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Stax Records and the Soul Explosion
By ROBERT GORDON
BLOOMSBURY Copyright © 2013 Robert Gordon
All rights reserved.
CUTTING HEADS AND HAIR
Jim Stewart sat in his barber's chair. Jim's hair was short, his face boyish and scrubbed clean. He wore thick-rimmed glasses and a necktie, his jacket on the barber's coat hook. It was 1957 and Jim was twenty-seven years old, working in a bank and taking business classes at night on the GI Bill, with an eye toward becoming a lawyer. He played fiddle in a country swing band on weekends.
Within ten years, this man would be responsible for some of the most soulful, swinging, and hip music ever made. Black people—of which he presently knew approximately none—would be his closest associates. The Beatles, to be unleashed in just a few years, would reach the height of their popularity, and in the thick of Beatlemania, the Beatles would phone Jim Stewart and ask if they could record at his studio. In ten years, Jim would have a hep goatee and his hair would be much longer than it was before he sat down for this trim. But in this barber's chair, 1957, there was no indication any of that would, or could, happen.
Jim had always inclined toward music. In his rural west Tennessee home, not only did he play country fiddle, but also his sisters, father, and uncle were a gospel quartet. The church music was staid but powerful—big broad notes that moved up and down like ballast on heavy machinery; it wasn't rafter-shaking, but with enough voices this style of "shape note" singing could, like Samson, tear this building down.
Where Jim had been raised, about seventy miles east of Memphis in rural Middleton, Tennessee, his sister Estelle, twelve years his senior, had been his schoolteacher in the one-room school house. She soon moved to Memphis, the middle sister followed, and then Jim arrived after finishing high school in 1948. He worked a couple years as a stock clerk, finished his military ser vice in February 1953 (his fiddle got him into Special Services), and went to college. With his degree in business, he took a job in the bond department at Memphis's First National Bank. He'd finish the desk job, attend law school at night, and still find time to play fiddle in the Canyon Cowboys—"My love in music was Bob Wills, Leon McAuliffe, Spade Cooley—Texas western swing," Jim says. "If I could only fiddle like Johnny Gimble ..."
Snip snip. Snip. Back in the 1957 barbershop, Mr. Marshall E. Ellis worked the scissors. Jim had become particularly interested in Ellis's recent experience with a record label. A fiddle player himself, Ellis had invested in a portable tape recorder, and he'd made records for a few bands around town. His deal was pretty simple: It would cost the artist nothing, and if the record became successful, they'd get better gigs that attracted more people. If the distributors paid Erwin Records—Erwin was the barber's middle name—then he'd pay the artist. The trick, Jim's barber explained, was to make sure that the song was an original and that the artist signed over the publishing. Because—and surely the snipping stopped here—the money in the music business was in owning the publishing rights. For every record sold, a penny or two always went to the publisher. The publishing company filed some brief paperwork, and then if anyone else ever covered the song, the publisher got a check in the mailbox. And out of the dozen or so records that Ellis had been involved in, one had led to good money when country music star Hank Locklin released his own version. Ka-ching—the publisher had to be paid. The artist might get screwed by the label, the label might get screwed by the distributor, the musicians may never see a dime, but the publisher who registered his song in Washington, DC, was paid. Ellis hadn't made hit records, but they'd sold farther than he could throw them, and twice a year he opened his front door and money walked in.
Jim fancied this scenario. "I recognized my limitations," says Jim. "I knew that I could not make it as a musician, so producing was the next best thing. It was an outlet for me to express myself musically. I knew nothing about copyright, publishing, BMI—absolutely no knowledge how to get a record pressed, how to get a label started."
A little more than a year before this haircut, in November 1955, a former mortuary employee and radio technician across town named Sam Phillips had made a fortune selling the contract of his star player, Elvis Presley, to RCA Records. Now Phillips had a bundle of money and a stableful of other artists who were selling nationally. Ellis pointed out that if you looked on the records themselves, you'd see that Phillips also controlled the publishing rights for the original songs, so you could be sure that he was making more money than you knew about.
A barber. A mortuary technician. In South Memphis, an appliance salesman and some guys associated with Phillips's Sun Records had broken away and formed Hi Records in an old movie theater. How hard could it be?
