Back in the 1960s and ’70s, Memphis was the undisputed Mecca of southern soul. The so-called ‘Bluff City,’ which overlooked the snaking Mississippi river, was a thriving metropolis for African-American music and though there were several notable record labels based there – including Willie Mitchell’s Hi stable, which gave the world Al Green and Ann Peebles, and Quinton Claunch’s smaller Goldwax company – there was one that was considerably mightier and more influential than the rest. Its name? Stax Records.
Stax was a curious paradox among record labels. It was set up by two white Southerners in the heart of Jim Crow country and yet came to represent the sound of black America during the Civil Rights era. Also, it offered a progressive vision of equality and diversity – white and black, young and old, men and women, rural and urban – in an area of America where any kind of integration was anathema.
The seeds for what became Stax were sown in 1957, when Jim Stewart, a former bank clerk who was also an aspiring musician (he played with a band called The Canyon Cowboys), decided to set up his own independent record label in Memphis. He called it Satellite, and based out of his garage, its first releases were country and rockabilly singles. “Jim came from Middleton, Tennessee, to the Memphis area to get going in the music business,” remembers Booker T. Jones, a multi-instrumentalist who became indispensable to Stax in the 1960s. “He was a fiddle player and the younger brother of Estelle Axton, who was a teacher. She mortgaged her house to get the money to build a studio.”
Axton (pictured above with Jim Stewart) came on board in 1958, and her investment in the fledgling company resulted in not only a state of the art tape machine for recording but also, later, in 1960, the lease of an old run-down cinema which had once been known as the Capitol Theatre, located at 926 East McLemore. It would be re-purposed as a recording studio and would become the hub for Stewart and Axton’s operations for the next decade. By 1961, Satellite Records was no more: Stewart, acknowledging his sister’s partnership and considerable input, rechristened the label Stax, a portmanteau name which came from combining the first two letters of their respective surnames. But it wasn’t the end of Satellite entirely as Axton had set up a record shop with that name at the entrance to Stax’s McLemore HQ.
According to Booker T. Jones, the record shop played an important role for local musicians – it was a place where they could meet and exchange ideas, and also hear the latest R&B sounds from other parts of the country. “Estelle Axton was the one who was hearing all the hit records from Detroit and Philadelphia and playing them for us and trying to encourage us to do as well as those records were doing,” says Jones. “Her role was kind of like a mother hen, in a way, and she encouraged all the musicians who came through Stax because she had that little record store upfront.”
Despite Axton’s important role, according to Jones, it was Jim Stewart who called the shots: “He was the principal, the main guy at Stax for the hiring and firing, and he did a little bit of everything: engineering, he worked as a producer, and he was the one who hired Chips Moman, who was a musical production genius. He’s the guy got me involved with all of this – he was the one that thought I had some talent.”
Jones (pictured above today) was just 17 when got his foot in the door at Stax, plucked from obscurity to play saxophone on Carla & Rufus Thomas’ 1961 single, ‘Cause I Love You’ (which was significant for Stax in two ways – one, it was the label’s first hit, and two, its success prompted Jim Stewart to focus on recording R&B music). “I got lucky,” the softly-spoken 72-year-old laughs, remembering his maiden session for Stax. “When I was a kid I was standing by that door on McLemore for what seemed like years trying to get through. But my friend at Stax, (songwriter) David Porter, knew they needed a baritone sax and he told them about me.” The son of a teacher, Memphis-born Jones was a prodigiously talented multi-instrumentalist and although he began his Stax career playing saxophone, it was as an organ player, leading Booker T & The MGs, that he found fame.
“It happened by accident,” says Jones (pictured above with Booker T & The MGs), recalling how that famous, groundbreaking group came into being. “Steve Cropper, Lewie Steinberg, Al Jackson – who I had played bass with in Willie Mitchell’s band – and myself were brought together as the group for a Billy Lee Riley session. For some reason – my memory fails as to what happened – that session didn’t materialise, so we had the studio available for the rest of the day. We recorded a blues jam called ‘Behave Yourself’ and the record company owner, Jim Stewart, thought that it would be good to put it out as a record by the band. So we became Booker T and the MGs. ‘Green Onions’ came about because we needed a B-side to that groove. And before we knew it, there we were, we had a record.”
Though it was intended as a B-side, the consensus at Stax was that ‘Green Onions’ was the more commercial side and it was pressed up as the A-side. In the summer of 1962, it rocketed to the summit of the US R&B charts. It put Stax on the map and helped to define what became the Stax sound. Says Booker T. Jones: “I think that was the first one that really had the Stax sound with the bass and the guitar playing a magical groove together.”
