VOL. 10 | NO. 52 | Saturday, December 23, 2017
Memphis Sound at 60
K. DENISE JENNINGS, Special to The Memphis News
As Stax Records and Royal Studios both wrap up a year of celebrating their 60th anniversary, The Memphis News looks back at the creators and purveyors of the Memphis sound and its significance, both in its heyday and today.
Worldwide, the Memphis sound is still moving people, and its message and unique sound lives on, influencing generations of musicians.
“The rest of the world has a better appreciation of both Hi (Records) and Stax than the people around here,” said James Alexander, bass player for Stax recording artists The Bar-Kays and the only surviving member of the band’s original lineup. “People come from all over the world to see the place that Isaac Hayes recorded or Al Green recorded, just like they come to see the place that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and Elvis Presley lived.”
(Clockwise from top left) James Alexander, bassist for The Bar-Kays, with Isaac Hayes’ sidemen Sidney Kirk, Willie Hall, Mickey Gregory and Harold Beane. “The rest of the world has a better appreciation of both Hi (Records) and Stax than the people around here,” Alexander says. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)
Stax Records, Hi Records/Royal Studios and the Memphis sound they developed were part of a movement ahead of its time, and as art often does, it preserved the story of its context in a time capsule of music that lives on to inform and entertain future generations.
Although competitors with very different stories, their paths were parallel, and together they were musical trailblazers forging a rich musical legacy of distinctly southern soul music that drew heavily on the influence of blues, country and gospel music, which all originated in the region.
THE ‘QUIRKY’ LABEL THAT COULD
Jim Stewart, a banker and fiddle player from Middleton, Tennessee, was enamored by what was happening with Memphis-based Sun Records under the direction of Sam Phillips, and he wanted in on the action. He had a dream, a tape recorder and access to a garage in North Memphis, and with that he launched Satellite Records, Stax’s precursor, in 1957.
Soon joined in the business by his sister Estelle Axton, also a banker and music lover with an intuition for the newest music, the siblings moved the studio in 1959 to the abandoned Capitol Theatre on McLemore Avenue with $150 to invest in the building and almost no music business experience.
“It was really mom-and-pop, which was why the music was so authentic,” said Tim Sampson, communications director of the Soulsville Foundation, the nonprofit that runs the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, The Stax Music Academy and The Soulsville Charter School, all clustered on the campus of the original Stax Records on McLemore Avenue in South Memphis.
Carla Thomas was part of the musical roster that shaped the Stax Records sound and contributed to the label’s success in the 1960s. (Photo (c) Bill Carrier courtesy of Stax Archives)
After some early success at Satellite Records with Carla Thomas’ “Cause I Love You” and the instrumental hit “Last Night,” recorded by local high school R&B band The Mar-Keys, Stewart decided to take the first two letters of his and his sister’s last names and rename the label Stax Records in 1961.
And for the next 14 years, Stax’s hits kept coming, even as the label experienced highs and lows.
“Stax was quirky and never really operated the same way as a big flashy corporate record company operated,” Sampson said. “It was as much of a cult as it was a record company.”
The house band, The Mar-Keys were made up of both black and white kids – including Estelle’s son “Packy” Axton – all of whom had met at school and hung out at the studio.
“The whole thing about Stax was that all of these black and white people worked together at a time that that just didn’t happen,” Sampson said.
Inside the recording control room looking into Studio A at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. The museum was built on the site of the former Stax Records studio. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)
Axton famously said she never looked at color, only talent.
“The label came along at a time where there was a lot of creative people that didn’t have an avenue to express their creativity,” Alexander said. “Stax provided a haven to create in. You have to wonder: Had it not been for Stax, would there never have been The Bar-Kays or Isaac Hayes? You can’t say that it still would have happened.”
In 1962, Stax welcomed a young Otis Redding, who soon would become its biggest star up to that point – but the story of how the Macon, Georgia, singer wound up at the Memphis studio has caused some debate.
The conventional account says Redding was hired to drive Johnny Jenkins of The Pinetoppers from Macon to Memphis. Redding asked if he could sing for Stewart and Axton, and at the end of the day, he got the chance that launched his successful career with the label.
However, Jonathan Gould, author of the recent biography “Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life,” points out Redding had several records on smaller labels out at the time and had recorded more in Los Angeles before the trip to Memphis. He was the singer in Jenkins’ band, though Jenkins and his guitar playing were the central attraction.
Isaac Hayes was part of the musical roster that shaped the Stax Records sound and contributed to the label’s success in the 1960s. (Photo courtesy of Stax Archives)
“As happens when somebody prominent dies young, the people who survive are the people who get to tell the story,” Gould said.
