Here at Black Music Sunday, we’ve been making our way through cities across the nation that had a major impact on the history of various Black music genres. This week brings us to Memphis, Tennessee.
Memphis can lay claim to having nurtured multiple music genres, from blues to R&B—often referred to as “Memphis Soul”—to rock ‘n’ roll. It is also home to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and if you get to Memphis, you should visit—or at least browse their website.
I didn’t realize that so much of the music that was the soundtrack of my teen and young adult years came from Stax Records—names like Rufus and Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Albert King, Booker T & the M.G.’s, Eddie Floyd, Isaac Hayes, Johnnie Taylor,The Staple Singers,The Bar-Kays, The Delfonics, The Dramatics, The Emotions, and a whole lot more.
RELATED: Top Comments: The Stax Records edition
There’s no way to cover all of these artists in just one story, so forgive me in advance if I just whet your appetite for more. (I’m not sorry).
Black Music Sunday is a weekly series highlighting all things Black music. With over 130 stories (and counting) covering performers, genres, history, and more—each featuring its own vibrant soundtrack—chances are, you’ll find something that fits your groove. If not, just check back next week!
Good news: Stax Records, and the artists who put them on the map and on the charts, have been the subject of multiple documentaries (more on them in a moment). Even better news? HBO’s documentary division is producing a series on Stax.
In the meantime, let’s journey through the label’s history. Stax started out as Satellite Records in 1957.
Inspired by Sam Phillips, a Memphis radio technician who had started producing a few years earlier (and made a huge sum of money on Elvis Presley), Jim Stewart founded Satellite Records. A banker by day and country fiddle player by night, Stewart knew that he could never make it as professional musician. However, he felt he could be the next best thing - a producer - despite having no experience or knowledge of the recording industry. Satellite cut its first record in October 1957, “Blue Roses”, a country song with low production quality.
In order to get a better sound, Stewart needed better equipment, and, in order to get better equipment, he needed money. He approached his older sister, a music-loving bank clerk named Estelle Axton, for help and she mortgaged her house to buy an Ampex 350 console recorder for the studio …
So how did Satellite Records become Stax? After Estelle refinanced her house (again) to move the studio to a Memphis theater, the siblings merged their surnames—STewart and AXton—to create the new name. Music blogger Michelle Bourg offers more about Estelle’s role here.
In 1960, Stax’s first single, the Rufus and Carla Thomas duet “Cause I Love You,” blew up on local radio.
After 40,000 copies sold, Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler came calling. The rest is history.
Carla Thomas would go on to have an iconic hit of her own, “Gee Whiz,” that she wrote and recorded in 1961. Here she performing it live on the American Bandstand spinoff series Where the Action Is in 1966.
Jamie Milton, writing for NME in 2017, shares the behind-the-scenes stories of the first Stax European tour. The racism that Black Stax artists endured at home in Memphis was nothing like what they encountered in Europe.
“Racism was so rampant that the black and white artists, who were like family inside the doors of Stax Records, were not able to stay in the same hotels, eat in the same restaurants, and even go to the zoo on the same day,” says Tim Sampson, communications director of the Soulsville Foundation, the nonprofit organisation running the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Stax Music Academy.
In 1967, Stax put together the first European tour of its artists. Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and Eddie Floyd were amongst those on the road, visiting countries and cities they’d never seen before. While Memphis remained a hotbed of institutional racism, Stax’s artists were treated like heroes. Many attribute the tour with the moment soul finally broke through worldwide.
I have been watching this collection of performances from that Stax Volt tour all week. Blown away.
00:00: Otis Redding, “Shake”
02:58: Booker T. & The MGs, “Green Onions”
07:18: Sam & Dave, “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby”
10:23: Sam & Dave, “Hold On I'm Coming”
17:38: Otis Redding, “Satisfaction”
20:40: Otis Redding, “Try A Little Tenderness”
Let’s circle back to those Stax documentaries, for those of you who want to while away a Sunday filling it up with soul. Most are available on YouTube or Vimeo.
First, The Soul of Stax, produced by Philip Priestly:
The Soul of Stax, a 1994 BBC / French co-production directed by Philip Priestley, tells the the story of those classic years - the first hit with Rufus and Carla Thomas; the rise and international success of Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, the Staple Singers; the decline and fall of soul after the loss of optimism in the civil rights movement and rise in anger and militancy after the assassination of Martin Luther King; and finally, Stax's eventual bankruptcy.
It features Stax founders Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, Isaac Hayes, Al Bell, Rufus Thomas, house band Booker T (Jones) and the MGs (Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn) and clips of Sam and Dave, Otis Redding and the Wattstax movie.
The film runs about an hour. You can read the metadata about the content of each scene on the University of Westminster website.
Next, 2002’s Only the Strong Survive.