But ‘Green Onions’ was more than just a great R&B record with a catchy organ riff and a driving groove: it was a shining beacon of interracial harmony, demonstrating that both black and white people could work together as equals at a time when the USA was riven with racial bigotry, deep-rooted prejudice, and an absurd concept of white supremacy that went back to the times of slavery. In a way, ‘Green Onions’ was a utopian vision, especially give the rampant racism in America’s deep south, of which Memphis was a part.
As Booker T Jones explains, the band’s integrated line-up was one that many white southerners found hard to stomach once they were aware of its ethnic makeup. “It was a hidden problem at first and became more obvious after people knew who we were,” he says. “I think we were under the radar as a racial group at the beginning. Blacks thought that we were a black band, and whites thought we were a white band, but when they saw us, it was a shock for them.” Despite having records in the national charts, their success was no passport to freedom, and the south’s Jim Crow laws still applied. “The south didn’t become desegregated for us,” laughs Jones, “so travelling was inconvenient to say the least because the restaurants weren’t integrated. So we had two people eating in the car and had two people bringing it from the restaurant – not that it was black food or white food!”
While Booker T & The MGs were riding high in the R&B charts and putting the Stax sound on the music map in the early ’60s, a young Willa Dean Parker also had her sights on making it at the label. During that time, Deanie Parker, as she preferred to be known, worked in the Satellite store with Estelle Axton and initially came to the label as an aspiring singer but ended up running its publicity department. “She gave me my first job in the Satellite record shop,” says Parker. “I worked there after school part-time. I had the opportunity to audition for Jim Stewart, the co-founder and owner of Stax, having won a talent contest on Beale Street when I was in high school.” Stewart liked Parker’s voice but wanted original material, not covers. Unperturbed, Parker quickly came up with her own tune, ‘My Imaginary Guy,’ which Stewart liked, and became the A-side of her first single (with a group called The Valadors) for the label, released on Stax’s Volt subsidiary imprint, in 1963.
The single sold quite well regionally but Parker soon discovered the downside to being on the frontline in the record industry. It wasn’t all glamour, especially if you were a black artist from the south. “When I was very young in junior high school, I wanted to be a superstar and on the stage until I had a real taste of what it was like for an African-American performer to be on the road, travelling about the segregated south in America, and trying to earn an honest living,” reveals Parker. “I thought, I’m not cut out for it, I don’t have the stamina, not to mention the fact that I didn’t think that I was very talented, to be honest with you. I just decided that I was never going to be a threat to Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin or Tina Turner, so I had better find another profession to do.”
As it happened, Stax needed someone to do publicity and given that young Deanie was bright, articulate, and had a keen interest in journalism, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton took her on as an employee to help promote the label’s acts and recordings as well as facilitate the day-to-day running of the company. Parker admits she arrived at the job as a total greenhorn. “I was learning on the job while I was getting a formal education at Memphis State University,” she says. “So it was such an ideal environment because Jim Stewart was allowing me the opportunity to develop my skills while I was getting a formal education in an area where I thought I was going to develop a career. Picture this: at the time that I was learning how to do this, we didn’t have the Internet, we didn’t have a facsimile machine, all we had was a telephone and the United States postal system. Al Bell, who was quite a visionary, and the eventual owner of Stax, brought in Al Abrahams who had been a publicist for Motown.”
Parker (pictured above with Jim Stewart and Al Bell) admits that Abrahams played a crucial role in tutoring her, though, ironically, the two didn’t met. “I never even saw Al Abrahams during the entire time I was at Stax Records,” she laughs. “He taught me by the phone and the mail system how to create a press release and gave me a template for it, and I, in turn, would send him my ideas. So he taught me the fundamentals using those two means of communication, which is all I had, in addition to what I learned in high school. And so it was through trial and error and through the goodness and attention of Al Abrahams.”
Parker is thankful to Jim Stewart for the opportunities he gave her. He was a different kind of record company boss; one who was progressive in that he operated a racially-integrated organisation and wasn’t averse to giving women prominent positions. “I had talked to Jim about that on a number of occasions,” says Parker of Stax’s co-founder, who’s now 87. “He told me, ‘Deanie, my family – my mother, father, two sisters and I – grew up as agricultural people and we didn’t travel a lot and lived off of the land. But what they taught us was how to be principled people and they lived and taught us by the golden rule, which is do unto others as you would have others do unto you. It’s just that simple. If you will just do that and put it into practice in life it will make all of the difference in terms of how you can manage your prejudices so that you don’t turn into a racist.'”
