamboyant ex-DJ, Al Bell, was brought in to help run the company in 1965, and took the label to new heights. Within a couple of years, the label's roster grew from a dozen acts to over a hundred. But when Stax's distribution deal came up for renewal in 1968, Stewart was shocked to learn that Atlantic's initial $5,000 investment had also secured them ownership of all Stax's masters. Infuriated, he refused to renew the contract, instead striking a deal with the Gulf + Western corporation which allowed Stax to continue in its own right, albeit starting over again.

Amazingly, under Al Bell's stewardship, the company was even more successful. But as the civil-rights Sixties became the Superfly Seventies, the atmosphere at Stax became soured by guns and jealousy, with many old company hands like Rufus Thomas and William Bell disgusted at the huge amounts being frittered on new, unproven acts. Worse yet, the precious "transracial" synergy at the heart of the company was broken, with the white musicians sensing resentment as black power rhetoric altered attitudes. The final blow was dealt by a sustained burst of financial mismanagement which saw the company eventually declared bankrupt in January 1976. "I knew it was over when they signed Lena Zavaroni and Billy Eckstine," said Duck Dunn later. "Not that they didn't have talent, but that was the Columbia Record Club. That wasn't Stax Records."

'The Stax Story' is available now through Ace Records

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