Robert Gordon’s new book tells the history of Stax Records, the famous Memphis label responsible for some of Southern soul’s definitive recordings.
Stax began in a Memphis garage in 1957 as Satellite Records, a project of Jim Stewart, soon joined by his sister Estelle Axton, both white. From these humble beginnings, it enjoyed a fairy-tale rise, becoming a revered name, the home of the great Otis Redding, of “Soul Man” and “In the Midnight Hour.”
Gordon tracks this glorious ascent—and a vertiginous fall—as the label eventually collapsed under its own weight. He delivers a compelling tale with maximum effect, drawing on interviews with singers, musicians, songwriters, producers, secretaries, label heads—everyone he could get his hands on.…show more content… More people came to the record store—or tried their hands in the studio. A guitarist named Johnny Jenkins showed up, high on style, low on substance. (In fairy tales, not everyone turns out to be what he seems.) But Jenkins had this driver by the name of Otis Redding who kept insisting he could sing…
The MGs improved steadily. Isaac Hayes stepped in for Booker T when he took a break to attend Indiana University, and Hayes quickly learned how to write popular tunes, with the help of an insurance man named David Porter. Hayes and Porter connected with another duo by the name of Sam & Dave, collaborating on a series of bracing soul hits.
Enter promo-man extraordinaire, Al Bell, “six-feet-four bundle of joy, two hundred and twelve pounds of Miss Bell’s baby boy. Soft as medicated cotton and rich as double-X cream. The women’s pet, the men’s threat and the playboy’s pride and joy.” In addition to his business talent, Bell, as a black man, Gordon writes, “would enhance the administration’s credibility among the [mostly black] employees.”
“We weren’t a professional company before Al," says Booker T. Jones. "We didn’t have big business going on. We had big music going on.”
They did have that. Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Sam & Dave now consistently landed hits and all recorded