By the time that Eddie Floyd (pictured above) arrived at Stax in 1965, Deanie Parker had been doing such a good job that she was promoted to an executive role within the company. Born in Alabama but raised in Detroit, Floyd had been a member of the Motor City group, the Falcons, between 1955 and 1963. before making a few solo singles. His arrival at Stax was the result of meeting a man in 1965 who would become the promotional driving force behind the label from the mid-’60s onwards. His name? Al Bell. Says Floyd, now 80: “When I went to Washington DC, I met Al Bell, who was a disc jockey, and Carla Thomas was there going to college. So we met her and wrote the songs ‘Comfort Me’ and ‘Stop! Look What You’re Doing,’ and then went down to Memphis to record those songs on her. That’s when I met Booker T and the MGs, Steve Cropper, and everybody… and that was my introduction to Memphis.” As it turned out, ‘Stop! Look What You’re Doing’ was a Top 30 US R&B hit and put Floyd on the Stax payroll as a songwriter.
But though he had primarily been brought in to write songs for other people, Floyd desired a career as a solo artist – “I was there for the purpose of trying to be an artist also but willing to write for anybody,” he says – though his career as a singer at Stax eventually happened almost by accident. It was 1966 and he was holed up in a Memphis motel room with MGs’ guitarist, Steve Cropper. “We were in the Lorraine Motel, that’s where Doctor Martin Luther King was assassinated,” remembers Floyd. “It was around 3 o’clock in the morning. It was thundering and lightning and raining outside. We got a little cassette player and I told Steve, let’s come up with a song. I don’t play anything but I sing the melodies and Steve’s clever enough to put little different licks in the song and also contributes to lyrics. I told him about the story of my brother and I in Alabama being frightened of thunder and lightning when it got to be raining and then he came up with the lines “it was just like thunder and lightning, the way that she loved me, it’s frightening.” That became ‘Knock On Wood.’ When we wrote it, Otis (Redding) was very big at the time and I thought it would be a good song for him.”
Floyd recorded a demo of the song and he and Cropper played it to Jim Stewart, who thought it sounded too much like Wilson Pickett’s ‘Midnight Hour’ and decided not to do anything with it. Otis Redding, its intended recipient, didn’t even get to hear it but, as Eddie Floyd reveals, the song had a lot of support within Stax. “Everybody was saying, ‘it sounds like a record! It sounds like one for Eddie,’ and so, eight months later, they decided to put it out,” says Floyd.
Released in the summer of ’66, ‘Knock On Wood’ quickly reached pole position in the US R&B charts and transformed the man originally from Montgomery, Alabama, into a bonafide R&B star. “Though Otis didn’t hear it at that time, eventually he did,” laughs Floyd. “He did it with Carla Thomas on the ‘King and Queen’ album. So I got my wish that he did it, but you know what? It was a good thing that he didn’t come in and do it first because they might have never put my demo out.”
Floyd remembers Stax as a creative hub where everybody would chip in with ideas and contribute to each other’s records without egos getting in the way. Its defining ethos was teamwork. “We all helped each other with our productions,” he says. “Anybody who was there, they were all musically- inclined. I could call anybody. Johnny Taylor came and did backgrounds on my record, ‘Raise Your Hand.’ Everybody helped each other and that created that era.”
According to Deanie Parker, it was the arrival of Al Bell (pictured above) that helped transform Stax’s commercial fortunes. “When Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton made the decision to hire Al Bell it was because they knew they needed a promotion person,” she says. “Promotion was not Jim’s strength and he was not interested in it. He was interested in being in the studio and refining and perfecting his production and engineering capabilities. So it was a no-brainer to hire Al Bell.”
A DJ from Arkansas who was born Alvertis Isbell, Bell was also a songwriter and, crucially, knew how to get a record played and heard. But no one really anticipated the impact that Bell’s presence at Stax would have. Says Deanie Parker: “What we didn’t know was that Al Bell would become the greatest promoter that the world and the music industry has ever had. He was an incredible visionary. It was because of Al Bell having come in at the right time and because of his creative abilities and his ability also to look up, over, and out, and to motivate us and to take us to the next level. I’m not sure when Jim and Estelle hired him that they had bought into all of that.”
It was via Bell that Parker and the label’s publicity department gained valuable footholds with big PR companies on the US east and west coasts. “Al Bell connected us with Gersch and Associates in New York, where I got another level of on-the-job training,” she reveals. “Eventually, we signed on Rogers, Cowan, and Brenner from the west coast because they gave us a level of national publicity that we needed because it was very difficult living in Memphis, Tennessee, a landlocked, backwards community, trying to publicise Stax to the rest of the world. It was a challenge. But we had to connect to firms in New York and Los Angeles in order to give us that breadth of coverage we needed and to connect us with the rest of the outside world.”
