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.

 

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.