RESPECT YOURSELF: The Story of STAX Records

STAX

RESPECT YOURSELF: THE STORY OF STAX RECORDS Bloomsbury USA

Author Robert Gordon has been writing about the music of Memphis for almost 30 years. In Respect Yourself: The Story of STAX Records Mr. Gordon not only tells the story of STAX but also the story of the Civil Rights movement in Memphis.  Passionately written and meticulously researched this book takes you from the label’s meager beginnings in a garage outside Memphis to it’s bankruptcy in 1975.   Along with Mr. Gordon’s narration you hear from the people that made STAX happen, making this book one of a kind.

A LITTLE STAX HISTORY…

Started by Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton in 1957, STAX Records was more then just a record label.  It was a voice in the community.  The label’s open door policy made it possible for anyone to come in off the street and set up an audition. It didn’t matter where you were from or what the color of your skin was, you were welcomed at STAX as long as you had a passion for music.

Right from the beginning STAX did things it’s own way. Segregation may have been alive and well in Memphis during the 1960’s, but that didn’t stop STAX founder Jim Stewart from hiring an African American DJ named Al Bell to be his lead promotions man.  Working together side by side Jim, Estelle, and Al turned STAX records from a little indie label into a household name!  STAX artists like Otis Redding, Booker T. & The MG’s, Carla Thomas, and William Bell put the label on the map with singles that started appearing on the R&B and Pop charts.  Money was coming in and things were really rolling, until one very dark December day in 1967…

Today many people can remember exactly where they were when they learned that the plane carrying Otis Redding and The Bar-Keys went down. Otis was the soul of STAX and the voice of soul music.  A few months later while the people of STAX were still grieving over the loss of Otis and the Bar Keys their world was rocked again.  On the evening of April 4, 1968  Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.  Needless to say, after the assassination of Dr. King everything was different, especially in Memphis.  If all this wasn’t enough,  the label’s distributor Atlantic Records ended it’s relationship with STAX.  With it’s biggest star gone and no way to get music to the stores most label’s would have called it a day, but most labels didn’t have Al Bell.  It was then that Al and the folks at STAX hunkered down and staged one of the biggest comebacks in music history.

The early 70’s found STAX again at the top of the Soul music world. This time around STAX would reach heights that were even greater then it did in the 1960’s.  Al Bell gained full control of the label and STAX rode the success of artists like Isaac Hayes, The Emotions, Johnnie Taylor, and The Staple Singers all the way to the top of the charts.  Sadly this rebirth would be short lived as some questionable business decisions and over expatiation lead to STAX eventually having to declaring bankruptcy in 1975.

 

VISITING MEMPHIS!

Traveling to Memphis!

This past spring I had the privilege of getting to spend a few days in Memphis, Tennessee.   Let me start out by saying that I found Memphis to be a wonderful city with amazing history!  While Memphis has received a bad reputation for it’s level of crime and high homeless population at no time did I feel unsafe.  I had an excellent visit and found the locals of Memphis very friendly and helpful.   If you have any interest in American Roots music or the History of the Civil Rights movement you should start making plans to visit Memphis immediately.

MUST DO’s while in Memphis.

National Civil Rights Museum  450 Mulberry St  Memphis, TN 38103  http://www.civilrightsmuseum.org/

In my opinion to really understand the history of American roots music you need to learn about the struggle for Civil Rights in this country. Start your visit here! This beautiful museum will set the tone for the rest of your visit.  Located in the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, the museum elegantly tells the story of the men and women that fought hard for equality in this country.  Learning about the struggle for Civil Rights will help you see why multiracial bands at Stax Records and Fame Studios were so historically significant.

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Stax Museum of American Soul Music 926 E. McLemore Ave. (901) 942-SOUL  www.staxmuseum.com

Possibly one of the best museums in the United States, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music tells the story of the little record label that could.  From field workers singing gospel music to the artists of today this museum leaves no stone unturned.  Also the museum doesn’t just stick to talking about Stax artists.  It covers artists from Motown, Atlantic, Chess, Duke, Goldwax (my personal favorite), and everything in-between!  You’ll see things like Issac Hayes’ car, Rufus Thomas Mater Tapes, and a recreation of the studio where Booker T. and The MG’s backed many amazing artists.  The museum has lots of interactive touch-screens and even a full on dance floor!  The staff are very knowledgeable and are dedicated to getting you the whole story of Soul music.  Keep in mind if you’re staying downtown you’ll have to take a cab, bus, or car to get here as it’s a little off the beaten path, but you’ll learn there’s a reason for that.  This museum is worth the short trip from downtown.  Only here will you’ll get the whole story of American Blues and Soul music.

