The old adage "truth is stranger than fiction" has perhaps never been more apt than in the case of Stax Records. Started in the late 1950s by Jim Stewart, a white country fiddler who, by his own admission, knew virtually nothing about black music, by mid-decade Stax had developed a readily identifiable sound that would come to define the very essence of black soul music. The influence of the "Stax sound" was such that late '60s soul recordings by non-Stax artists such as Aretha Franklin and Clarence Carter are, in essence, examples of the sound of Stax being filtered through non-Stax hands.
William Bell, who performs next week as part of American Songbook, was a seminal member of the Stax family virtually from the beginning. His 1961 recording, "You Don’t Miss Your Water," helped to define the very essence of country-soul; his duet with July Clay, "Private Number," was instrumental in the resurrection of Stax in the fall of 1968; and his 1969 hit "I Forgot to Be Your Lover" was one of the greatest records the company ever issued.
While undeniably involved in the production and distribution of black culture, from its inception Stax was an integrated company in the studio, in the front office and, by the late '60s, at the level of ownership. In this respect the company was the living manifestation of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream where blacks and whites came together, not because they were forced to do so, but organically to achieve a collective goal. Paradoxically, all of this occurred in Memphis, Tennessee, a city deeply segregated throughout the 1960s.
The sound of Stax was the result of a number of factors. First and foremost, from 1962 through 1969, virtually every record issued by the company on Stax or its subsidiary label, Volt, featured the same set of musicians— Booker T. and the MG's often augmented by second keyboardist Isaac Hayes and the Mar-Keys horns. Whether the featured artist was Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, William Bell, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Eddie Floyd or Johnnie Taylor, the basic sound of the record was a product of the aesthetics and proclivities of the same handful of integrated musicians.
The Stax studio itself, housed in a former movie theater in Memphis, played a significant role in the company's patented sound. Due to economic considerations, Stewart elected not to level the floor, thereby creating a wholly unique recording environment that was cavernous (at its highest point the ceiling was upwards of 40 feet high) and had absolutely no parallel surfaces where sound waves would cancel themselves out. Consequently, Stax recordings tend to have a large reverberant sound that can be readily detected by a discerning ear within a few bars. Finally, virtually all of the sessions held at the company in the 1960s were engineered by either Stewart or guitarist Steve Cropper. Both men shared an aesthetic that emphasized a strong bass sound, prominent horns, and a vocal that was positioned quite a ways back in the mix.
In the late 1960s everything changed at Stax, including its sound. In December 1967 Otis Redding died tragically in a plane crash. In many respects, Redding had been the heart and soul of the company in the 1960s. Five months later, Stax severed its distribution agreement with Atlantic Records. To the company's horror, it found that its contractual agreements with Atlantic meant that the New York company retained Stax's second most important artist, Sam and Dave, as well as the entire Stax catalogue released up to this point.
For all intents and purposes, Stax Records was forced to start once again from scratch. At this point, black promotion man Al Bell (no relation to William Bell) acquired a piece of the company. A year later, his share was 50 percent, and by October 1972 he owned the company outright. He wrought large-scale changes at Stax, bringing in non-Memphis producers, engineers and artists in an attempt to broaden the company's sales potential beyond the South and Midwest. Among the new artists he signed were Chicago's Staple Singers, the Emotions and, from Detroit, the Dramatics. He also allowed Stax songwriter Isaac Hayes to record solo records in a hybrid style that fused elements of soul, rock, classical, and jazz. The resulting albums, Hot Buttered Soul, The Isaac Hayes Movement, and To Be Continued, demonstrated unequivocally that, despite industry wisdom, black artists were capable of generating massive album sales. Up to this point, virtually all energy and money within the black music industry was centered around the seven-inch 45, the logic being that the black consumer could not afford to buy significant numbers of LPs. Hayes's work at Stax paved the way for groundbreaking full-length albums by Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and Funkadelic. When Hayes wrote and recorded the soundtrack for the movie Shaft in 1971, he once again broke barriers, effectively creating the phenomenon of the black soundtrack.
Al Bell's vision for Stax seemingly had no limits. He expanded the company's recording activities to include pop, rock, jazz, country, gospel, and comedy, and with the Staple Singers he produced what are probably the first soul promotion videos ever. In 1972 he staged the Wattstax festival and created Stax Films to produce the subsequent Wattstax documentary. In the process Bell expanded the company from a mom-and-pop organization in the mid-60s to a 200-employee soul powerhouse by the early 1970s.
Although Stax went bankrupt in December 1975, its legacy lives on over a quarter century later via numerous pop and R&B covers as well as rap samples of the company's innumerable hits. In 2003 this legacy was further honored with the opening of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, located on the very same Memphis property that once proudly housed the company's fabled studio.
Rob Bowman is a Grammy Award–winning professor of music at York University in Toronto. His book, Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records, was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2013.