Stewart, trained in pen to paper, estimated the costs involved in cutting a record would be more than he could handle himself, so he pooled $1,000 by partnering with a country singer, bassist, and disc jockey named Fred Byler; with a rhythm guitarist named Neil Herbert; and with a blind female songwriting piano player named Nadine Eastin, for whom Jim named the publishing company, East. They called the record label Satellite, since Russia's October 1957 Sputnik launch was the hottest topic in years. Jim composed the song "Blue Roses" (it would be his only recorded composition), Fred sang it, and they hired Jim's barber to bring his recording deck to Jim's wife's uncle's garage, where they'd hung a few drapes so they could call it a recording studio. The recording deck was monaural, meaning the singer and all the instruments had to be recorded at once onto one track, and if anyone messed up, everyone would have to redo the whole thing. Technically, the project was a success, in that a song was recorded. The slow, controlled rhythm indicates promise from Jim as a producer. But the melody and production are so sappy that by song's end your teeth hurt. Jim remembers the record being so bad that he couldn't get a single station to play it.
"Right after they made the first record is when I entered," says Estelle Stewart Axton, Jim's sister. In addition to her family quartet singing, she'd played organ at church in Middleton. But Estelle really loved to dance, and she had taken quickly to the rock and roll beat. Entrepreneurial, she also had a sideline selling records to her coworkers at a another Memphis bank, Union Planters National Bank, where she'd been a clerk since 1950. "There were a lot of people that didn't want to take time to go to the record shop," she explains, "so they'd give me a list and I'd go to Poplar Tunes and buy what ever they wanted. I'd pay sixty-five cents for the singles and I'd sell them for a dollar." Jim knew Estelle loved music. "He brought the record over and asked me what I thought about it. I played it on a little tiny record player that somebody had given the kids. I said, 'It's all right, but the production seems a little thin.' He said the only way to make it better is to have better equipment to record it on. That's when he asked me if I'd be interested in investing any money. I guess he thought I had money because I was working and my husband was working." Having a love for music is one thing, and having capital to gamble is another altogether. Estelle's husband, Everett, a unit tender at the Kimberly-Clark factory in Memphis (he oversaw a group of women that made Kleenex), was against investing, afraid they'd wind up living in a tent. Nonetheless, she agreed to consider her brother's proposition.
About a month after the first session, Jim and his barber returned to the garage, accompanied by Satellite's next artist and the guitarist who'd found him. The artist, singer Don Willis, had his own composition, and he gave Jim's consortium the publishing rights. Willis was more modern than Stewart and Ellis, and the guitarist who'd brought him had recently come from California and working at Gold Star Studios, where modern recording techniques were being crafted. Willis cut a mean little rockabilly number, "Boppin' High School Baby." It couldn't be more different from "Blue Roses." The guitarist's production drenched the song in echo and flaunts the searing guitar work. It's the kind of record that might have sold well if people could have found it. But Jim Stewart and friends were still figuring out the record business, and one essential component yet lacking was distribution. It's one thing to make a record, and it's easy enough to take the master tape to a pressing plant and have five hundred copies pressed. But then what?
Record distribution was, and remains, a tricky business. Lots of money changes hands, and by the late 1950s the accounting was convoluted. "Sam Phillips and his peers," Jim explains, "they didn't know what returns were. You sent out a record to the distributor, he bought it. No free goods, no returns. If you sold ten records you got paid for ten records. When I got into the record business, freebies had come into the picture. It was three hundred on a thousand. It had progressed, or regressed, to that." That means that for every one thousand records that a distributor ordered, he expected to also get an additional three hundred free, reducing the label's profit by a third before getting out of the gate, and significantly increasing the distributor's profit potential. Many distributors were owners of jukebox ser vices, so they could stock their machines with freebies. Or the distributor could simply sell the freebies outright. If he could find nothing else to do with them, he could give them to disc jockeys and encourage airplay. It didn't bring immediate profits, but radio play, with its promise of wide and democratic reception, was the best way to increase sales. "Three hundred on a thousand" was the way you got records played.
Jim had one record that sounded terrible and one that rocked, and neither got very far out of the box. But the work had given him a charge. "I really got hooked on it after the first record," Jim says. "I got the fever, decided I wanted to be in the record business."
The nascent company then got hit hard, twice. Jim's wife's uncle wanted his garage back, and Jim's barber moved. They'd lost both their studio and their recording equipment. But grace once again gleamed from the silver shears: The new barber, Mr. Mitchell, had a place of his own that Jim could use. It was a storage building in Brunswick, Tennessee, about twenty miles east of Memphis. "This barber had a young daughter, about fourteen or fifteen," Estelle explains. "He wanted so much to get her recorded that he had an old store building that he said we could use if we wanted to clean off the old shelves and get stuff out of it. We went out there, fixed it up, nailed up our tiles for the acoustics." The free building came with a price, Estelle continues: "There was a railroad track right next to it and it seemed like any time we tried to do a professional session, these trains would come by and jar the building." Nor did Brunswick greet these tinkerers with open arms; Jim had to stand before the town council and testify to his own integrity, and promise that drug addicts, thieves, and other lowlifes attracted to the music business would not infiltrate the crossroads and poison the minds of Brunswick's fine children.
