ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: STAX/VOLT

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

In 1962, a wide-bodied sedan pulled up along McLemore and College Avenue under the low, hot Memphis sunshine. Four session musicians and a lanky equipment handler got out, walked into an old movie theater and began setting up to play. The day grew long and the hours small for the band as they peeled through groove after molten groove until finally the skinny roadie caught the ear of a guitarist and begged him to listen to him sing. The musicians, two white and two black, eventually relented and began thumbing out some obscure gospel standard.In 1962, a wide-bodied sedan pulled up along McLemore and College Avenue under the low, hot Memphis sunshine. Four session musicians and a lanky equipment handler got out, walked into an old movie theater and began setting up to play. The day grew long and the hours small for the band as they peeled through groove after molten groove until finally the skinny roadie caught the ear of a guitarist and begged him to listen to him sing. The musicians, two white and two black, eventually relented and began thumbing out some obscure gospel standard. As the skinny 22-year-old unknown stepped up to the microphone, everyone in the studio began to hear Otis Redding sing “These Arms of Mine” for the first time.

The legacy of Stax/Volt, Soulsville U.S.A., the label that managed to distinguish itself with its own raw, dirty voice of soul music is a legacy as old and contradicted as the American South. At the doorstep of the 1960s, American popular music had already begun an exponential explosion of cross-referencing styles, songwriting technique and flavor. Black music was not necessarily black and white music was hip deep in rhythm and blues. But the relevance of Stax/Volt, the spiritual significance of a label like Stax, expressed the fact that in America, black music and white music has never and will never exist without each other.

Jimmy Stewart, a white banker and country fiddler began Stax with his sister Estelle Axton 51 years ago in 1957. Moving into an abandoned movie theater, he began the task of tearing out all of the old seating and concession equipment. The snack bar became the record shop, the stage/screen area, the sound booth and the wide expanse of the theater’s sloping, beveled interior was cleared for recording space. Without the necessary funds, the decision was made to not level the floor and walls of the recording area. And soon enough the pair began churning out obscure rockabilly pop singles.

Neighborhood kids began showing up, to sweep the floor, to tend the register, to take out the garbage, and to dance underneath the outside speaker of the record shop’s constantly rotating set of recent singles. Music was recorded in the back and played in the front. Soon people in the front started walking towards the back. A 16-year-old black kid who could read and write music, play baritone sax, started playing the organ. A local white r&b guitarist began jamming with a black drummer until another white kid named “Duck” picked up the bass. Soon Booker T. and MG’s had scored the little label from Memphis their first No. 1 single, “Green Onions.”

Musically speaking, the North always had polish. Detroit had Motown, “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch” and “Stop In the Name of Love.” Chicago was turning the blues electric, preening artists like B.B. King and Buddy Guy into future Clapton duos. And New York had George Gershwin, Phil Spector and Simon & Garfunkel. But in the cavernous, acoustically asymmetrical recording space of College and McLemore, every shade, and every style of player were neck-deep in the loose, thick, soul-saving funk. In the North, musicians were paid in three-hour session periods. In the other words time (and music) meant money. But at Stax/Volt, the musicians were paid by song, which meant most of them sauntered in the early afternoon, shaded in dark sunglasses and ready to stoke the rhythmic fires. Songwriting always began with the groove, forging the pocket, the simple but often deceptively difficult trunk of the song. Then came the horns. Melodies were played in sharp unison, often recorded live and mixed on the fly by manually adjusting the levels mid-take. It was rough but it was human and honest. The attitude was like an easy southern gait. Find the low-end punch and then build it, note by note, into its gospel-inflected catharsis. Singles like “Gee Whiz” by Carla Thomas, “Respect” by Otis Redding, “”Knock on Wood” by Eddie Floyd, “I’ve Been Loving You to Long” were all riding the charts consistently like the luscious, relentless grooves that bore them. Even Sam & Dave, sent down from the Northeast by Atlantic Records, didn’t realize their dance floor bombs “Soul Man,” “Hold On I’m Comin’,” or “You Don’t Know Like I Know” until the under rated (and often over seen) songwriting team of Isaac Hayes and David Porter wrote it for them.

With Otis Redding, the song would always begin with a simple four-bar melodic phrase he had heard in his head and would whistle to the band. This was true for “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” and “Respect.” When his plane plunged into an icy Wisconsin lake along with two thirds of the backup studio band The Bar-Kays in 1967, Stax would be stripped of one of its most prolific crafters of song.

But in Memphis, where a white person refused to even defecate in the same room as a black person, every type of background was making music. Steve Cropper brought his own Chet Atkins flavor of country guitar punch, Booker T. provided a cerebral knowledge of music theory and became one of the only musicians who could actually notate the music being played. And Isaac Hayes and Dave Porter gave the sound a name and voice with “Soul Man.” Racism was insidiously present all over the nation. But from 1961 on, no musical scene seemed so viscerally close to the epicenter of that fallout then Stax/Volt. Music was becoming an undeniably potent vehicle for justice and self-empowerment. For the musicians playing in the studio at College and McLemore Avenue, Stax was their personal version of idealistic change that was bleeding throughout the country. It was an oasis from the stark realties outside the door. The proof is in the sound, a feverish acceptance of anything that sounded good. But their racial model would be violently shaken, like the country’s, when something happened at their favorite off-studio hang out down the street at the Lorraine Hotel. Ben Branch, a local musician walked across the second floor balcony of the hotel with two other black activists to greet Martin Luther King Jr. just before they all departed for a local sanitation worker’s rally. King turned to the musician, shook hands with him and said, “Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty,” just as a white ex-convict tore a hole in King’s face with his 30.06 hunting rifle from across the street.

From then on, Stax changed. It became a little darker. Musicians were being robbed and extorted by the violent reactive mobs after King’s assassination. Security was hired to guard the offices and studio. In some cases, personal escorts were needed for Isaac Hayes and other players. But Al Bell, partial owner of Stax in association with Jimmy Stewart, began demonstrating a keen economic goal for the little label. Songs were preened for commercial appeal. Recording sessions were being redistributed to other studios, among them the famed Muscle Shoals in Alabama were Aretha Franklin was also cutting her smash hit rendition of Redding’s “Respect.” Isaac Hayes, the “Black Moses,” would become the first African American to win an Academy Award for his soundtrack to Shaft. And the money began rolling in. New players were hired, and with that the old ones, including Booker T. & The MG’s, began to retire one by one. The flash, the polish that would give rise to the new blaxploitation image of the new Stax sound was beginning to outgrow its original soul. Debts mounted and the studio began to fall into a rapid recession until it finally sold out in 1975.

Fifty years later, Stax remains as a witness and professor to the volatile, complicated spirit of popular music in the ‘60s. It’s all-inclusiveness became a sieve for all colors talent and gave otherwise obscure voices, like Otis Redding’s a platform for testifying. Stax’s own progressive creative process was a mirror for the racial paradigm shift that was occurring in America; the tension, the love and the change. Simply put, they showed how music, like gospel, is always an expression of the spirit, regardless of anything else. It’s white, it’s black, it’s country and it’s blues. Most importantly, it’s soul and none of it’s parts could stand-alone. Blues and country have been inextricably entwined ever since people like Mississippi John Hurt sang “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and Woody Guthrie sang “Harriet Tubman’s Ballad”. With the rhythm and the funk, Stax proved that a soul man is any man with the ability to out-sing the blues.

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