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BEALE STREET

Although it’s now pretty much a tourist trap, Beale Street should be a stop on your trip.   This is the street where so many musicians got their “start”.  W.C. Handy, B.B. King, Furry Lewis, Rosco Gordon, Rufus Thomas, Memphis Minnie, all have graced the stages of clubs here on Beale.  There is still plenty of live music here but it can be very hit or miss. Luckily, I had a chance to catch the great Dr. Feelgood Potts while I was here and he didn’t disappoint!  He and his put put on a great show and had the place jumpin’! Check him out if you get the chance!

EATING ON BEALE

Blues City Cafe 138 Beale St, Memphis TN  (901) 526-3637  http://www.bluescitycafe.com/

The one sure thing on Beale that’s around today is the restaurant Blues City Cafe.  Memphis has as many amazing restaurants as it does Blues legends and the Blues City Cafe is one of the best.  Late hours, great spices, amazing BBQ, what’s not to love?  I had some of the best Fried Catfish I’ve ever had in my life here!

Blues City

The Rock N’ Soul Museum

Located at Beale and Hwy 61 (across the street from the Gibson Guitar Factory)

This museum isn’t as essential as the Stax Museum but it’s still VERY good.  They have an amazing collection of stuff from Ike Turner’s Piano to part of a classic Southern style church.  They cover all the essentials from Gospel to today’s Soul and they have a really nice exhibit on Memphis’ own WDIA!  If you’re short on time and cant’s make it to the Stax Museum then make sure you hit this place up!  It also offers a FREE shuttle to Sun Records and is walking distance to lots of stuff in Downtown Memphis.

Another thing to do while in Memphis is vist The Memphis Cotton Exchange Museum.  Cotton was king in the American south and because the history of the Blues has so much to do with the life a sharecropper lived you really can’t pass up this museum.

There’s also Sun Records, the studio where Sam Phillips recorded Elvis, Cash, Jerry Lee, and many others.   Now don’t get me wrong, I like the Rockabilly stuff that was done at Sun Records but I’m personally more interested in the Blues that Sam Phillips recorded with his Memphis Recording Service.  Sadly there is little mention of the Blues at Sun Records today, but to be fair, most of their visitors don’t really seem to care about that.  Most of them probably aren’t even aware that Sam Phillips once called Howlin’ Wolf’s “Moanin’ at Midnight” the greatest recording he ever made.   So besides an original wax copy of Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88” there really isn’t much about the Blues here at Sun Records.  The studio is now very touristy and has a large gift shop and cafe in it.  During my visit I tried to imagine Johnny Cash taking a break from a session to shop for a Sun Records hoodie but it made me sad so I left.  However, if you’re into Rockabilly or Elvis Presley you should make this an essential part of your Memphis trip.

Some other non-essential but fun spots to see Memphis 

Al Green’s Full Gospel Tabernacle Church,

The Blues Foundation office (when they finish building their Blues museum this will become an essential stop)

West Memphis, Arkansas (The clubs in West Memphis were where musicians from Memphis went to REALLY show their stuff)

Also make sure you check out the site www.msbluestrail.org.  Here you’ll find information about the Mississippi Blues Trail and Historical markers that are set up at spots along the trail where Blues history actually happened!  There are a number of these markers around Memphis and they provide a nice overview of the city’s Blues history.

LAST BUT NOT LEAST…

CLARKSDALE, MISSISSIPPI

If you’re in Memphis, Tennessee then you’re only about 90 short minutes from Clarksdale, Mississippi.  I HIGHLY recommend taking at least a day and travel down to Clarksdale.    If you’re into Blues, Soul, Gospel, or History you will LOVE Clarksdale.  Here you will get your fill of NO FRILLS BLUES HISTORY.   There is so much to see and do in Clarksdale that I can’t list it all here.  So if you’d like suggestions about visiting Clarksdale please contact me through this blog and I’ll be in touch with you.  Keep in mind that many of the amazing clubs, shops, and museums in Clarksdale are disappearing due to the recent influx of Casinos along the Mississippi river.  So see them while you can!

Happy travels!