This is a translation from the Italian description posted by YouTuber Stefano Ciccio Sammaritani:
ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE is a collection of performances by R&B legends such as Rufus Thomas, Wilson Pickett, Jerry Butler, Chi-Lites, Carla Thomas, Mary Wilson (Supremes), Isaac Hayes, Ann Peebles, Don Bryant, Sam Moore, Marvell Thomas , Bobby Manuel and many others.
The result is a sort of document of an almost disappeared musical genre, which for twenty-five years no longer produces successful songs but which the musicians of the time have always continued to perform.
D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, helped by journalist Roger Friedman, went to find all those singers who have never stopped performing.
The three went to Memphis, to the gathering of the stars of the legendary Stax Records and also met Rufus Thomas, the pioneer of Rhythm & Blues. The film also contains interviews, in which the musicians talk about the ups and downs of their life and career.
Only the Strong Survive runs about 96 minutes.
For any Stax-aholics in the house, bandcamp has an excellent compilation of the studio’s artists from Robert Gordon—author of the books Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion and It Came From Memphis.
Yet another documentary on Stax was created for PBS’ Great Performances series in 2007.
Here’s the trailer:
From Concord Records’ YouTube notes accompanying the trailer:
Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the film tells the story behind the legendary label that launched such soul music greats as Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, the Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes, Eddie Floyd, Carla and Rufus Thomas, Albert King and Booker T. and the MGs. The show reunites producer-directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, whose American Masters documentary Muddy Waters: Can't Be Satisfied was a Grammy nominee.
I searched for the full video—couldn’t find one, but did turn up one finally, though much of it is over dubbed. It’s still worth watching, if only for the performances.
My all-time favorite film with Stax performers is the film documenting the 1972 Wattstax concert.
I wrote about Wattstax in 2019, noting “While most people of a certain age are aware of Woodstock, few people outside of the Black community and R&B music aficionados remember Wattstax, the largest concert gathering of black Americans with 112,000 people in attendance, which took place in the Los Angeles Coliseum on Aug. 20, 1972.”
The idea for Wattstax the concert was germinated in 1972 by Al Bell, the velvet-voiced co-owner and vice president of the Memphis-based Stax Records. Bell had recently opened Stax West as a Los Angeles presence for the record label, with an eye toward marketing Stax Records on the West Coast, developing regional talent and establishing a name in the television and film business. For several years since the 1965 riots in Watts, a black neighborhood in L.A., the community had put on a summer festival to commemorate the riots and to raise funds for community-based charities.
Bell wanted Stax West to be part of the annual Watts Summer Fest and began to plan for a few Stax acts to take the main stage in Will Rogers Park, but then he remembered that one of his artists, John KaSandra, had wanted to stage a "black Woodstock." Between Bell, KaSandra and Stax West executive Forrest Hamilton (son of jazz musician Chico Hamilton), the idea of Wattstax was born: a free concert in the Los Angeles Coliseum at which virtually every Stax act would play.
"Originally it was going to be called 'Woodstax,' " said Rob Bowman, a Toronto-based author of "Soulsville, USA," a history of Stax Records. "Thank God it wasn't." Bowman noted that although admission was originally going to be free, "for various contractual reasons they couldn't do that. So tickets were $1 apiece. They still gave away $30,000 in tickets to kids and people who couldn't afford them." The earnings from tickets, about $73,000, went to the charitable organizations associated with the Watts Summer Fest.
Throughout the hot August day of Wattstax, music fans danced, sang and celebrated in relative tranquility, while an all-black and unarmed security force stood watch. "This was the largest single gathering of African-American people outside of a religious or civil rights function," Bowman said. "It was very much a statement. 'We don't need the white police. The community can maintain itself, even 100,000 people, without guns.' "
Watch the theatrical trailer for Wattstax the documentary below:
You can also rent the film via YouTube.
Featuring highlights of a seven-hour concert for an audience of over 100,000 people at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in the summer of 1972, along with on-the-street interviews and comedian Richard Pryor at his peak, this amazing documentary film celebrates a mammoth musical event, the seventh annual Watts Summer Festival. Performances include: "Theme from Shaft" and "Soulsville" by Isaac Hayes; The Dramatics' "What You See Is What You Get"; "If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don't Want To Be Right" by Luther Ingram; "Respect Yourself" sung by The Staple Singers; "Breakdown" and "Funky Chicken" by Rufus Thomas; The Emotions' "Peace Be Still"; "I'll Sing The Blues For You" by Albert King; and many more.
Wattstax may have taken place 50 years ago, but as the clip below—from just last month!—proves, the music is still jumpin’ in Memphis.
Join me in the comments for lots more music. I’m also curious to know which tunes you rate as top of your stack of Stax.