Estelle, meanwhile, wouldn't let the idea drop at home. "They were using a little portable machine to record, so they needed a console," she says. "We couldn't talk anybody into believing you could make money in the recording industry, even though Sam Phillips had already proved you could. People thought there wasn't another Sam." Estelle had no ready cash; her husband was making eighteen dollars a week. But their house note was only twenty-one dollars a month, and they were seventeen years into paying it down. "My husband, he couldn't see nothing in the music business. I had to talk an awful lot to get him to mortgage our house to get twenty-five hundred dollars to buy a console recording machine. So I got into the business by mortgaging our house, and the new note was about five times higher than the original." They purchased a new Ampex 350 mono tape recorder.
The turmoil was more than Fred Byler could handle. He took a job at a radio station in Little Rock, Arkansas, and parted ways with the company. Partner Neil Herbert raised an eyebrow, could see nothing in the work they'd done that indicated anything was going right, and, so, thank you but no, he'd not part with any more of his hard-earned dollars. Ms. Eastin, too, found other keys to tinkle, leaving Jim and Estelle as sole partners, with Estelle's house riding on the company's success.
* * *
Brunswick was a significant trek from Memphis in 1958, and the siblings found that inviting bands to drop by was not so productive. And they were surprised by how heavy the trains were, and the way the recording equipment could pick up their rumblings even before their ears could detect them. But enthusiasm abounded, if success did not, and in the year at Brunswick they managed to release one record of note. It's a surprising record, considering the label's history to date, a portentous one considering the future about to unfold. The band was an African-American vocal group, the Veltones, who performed regularly in West Memphis, Arkansas. West Memphis is across the Mississippi River from Memphis and was a refuge from the law for Memphians, a playground of vice where bands played louder, longer, and more salaciously; where craps games were an assumed component of a nightclub's business; where drive-in movie theaters showed nudist-colony films; where bartenders would serve alcohol to anyone tall enough to set their silver on the bar.
None of these activities appealed to Jim or Estelle. Nor, particularly, did black music. So how a group from a place they didn't frequent, playing music they were not familiar with, landed in their converted grocery store in a part of the woods where the races did not mingle is unclear. (Neither Jim nor Estelle recalls the provenance.) But they had two associates, one of whom likely was the link between the Veltones and the Stewart siblings: Estelle's son Packy Axton, and the guitarist who'd become Jim's engineer, Chips Moman.
Charles "Packy" Axton came from parents who were not much alike. Estelle's husband, Everett Axton, believed in putting in his hours for the company, and in getting his check for the work. He liked to drink beer from a quart bottle at Berretta's BBQ, and if he wanted to have more than one, he'd earned the money and he didn't want to be told no. ("My father was just not a man who took responsibility," says his daughter, Packy's sister, Doris.) He was a product of his time: Segregation was normal and, thus, right. He'd fallen in love with Estelle, an adventuresome, independent-minded woman, and that indicated untapped depths in his personality. Estelle never drank to speak of, and had grown up leery of alcohol's dev ilish ancestry. In her part of the rural country, there were very few African-Americans, but she and her brother had been taught that all people were created equal in the eyes of God. She was not an activist or rabble-rouser, and though segregation seemed inherently mistaken to her, she was not one to join a movement.
Packy Axton embraced parts of each of his parents. His mother would never understand her son's commitment to drunkenness. His father would never understand why he wasted his life fooling around with "niggers" and their music. Packy's ac cep tance of others not like him pleased her, and irritated his father. In the mid-1950s, when African-American culture was reaching into the mainstream through its artists—musical, literary, and others—and through its politics, Packy supported the new thinking. He wasn't political, unless one counted the simple act of respecting blacks a political act. He was a hard-drinking boy who liked a good time. He was hep, and he was in Elvis's hometown; music was everywhere, and Packy went everywhere to find it, including West Memphis. He may have brought the Veltones to Brunswick.
Or maybe it was Lincoln Wayne Moman—a poker player whom everybody called "Chips." He'd hitchhiked to Memphis from LaGrange, Georgia, around 1950, when he was fourteen. There was money to be made with his aunt's son, who was a house painter. Some neighborhood kids had guitars; Chips couldn't afford one, but he'd learned his way around the six strings before leaving home. He was picking someone else's instrument at a drugstore one day after work, paint still on his pants, when Sun Records' rising star Warren Smith ("Rock 'n' Roll Ruby," "Ubangi Stomp") heard him. "He asked me if I wanted a job," says Chips, "and I said, 'Doing what?' That's how it started."
Excerpted from RESPECT YOURSELF by ROBERT GORDON. Copyright © 2013 Robert Gordon. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY.
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