 

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Merry Clayton: The Voice Behind the Hits

Merry Clayton

Late one night in 1969 singer Merry Clayton was just falling asleep when she received a call from record producer Jack Nitzsch.  Jack was in the middle of a late night studio session and was desperately looking for a female vocalist to add backing vocals on a track called “Gimmie Shelter”.  Very pregnant and not really in the mood to leave her warm bed, Merry listened while Jack tried to convince her that doing this session with a band called “The Rolling Stones” would be a great career move.  Merry finally agreed to do the session.  It didn’t matter that she’d never heard of the band and wasn’t familiar with their music,  Merry was a seasoned pro. This was just another session gig.  She went to the studio and nailed the track in three quick takes. Then, as quickly as she came in to the studio, she was out the door and gone in the night.  The song became a huge hit and has since become a staple of the Stone’s live show.  Even though it was her singing that took the song to the next level Merry couldn’t bring herself to listen to the track for many years. After her session with the Stones she had miscarriage and lost her baby.  It has been speculated that her vigorous singing on “Gimmie Shelter” contributed to the miscarriage.

Ever since her early performances in the Churches of New Orleans Merry has turned heads with her larger then life voice.  Her professional career started when she backed up Bobby Darin on some of his early recordings.  Form there it wasn’t long before she was selected to be a “Raelette” and sing backup for one of her main influences, Mr. Ray Charles.  Little did she know that singing backup for Ray was just the beginning.  In later years Merry would go on to sing backup for artists such as Joe Cocker, Neil Young, Carole King, Lynyrd Skynyrd and of course, The Rolling Stones.  Usually the most talented vocalist at whatever session she was working on, Merry signed with Lou Alder’s Ode Record label in the late 60’s. Working with music industry legend Lou Alder, Merry began what many thought would be a successful a solo career.  Unfortunately, her records didn’t sell and most of her solo recordings remain unknown and forgotten about by the general public. That is, until now…

Hopefully 2013 is the year the world will finally know Merry Clayton.  She is the subject of an excellent new documentary called 20 Feet From Stardom that follows the lives of some very talented backup singers.   In conjunction with the release 20 Feet From Stardom Sony/Ode Records has release a collection of Merry’s solo recordings called The Best Of Merry Clayton.  This collection covers most of Merry’s solo career and features soulful renditions of some popular classic rock songs.  One only needs to listen to a few minutes of Merry’s rendition of Neil Young’s “Southern Man” (the album’s opening track) to know that listening to Merry sing is a religious experience.   Very different then the original version, Merry screams and shouts her way through 3 minutes of soulful-funk!  The song takes on a whole new life when Merry screams “…I heard screamin’, bullwhips crackin’, how long is it gonna last?”.   Other great tracks on this album are her versions of Bill Withers “Grandma’s Hands”,  James Taylor’s”Country Road”, and of course the Stones’ “Gimmie Shelter” (her first Ode Records release).  In 17 great tracks you get to hear the voice that helped many artists take their songs to the next level.  Here’s hoping that someday soon Merry will reach the high level of stardom that she so rightly deserves.

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Remembering Bobby “Blue” Bland

 

On Sunday June 23, 2013 the Blues world lost one of it’s most soulful voices in Bobby “Blue” Bland.  Unlike many of his contemporaries Bland lived to the golden age of 83, thus making him one of the last living connections to the Memphis Blues scene of the 1950’s.  In his early days Bland performed on Beale street along with artists like Johnny Ace, Little Junior Parker, Ike Turner, Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King.  Although he performed with many Delta Blues players Bland’s smooth vocal style was closer to the big city Rhythm & Blues sound of artists like Louis Jordan and T-Bone Walker (this eventually earned him the nickname “The Black Sinatra”).  Along with artists like Junior Parker and Johnny Ace, Bland’s style helped shape the Memphis Soul Blues style that would influence artists like Otis Redding and Al Green.

During the 1950’s the Memphis music scene was one the biggest and most competitive in the South.  Musicians from all over the Southern states flocked to the area to showcase their talent at the clubs on Beale Street and across the river in West Memphis.  In these clubs you had to be not only on top of your game musically but you had to be able to put on a show!  It wasn’t long before record labels like Chess, Modern, and Duke got wind of what was going on and started trying to cherry pick talent from the local scene.  Using recording engineer Sam Phillips and his Memphis Recording Service as one of their main contacts these labels started bringing the music of Memphis to the masses.  Bobby “Blue” Bland started out recording some sides that were released by the Modern and Chess labels were very good but failed to draw national attention. It wasn’t until he started recording for Duke Records in 1954 that he found success as a recording artist.  His first big single was “Farther On Up The Road” which reached number 1 on the R&B charts.  In 1961 Bland and Duke released the album Two Steps from the Blues which was combined some newly recorded “Big Band” style tracks along with some of his previously released late fifties sides. The album was an instant success and took Bland’s career to the next level.