With Al Bell at the helm, Stax could look outwards, to horizons far beyond the southern states of America. But it wasn’t just the rest of the USA that Bell wanted to conquer; he was hunting down international success as well. Masterminded by Otis Redding’s manager, Phil Walden, the Stax/Volt European tour was booked from mid-March to the first week of April in 1967, and it took Booker T & The MGs (with Mar-Key horns), Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave, and Otis Redding into England, Scandinavia, Holland and France.
“My first emotion was surprise when we were told we were doing the European tour,” recalls Booker T Jones. “I had no idea that the people over there had access to our music. We soon found out that access wasn’t that convenient for them because though the records were played on radio stations, they had to scrounge around to find shops that had the records. So the fans that we had were really people that had put effort into it to get to hear the music, so that was impressive.”
He, like many of the Stax entourage, was bowled over by the enthusiastic reception that they were greeted with and the huge crowds they attracted. “It was somewhat emotional to land there the first time,” admits Jones. “It was a new experience and I don’t think we had ever played in front of that many people before.”
Eddie Floyd concurs: “We related it to The Beatles and Rolling Stones. Just before we went to Europe, they came to the US. We saw them going off the plane and the people receiving them. So now we’re coming to England and when we went to the theatres to play, people were standing in line trying to get tickets. So we felt much the same as they must have felt when they came to America.”
Deanie Parker feels that the way British audiences have cherished Stax music over the years has helped to sustain interest in the label. “Had it not been for our British friends, there’s every possibility that Stax might not be as popular and that nobody would know much about us or enjoy us as we are revered today,” she opines. “It’s really a tribute to the British, it really is, because in America we don’t keep anything longer than a couple of weeks. Everything is disposable.”
But if Stax was on a giddy high after their invasion of Europe and Otis Redding’s triumphant summer appearance at the 1967 Monterey pop festival, it hit a deep low later that year when tragedy tore the heart out of the company. On December 10th, Otis Redding’s plane went down into a frozen lake in bad weather and killed the singer with four members of the Bar-Kays.
“It was very difficult after that,” says Deanie Parker, who co-wrote a couple of songs for Stax’s soul regent (including ‘Don’t Mess With Me Cupid’). “Not only because he was our hero and superstar, but also because he was our brother, our friend, and we had pinned so much of our hopes and future on Otis. He was like a tornado coming through Stax Records and the after-effects were felt for years. We had to spend an equal amount of time rebuilding trying to fill that void Otis left behind when he died.”
Redding’s death was followed by another blow. In 1968, Stax severed ties with Atlantic Records, its distributor since 1961. Discovering that a contract he had signed with Atlantic in 1965 had given the New York label the rights to Stax’s entire catalogue, Jim Stewart sold the label to Paramount Pictures, then owned by a huge conglomerate called Gulf + Western. Stewart stayed on in advisory capacity while Al Bell assumed the running of the label. For Booker T Jones, Stax wasn’t the same anymore and the close family vibe that had characterised the way it worked, was lost, as it became more overtly faceless and corporatized: “That is one of the reasons I left, because in ’68 Gulf + Western bought Paramount and Paramount bought us. In California I went out to see the president of Paramount, and had a meeting with him. They were the new owners and were telling us how to run it and they could do that because they owned the company. But it changed the production method of Stax in ’68. So I walked out on them. I don’t think they were running the company correctly. They had people to answer to. They had a board and stockholders. It was different.”
That wasn’t the only reason Jones left. He wanted to branch out musically, which he felt was impossible to do if he stayed in Memphis. “Stax was one-dimensional and never was going to expand to jazz or rock,” says Jones. “I started off as a guitar player and when some of the rock started coming out, like the Stones and the Beatles, I started listening to that stuff and related to it. I just felt limited at Stax.”
Jones was drawn to California, in particular. “I met some people at the Monterey Festival,” he says, “when I played there with Otis. I met (Cream bassist) Jack Bruce backstage at Monterey and he kept talking to me through the whole festival.” After Monterey, Otis Redding’s death, and Stax’s sale to Paramount, Jones’ mind was made up. “I just ended up getting on a plane and leaving,” he says. “It was really difficult to do because it was such a great privilege and pleasure to work at Stax, but I was able to seek different horizons out in California.”
