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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The sound was never exactly polished, but it had plenty of soul, and the Memphis sound created at Stax Records has found its own special place in the history of American music.
Some of pop’s most cherished recordings came out of the Stax studio, including Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man,” Otis Redding’s “(Sitting On) The Dock of the Bay,” and Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning “Theme from Shaft.”
Now, 50 years after a white country-fiddle player started down the road that led him to open a recording studio in a predominantly black, inner-city neighborhood, the Stax label is trying to make a comeback.
“Stax was a great confluence of music and culture. It was a biracial, creative home for artists in the South at a very critical time in history,” said Roger Smith of the Concord Music Group, the label’s current owner. “That sound was very much of a period, but the spirit behind that and the soul music that it created continues today.”
Blossoming in the 1960s and ’70s, Stax owed its success as much to serendipity as to design, with artists like Redding, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd, Carla Thomas, the Staple Singers and dozens of others creating music on the fly.
“Things weren’t necessarily written out. They were what we called ‘head arranged.’ We just kind of talked about what we wanted or hummed what we wanted — and then played it,” said guitarist Steve Cropper, a founding member Booker T. and the MGs, the Stax house band.
Stax artists created their own distinctive sound — rougher around the edges than the slicker style of the counterparts at Detroit’s Motown — and reigned over the world of Southern soul.
Concord came out in March with “A 50th Anniversary Celebration,” a two-CD anthology of Stax recordings. More original Stax releases are in the works, and Concord is signing new artists for the label, such as soul singers Angie Stone and Lalah Hathaway. Musician and singer Isaac Hayes, who along with David Porter was a leading Stax songwriter, is expected to return to the label, Smith said.
“There will be more in the future. It’s going to be a very active roster and active label,” he said. “It’s hard to define what soul music is, but when an artist’s name comes up, you’ll know why he or she fits in.”
Stax was founded by Jim Stewart, a fiddle player and former bank employee, and his sister Estelle Axton. “Stax” is made up of the first two letter of their last names.
Stewart started Satellite Records, a label that evolved into Stax, in a relative’s garage in 1957. Focusing on rockabilly, pop and country, he moved the following year to a small, rural studio near Memphis, and Axton mortgaged her house to buy equipment.
In 1959, Stewart and Axton moved to a former movie house, the old Capitol Theater, in an inner-city neighborhood known as “Soulsville” because of the many musicians who had lived in the area.
Soon, singers, musicians and songwriters came knocking on the studio door. Most were black with rhythm and blues or gospel backgrounds, but Stax attracted white musicians, too, like Cropper, a young guitarist with a taste for rock ‘n’ roll and country.
Cropper showed up in 1961 and played on just about every record Stax turned out for the next nine years. He also helped produce and co-write some of the label’s biggest hits, including Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of The Bay.”
The music also attracted the attention of Atlantic Records, which had a few of their artists record there (including Wilson Pickett) and signed a deal to distribute Stax’s music (and ultimately, take control of the label’s master recordings).
As the Stax house band, Booker T. and the MGs, with Booker T. Jones on organ and Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass, created a stable and identifiable “Stax sound.” Baritone and tenor saxophones and a trumpet, the “Memphis Horns,” added rhythmic backup, and the old theater’s sloping floor helped give a wave effect to the studio’s acoustics.
Words like “gritty” and “raw” often are used in comparing the Stax sound with Motown’s more urbane approach.
“A lot of those groups, they had matching outfits and all that sort of stuff. They really tried to set their sights on the pop culture,” Cropper said. “We put our sights on the R&B charts.”
The whole Stax atmosphere rested on a make-it-up-as-you-go philosophy, said Deanie Parker, a founding member of the nonprofit Soulsville Foundation, which opened the Stax Museum of American Soul on the site of the old studio in 2003.
“You were encouraged and given the freedom to be creative, and we took advantage of that freedom,” said Parker, a longtime Stax employee who helped run its record shop, Satellite Records, a popular hangout for area musicians.
Stax suffered an emotional and financial blow when Redding, the studio’s fast-rising star, died in a plane crash in 1967, along with members of the Bar-Kays.
“When Otis Redding came in, it wasn’t work. It was just a whole lot of fun,” Cropper said. “And Otis was primed to generate a lot of income.”
The label also left its deal with Atlantic Records, and went independent for a few years. Still, Stax had continued successes, including Hayes’ “Shaft” theme and The Staple Singers hits like “I’ll Take You There,” until it was forced into bankruptcy by creditors in 1975 and stopped recording music. The studio itself was torn down in 1989.
It is now home to the 17,000-square-foot Stax museum. The Soulsville Foundation also created a music academy for youngsters and a charter school under the Memphis school system.
And the music lives on. Smith of Concord said the company believes new releases from the Stax catalog will stir young and older listeners alike.
“It really is music that is timeless,” he said. “The interesting thing about great old music is it transcends generations.”
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