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Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion

Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion

by Robert Gordon

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The story of Stax Records unfolds like a Greek tragedy. A white brother and sister build a record company that becomes a monument to racial harmony in 1960's segregated south Memphis. Their success is startling, and Stax soon defines an international sound. Then, after losses both business and personal, the siblings part, and the brother allies with a visionary


The story of Stax Records unfolds like a Greek tragedy. A white brother and sister build a record company that becomes a monument to racial harmony in 1960's segregated south Memphis. Their success is startling, and Stax soon defines an international sound. Then, after losses both business and personal, the siblings part, and the brother allies with a visionary African-American partner. Under integrated leadership, Stax explodes as a national player until, Icarus-like, they fall from great heights to a tragic demise. Everything is lost, and the sanctuary that flourished is ripped from the ground. A generation later, Stax is rebuilt brick by brick to once again bring music and opportunity to the people of Memphis.

Set in the world of 1960s and '70s soul music, Respect Yourself is a story of epic heroes in a shady industry. It's about music and musicians -- Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, the Staple Singers, and Booker T. and the M.G.'s, Stax's interracial house band. It's about a small independent company's struggle to survive in a business world of burgeoning conglomerates. And always at the center of the story is Memphis, Tennessee, an explosive city struggling through heated, divisive years.

Told by one of our leading music chroniclers, Respect Yourself brings to life this treasured cultural institution and the city that created it.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Gordon (Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters) follows up his similarly titled 2007 PBS documentary with this expansive account of the rise and fall of Memphis label Stax Records, a driving force in the development of R&B and soul music from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s. His fluent prose and quotes from interviews keep the reader's attention as he combines technical accounts of recording sessions with the unfolding of historical events in the African American community of Memphis, for example, busing, elections, and workers' strikes. Major stars such as Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes gave Stax its renown, but the keys to its sound were in the production values exemplified by founders Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton (and later Al Bell) and their long-serving house bands. Photos peppered throughout are good contemporary illustrations—one wishes there were more. VERDICT Although treading much of the same ground as Rob Bowman's Soulsville, U.S.A., Gordon's title brings the story up to the present and is both less dense and more objective. For anyone interested in independent record labels and their music in mid-20th-century America.—Barry Zaslow, Miami Univ. Libs., Oxford, OH
The New York Times Book Review - Elsa Dixler
…much more than a nostalgia trip or a soundtrack on paper…[Gordon] has also written a social history, viewing the company that for more than 15 years produced some of the most popular and important music in America as part of the history of Memphis and of the civil rights movement…Gordon presents this complicated story clearly, teasing out the various details of the business and of personal relationships. As a result of his work on the documentary Respect Yourself, he had hours' worth of interviews, and those, along with interviews conducted by others, are the heart of this book. The voices of the members of the Stax family, and Gordon's deep knowledge of Memphis, give the book a significance that extends beyond a single recording studio. Robert Gordon knows the place, and he'll take you there.
Publishers Weekly
★ 09/09/2013
In the late 1950s, Jim Stewart, and his sister, Estelle Axton, moved their little fledgling recording studio into the defunct Capitol Theater in Memphis, Tenn., opening their doors and establishing the record label that gave birth to gritty, funky soul music. A masterful storyteller, music historian Gordon (It Came from Memphis) artfully chronicles the rise and fall of one of America’s greatest music studios, situating the story of Stax within the cultural history of the 1960s in the South. Stewart, a fiddle player who knew he’d never make it in the music business himself, one day overheard a friend talking about producing music; he soon gave it a try, and eventually he was supervising the acclaimed producer Chips Moman in the studio as well as creating a business plan for the label; Estelle Axton set up a record shop in the lobby of the theater, selling the latest discs but also spinning music just recorded in the studio and gauging its market appeal. Gordon deftly narrates the stories of the many musicians who called Stax home, from Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, and Otis Redding to Isaac Hayes, Sam and Dave, and the Staples Singers, as well as the creative marketing and promotional strategies—the Stax-Volt Revue and Wattstax. By the early 1970s, bad business decisions and mangled personal relationships shuttered the doors of Stax. Today, the Stax sound permeates our lives and, in Gordon’s words, “became the soundtrack for liberation, the song of triumph, the sound of the path toward freedom.” (Nov.)
From the Publisher

"A marvelous history . . . Mr. Gordon captures the glory years of Stax in a series of exciting chapters that reflect his fine ear for prose as well as for the music the studio made." —Wall Street Journal

"The voices of the members of the Stax family, and Gordon’s deep knowledge of Memphis, give the book a significance that extends beyond a single recording studio." —New York Times Book Review

"To read Respect Yourself is to step back into a time and place . . ." —Chicago Tribune

"The triumphant and tragic story of Memphis' Stax Records . . . receives definitive telling in Respect Yourself . . . Gordon imbues it all with a wealth of fresh insight and perspective." —Austin Chronicle

"A masterful storyteller, music historian Gordon artfully chronicles the rise and fall of one of America's greatest music studios, situating the story of Stax within the cultural history of the 1960s in the South." —starred review, Publishers Weekly

"[Respect Yourself is] wonderful cultural history of not only a record company but also the city of Memphis itself." —starred review, Booklist

"Spellbinding . . . Deep cultural and social history enlivened by a cast of colorful characters." —starred review, Kirkus Reviews

"Respect Yourself is the definitive document of one of America’s most important record labels, an engrossing tale of creativity, resilience, and struggle in the face of unprecedented adversity." —Los Angeles Review of Books

"[Gordon] chronicles the exciting rise and ugly fall of his hometown music giant with a historian's rigor, a journalist's persistence, a filmmaker's scope and a musician's swing." —Shelf Awareness

"Respect Yourself is the rare music book with an exciting subject matter, in this case it’s the multiple rises and falls of Stax Records, that’s also really well written. Author Robert Gordon’s lyrical prose and exquisite word choices, are difference maker, elevating the book beyond just a good story, simply told." —Midnight to Six

Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-10-01
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.

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Read an Excerpt


Stax Records and the Soul Explosion



Copyright © 2013 Robert Gordon
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59691-577-0




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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Robert Gordon has been writing about Memphis music and history for thirty years and is the author of It Came from Memphis, Can't Be Satisfied, The King on the Road, and The Elvis Treasures. He won a Grammy in 2011 for his liner notes to the Big Star box set Keep an Eye on the Sky. His film work includes producing and directing the documentary Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story for PBS's Great Performances. Gordon lives in Memphis.

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