In December 1975, Stax, ailing under the weight of mounting financial problems, went bankrupt and closed down. Though Booker T Jones had long gone, Eddie Floyd was still there. “I felt just like everybody else,” he says philosophically. “We didn’t really know what closed it down. It was a moment in time but life went on, moved on.”
For Deanie Parker, who remained with the company until its doors closed and had seen it grow and blossom from nothing, Stax’s demise was an unthinkable horror. “I was devastated …but I was also partially prepared because I had spent some time leading the team, if you will, recognising that we were having some challenges that we might not overcome and I had determined what I would do, what my Plan B would be, if my career ended at Stax. I decided that I would go back and finish my undergrad work.”
She fervently believes that the company’s collapse could have been prevented but there was a conspiracy of hostility towards it in Memphis by those who hated what it represented and wanted to see it fail. “The city was so unfriendly to us outside of those doors at Stax records,” she says. “It was because of racism and white supremacy in Memphis that Stax was assassinated, just like Dr King. Had it not been for racism, I am convinced that Stax Records might still be in business today. Memphians and people in the south did not want to accept the idea that black people and white people were working together and earning a very good living; it was unhealthy when they were trying to keep people on the plantations and make sure that people had plantation wages. They didn’t want change in Memphis and the south. So with Stax, it was a case of do you want to feed it or do you want to starve it to death? That was the decision.”
To use her own terminology, Stax starved to death. Or was allowed to. No saviour came in to save the day on a white charger. The only white knights nearby were the Ku Klux Klan who revelled in the label’s death. For the white supremacists it was another nail in the coffin of their worst nightmare, integration.
But the music never died and over the succeeding decades, Stax Records – through numerous reissues, compilations and documentaries – has stayed firmly in the consciousness of the general public (the label was also reactivated as an imprint of the Concord Music Group in 2007). The most recent event commemorating the legacy of Stax was a BBC Proms concert at the Royal Albert Hall on Friday September 1st 2017. It featured Eddie Floyd, Booker T Jones, Steve Cropper, William Bell, and Sam Moore alongside British singers Sir Tom Jones, Beverley Knight, Ruby Turner, and James Morrison together with Jools Holland’s Rhythm & Blues Orchestra. It was a roaring success and confirmed for many younger listeners the importance of Stax Records and the timelessness of the music associated with it.
Stax was a trailblazer that was a model of racial integration at a time when the American South was deeply segregated. Says Deanie Parker: “We were an example of what success in an integrated environment could be. What we did was allow people to appreciate that men and women, black and white, could work in the same environment together …and we wouldn’t give each other any diseases.”
Booker T Jones believes that Stax had an important part to play in breaking down racial barriers in America. “I think our band set a template for integrated groups and maybe broke the ice for two different races playing that kind of music together,” he says. “And I think that a lot of people, not just R&B musicians, but a lot of rock musicians, took example from the way Steve Cropper and Al Jackson were playing, which might have helped to break down the barriers.”
Though Stax went to rack and ruin in 1975, a new building rose from the rubble in 2003, when the Stax Museum of American Soul Music was built on the site of the original studio (which had been bulldozed down in 1989). In its wake came the Stax Music Academy and The Soulsville Charter School, both of which Deanie Parker helped to create, and though she retired in 2007, she still works in an ambassadorial capacity for the label. Understandably, she is proud of her association with Stax Records when she looks back on her time with the company. “I think what stands out most for me is that I was a part of something incredible, including the music, of course, which is the foundation of it all. But I had an opportunity as a black person and woman to achieve, experience and learn some things that I would never have had an opportunity to taste had I been in any place else in America at that time. I am so incredibly blessed. When I look back, I knew that I was a part of something great and wonderful ….but I didn’t know was how long it would last.”
As for the enduring legacy of Stax, Parker (pictured above today) says while the music is of paramount importance, the company’s ethos is also something to be admired. “I think it was a company that did the right thing,” she declares. “It opened the doors to give people opportunities who might otherwise not have had those opportunities, without being judgemental. And that is what we’re doing today on that corner of College and East McLemore, at the Stax Music Academy and the Charter School. We’re taking children and helping them to find and achieve lifelong successes; helping them to continue their education while teaching them about Stax music, the history of Stax and that Stax philosophy. We’re doing everything we can to preserve and to promote what we did 60 years ago because it was the right thing, it was good stuff – and it still works today if you will just apply it.”
Special thanks to Eddie Floyd, Booker T Jones, Deanie Parker, and Dorothy Howe.
Watch Stax Proms on the BBC Iplayer: here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b093m2wx/bbc-proms-2017-stax-with-jools-holland