Still a small company, Stax brought in marketing director and promoter Al Bell to take the label to the next level, and around the same time, entered a distribution agreement with Atlantic Records, which sent Florida performers Sam & Dave to Memphis to find their sound.
Sam & Dave’s success with hits like “Hold On, I’m Comin” and “Soul Man” catapulted Stax to the international limelight.
In 1967, a roster of Stax stars launched their first European tour to a huge reception by European fans.
“They were already huge in Europe, and they didn’t even know it,” Sampson said. “The Beatles sent limos to pick them up at the airport. They were still treated like crap in the U.S. because they were black, but over there they were all treated like superstars, which invigorated them.”
Following the European tour, Stax artists performed at the Monterey Pop Festival, slaying the white hippie counterculture crowd, Sampson said.
Booker T. & The M.G.'s and Carla Thomas were part of the musical roster that shaped the Stax Records sound and contributed to the label’s success in the 1960s. (Photo (c) Bill Carrier courtesy of Stax Archives)
But tragedy struck that December, six months after the festival, when a small plane carrying Redding, five of the six Bar-Kays and their valet crashed in Wisconsin. Trumpeter Ben Cauley was the only one involved in the crash who survived.
Alexander, who had taken a different flight, had to go to Madison, Wisconsin, to identify the bodies of his band members and friends.
“I was devastated. … I was 17 years old at the time,” he said. “I remember that as though it was yesterday.”
The loss reverberated through Stax and beyond.
“Otis was 26,” Sampson said. “His career lasted five years, and all of the sudden it was over. Stax lost its biggest star, and Otis lost his life.”
Around the same time, Stax discovered that a clause in its distribution agreement with Atlantic had given the company ownership of all the music Stax had recorded to that point, and the label was forced to start over.
“What started out as a great year had ended badly,” Sampson said.
The situation didn’t improve in 1968 as Memphis was plunged into the national spotlight for the sanitation workers strike and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Everything was in a state of upheaval…even Stax,” Sampson added.
In an effort to save the label, Bell recorded 27 albums in 2 months with as many artists as possible and launched them with a sales and press conference, beginning Stax’s second phase with stars like Hayes and the Staples Singers at the helm.
Stax Music Academy students perform each year at Staxtacular, the academy's largest annual fundraiser. Hosted by the Memphis Grizzlies, the next Staxtacular takes place Jan. 27. (Soulsville Foundation)
“A lot of it was message music,” Sampson said. “King had been assassinated, and Stax took on the responsibility of keeping the civil rights movement moving ahead.”
RIDING HIGH, FALLING LOW
In 1972, Bell bought Stax Records from Stewart and Axton, and the company began to take more financial risks, some of which paid off.
The label organized a Los Angeles benefit concert called Wattstax, which brought together 112,000 people to commemorate the 1965 riots in L.A.’s Watts community.
The same year, Hayes won an Academy Award for the “Theme From ‘Shaft.’”
“Stax was riding so high,” Sampson said.
But the ride was almost over.
“The white business community was not going to have all that black success, and they wanted more than anything to take Al Bell down,” he added.
Gould asserts that Bell contributed to the label’s financial problems with some bad business dealings, but does praise his decision to focus on recording full-length albums instead of radio singles.
“I’m very hard on him and I will always be very hard on him,” Gould says of Bell’s business decisions. “But to give him some credit, this was the thing that (Motown Records founder Berry) Gordy didn’t take seriously until his artists essentially forced him to do it. …
“Bell was well ahead of the curve as far as that went compared to Gordy. He did understand where the business was going.”
However, it wasn’t enough to bring Stax the financial success it needed to survive.
In December 1975, three small creditors sent by Union Planters brought an involuntary bankruptcy petition, kicked everyone out of the studio and padlocked the doors. The studio was sold to a neighborhood church, which eventually tore it down.
STAX’S NEXT LIFE
The hallowed ground of Stax sat vacant for years until the precursor to the Soulsville Foundation, the Ewarton Foundation – formed from the remaining letters of Stewart and Axton’s last names – decided to rebuild the Capitol Theatre and create the Stax Museum of American Soul Music to serve as the anchor for a broader neighborhood revitalization.
Stax Records commercially lives on as a subsidiary of the California-based Concord Music Group, which continues to honor the Stax legacy, repackaging and reselling the legendary music as well as signing new artists that can carry on the Stax sound. Artists such as Memphis-based Southern Avenue, Angie Stone, William Bell, Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite have all recorded new music on the revived Stax label.
Joel Amsterdam, a senior vice president at Concord Music Group, said the company is committed to “keeping the flame alive and giving (Stax) the reverence it deserves.”
The company has reissued numerous Stax titles, including a series of 60th anniversary releases in collaboration with Rhino Entertainment.