In the years following “Two Steps From The Blues” Bland released albums and kept a busy touring schedule.  Duke released like Here’s The Man, His California Album, and The Soul Of The Man but in 1968 due to a number of personal problems Bland disbanded his touring band and cut his live schedule way back.  He enjoyed some success with the single “This Time I’m Gone For Good” from His California Album which broke into the top 50 on the Pop Charts. In 1974 Bland teamed up with B.B. King and released the first of two live albums with B.B. King.   Together for the First Time…Live was a commercial success and helped Bland and King stay in the spotlight through the 70’s.  The pair toured on and off together for the next 35 years.

Although he may not have had the commercial success of B.B. King or Muddy Waters, Bobby “Blue” Bland was a force to be reckoned with in the would of Blues and R&B.  He’s inspired everyone from the Heavy Metal band Whitesnake to the legendary Rapper Jay-Z.   He’s a member of both the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame and The Blues Foundation Hall Of Fame and has performed sold out concerts all over the world.  B.B. King credits him as being one of the best singers he’s ever heard.  Personally, I agree with Mr. King.  Thank you Bobby for sharing your music and talent with us.

 

 

Etta James & Johnny Otis

 

This morning as I was writing a post to pay tribute to the life of the great Johnny Otis, who passed away yesterday, I learned of the passing of one of the greatest artists Johnny ever discovered, Ms. Etta James. While Etta James is a house-hold name (and rightfully so) the name Johnny Otis is sadly becoming less and less known by today’s music fans. Besides giving Etta James her first big break, Mr. Otis also helped start the careers of many top R&B performers. When not performing with his own band he was in the studio recording and producing sides for many of the best R&B performers. It was Johnny Otis who produced and performed on the original 1952 recording of Hound Dog featuring Big Mama Thornton. Two years later in 1954 Otis found himself in the studio again with another young blues singer, a woman by the name of Jamesetta Hawkins. Like Big Mama Thornton, Jamesetta started out performing with The Johnny Otis Band. She then moved to Los Angeles and entered the studio with the band to record what would be her break out song “The Wallflower (Roll With Me Henry)”. Written by Johnny Otis “The Wallflower” was an answer song to the Hank Ballard tune “Work With Me Annie”. Shortly after the release of the song Jamesetta (now going by the stage name Etta James) started off on a solo career that would last over 50 years. She recorded many smash hits for a number of different labels and released albums up until 2011. In addition to being successful in the recording studio James was also successful on the stage and would continue to be an in-demand performer until 2009 when she was unable to perform due to health issues.
As for Johnny Otis, discovering Etta James was just one of the many highlights in a career that lasted well into his eighties. A true renaissance man, Otis was a songwriter, performer, producer, author, store and bar owner, and painter. He even got involved in politics in his home state of California during the 1960’s. However, with all these accomplishments Johnny Otis is probably best know for writing the hit song “Willie and The Hand Jive” which would sell over 1.5 million copies and be covered by Eric Clapton for his 1974 album 461 Ocean Boulevard.
During the their lifetimes both Etta James and Johnny Otis brought to joy to millions of fans all over the world, they are both members of multiple halls of fame, and their influence can be heard in the music of artists in every genre of music. They will both be dearly missed.

The Great Solomon Burke

On October 10, 2010 we lost the greatest soul singer of all time, Mr. Solomon Burke.   Sadly, Mr. Burke never got as much press as other soul legends like James Brown or Marvin Gaye even though he was just as much of a pioneer in soul music as they were.   Solomon Burke was a true talent who could command the attention of any audience.  I was lucky enough to get to see Mr. Burke in Oakland in November of 2009 and even though he was only allowed to play for a little over an hour, it was one of the best performances I have seen in my life!  Solomon was loved by musicians in every genre of music and I hope that in the coming years his music and impact on popular music get they recognition they deserve.  Today is a sad day for me.  However, I am comforted by the fact that even though Mr. Burke is gone his message of love and kindness will live on through the recordings he has left with us.  Thank you Mr Burke for sharing your talent and music with us.

 

Solomon Burke