And Concord is committed to keeping the new artist roster true to the Stax legacy, Amsterdam said.
“It’s something we take seriously, and we don’t want to do anything to dilute the name.”
Willie Mitchell's Royal Studios
DEVELOPING MEMPHIS SOUL
At the same time Stewart was launching Satellite Records, another studio was forming across town.
Royal Studios was born when singer Ray Harris, record store owner Joe Coughi, former Sun Records producers Bill Cantrell and Quinton Claunch, and three silent partners rented the Royal Theatre and converted it to the Royal Record Studio, home of Hi Records, named for the last two letters in Coughi’s name.
Legendary producer Willie Mitchell, who made the studio famous, originally was hired as a trumpeter at Royal Studios in 1963 and soon became the musical director and eventually the owner of the studio. Under his direction, Royal Studios’ music transformed from instrumental and rockabilly to rhythm and blues as Mitchell helped develop the modern Memphis soul sound.
Siblings Oona and Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell are helping continue the legacy of their grandfather, Royal Studios founder Willie Mitchell. The family-run studio in South Memphis is one of the oldest continuously operating recording studios in the world. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)
‘A LOT OF MAGIC IN THE AIR’
Early success at Royal Studios on Hi Records was mostly thanks to instrumentals from groups like the Bill Black Combo, but the label shot to fame when Mitchell partnered with Al Green, who began his success in 1970 with “Can’t Get Next to You” and “Tired of Being Alone.”
The next year, Green and Mitchell teamed up for “Let’s Stay Together,” and they would go on to release a No. 1 hit for four consecutive years. Green went on to become one of the best-selling artists of the 1970s.
Mitchell worked with a range of other well-known artists, producing albums for Ann Peebles, Don Bryant, George Jackson, Bobby Blue Bland, Syl Johnson and Otis Clay.
Bryant, an early Hi Records artist who began traveling as a singer with Mitchell’s band at age 16, remembers Mitchell as a father figure and professional mentor who gave him many opportunities in his career.
Bryant eventually became an in-house writer for songs like Peebles’ 1973 hit “I Can’t Stand the Rain.”
“I enjoyed meeting all the artists that came through,” Bryant said. “They had a lot of stories to tell, and through that I got a lot of ideas for songs. … I could hum and write the lyrics and the chords, and most people would take it from there and finish it up. …
“It was a great family and we all worked together.”
Willie’s grandson Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell – who now runs Royal along with his sister Oona, their mother and aunt – was born in 1971 during the height of Hi Record’s success.
“There was a lot of magic in the air when I was a kid,” Boo Mitchell said, adding that Hi made “26 gold and platinum records in a row, and they were putting out albums every nine months. It was a pretty electric atmosphere with the family and all the people in the house … The Temptations, the Doobie Brothers, Al Green, Ann Peebles and Rufus Thomas.”
ROYAL’S SECOND WIND
Success struck hot and fast, but with the advent of disco music in the late 1970s, the popularity of the Memphis sound waned, and Hi was sold in 1977. At that time, Royal had to start operating as a commercial studio, and it’s never stopped.
Royal Studios is one of the oldest continuously operating recording studios in the world, boasting an impressive discography that includes legends like Chuck Berry, Buddy Guy, Keith Richards, Ike and Tina Turner, and Tom Jones. It continues to host gold- and platinum-selling artists such as Rod Stewart, John Mayer, Robert Plant, Elton John and Snoop Dogg.
“We seem to be the studio of firsts … Rod Stewart’s first solo album, Keith Richard’s first solo album,” Boo Mitchell said. “The amount of artists who have come through here in every genre is staggering, and the influence can still be heard even in current records.”
“It’s unique to have a studio in the family for 60 years,” Oona added. “It’s kind of unheard of as a working studio that’s never been turned into a museum or anything. … When you come in here, you can feel the vibe of the souls that have been in here.
“People are coming here for the sound and the fact that we’re still equipped with analog and digital. My granddad created the sound in this studio. He pieced together every piece of wool hanging in here. … It’s not asbestos!”
Boo added, “Pops would say, ‘Be careful when you clean up. Don’t move anything!’ He would jokingly say, ‘Don’t mess with those cobwebs!’”
The studio always has been a family affair, and that atmosphere built the lore that is bringing in a new generation of musicians, including Marc Ronson and Bruno Mars, who recorded the chart-topping track “Uptown Funk” – along with most of Ronson’s 2015 album “Uptown Special” – at Royal. Boo Mitchell won his first Grammy for engineering on “Uptown Funk,” which also pushed Royal into the spotlight.
“We’ve kind of been under the radar for so long except kind of the deep student of soul music. ‘Uptown Funk’ kind of put us more in the mainstream,” he said.