Sweeter Than the Sweet
Bell joined Stax’s promotion department in the mid-’60s, after he had worked with King in Georgia. Stewart encouraged Bell’s rise into management and co-ownership, but their dream nearly went off the rails in 1968, a few months after Otis Redding, one of their most acclaimed artists, died in an airplane crash in Wisconsin. The misfortunes continued when a distribution deal with Atlantic Records ended with Stax losing possession of its own catalog to the larger company. And that April, King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel, which had been a work and relaxation spot for Stax musicians. The subsequent riots in Memphis permanently scarred the city, but somehow the Stax studio survived the violent aftermath of King’s death unscathed.
Bell’s response to these events was to flood the market with 45s and LPs. Remarkably, the music was not just powerful but also stylistically diverse. Along with signing the Staple Singers, Bell saw Stax songwriter Isaac Hayes (who co-wrote Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man”) emerge as a star whose double albums, among them the blockbuster Shaft, blended dramatic scoring for string sections with his proto-rap delivery. The surviving members of Redding’s backing band, the Bar-Kays, transformed themselves into a hard-edged funk group on the model of Sly & the Family Stone, and Don Davis, a former Motown guitarist, brought new sophisticated arrangements to Stax productions.
Political engagement flowed from this artistic renaissance, with Bell writing checks to such organizations as the Urban League and the Angela Davis Defense Fund. In 1972, at the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, Jesse Jackson drew rhetorical capital from the Staple Singers when he asked the crowd, “When will we get paid for the work we have already done?” That same year, Stax became more visibly active when it organized an event called Wattstax at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Along with presenting a wealth of artists on its roster for a low-price fee, Stax directed the proceeds to charities like the Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation. Onstage, Pops Staples and the gospel singer Rance Allen offered stirring discourses on black history. Hayes exuded megawatt charisma. Many pop-culture historians have pronounced the Hells Angels’ murder of Meredith Hunter at the Altamont Free Concert in 1969 as the end the era’s idealism, yet they’ve ignored the 112,000 people—most of them African-Americans—who attended Wattstax peacefully three years later. Mel Stuart’s documentary film Wattstax features residents of Watts and nearby neighborhoods—as well as Richard Pryor—speaking candidly about race, community and their own aspirations. Stax vice president Larry Shaw and Stuart decided to add these voices from the street after the director screened the concert footage. In the book Party Music, Rickey Vincent connects Stax’s cultural affirmations to black nationalist groups—particularly the Black Panthers and the party’s house band, the Lumpen. But Stax and its artists were hardly revolutionaries: the Bar-Kays’ song “You’re Still My Brother” extends an amicable hand even to a Klansman. Entrepreneurialism was still the main agenda. John KaSandra’s “(What’s Under) the Natural Do” mocked proto-Afrocentric hairstyles and clothing as shallow and lacking business sense. “Respect Yourself” (written by Mack Rice) preached self-sufficiency as gospel.
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All of this made Stax’s downfall in the mid-1970s especially disheartening. Some of its wounds were self-inflicted, the result of disorganization and reckless spending. But Gordon draws on interviews, court documents and newspaper articles to present a convincing case that racism also contributed to the label’s demise. Stax’s local creditor, Union Planters National Bank, had been guilty of financial malfeasance yet tried to shift the blame, charging Bell with fraud. The black community in Memphis and Operation PUSH responded with a boycott of Union Planters, while Bell was eventually acquitted. Gordon sets this drama against the backdrop of the rise of de facto segregation in 1970s Memphis, when white flight caused the city’s schools to crumble.
Stax shut its doors in December 1975, and loyal until the end, the Staple Singers released one of the label’s last singles, “I Got to Be Myself.” Then they recorded on Mayfield’s own Curtom label in Chicago, where they enjoyed a big success with “Let’s Do It Again,” one of the sexiest songs Mayfield wrote. But over the next decade, their audience dwindled, and in the 1980s Mavis Staples found herself trying to get gigs singing ad jingles.
Other Stax veterans struggled after the company folded, but Respect Yourself ends on an upbeat note. Gordon explains that about ten years after the Stax building was torn down in 1989, former Stax artist and publicist Deanie Parker began running a nonprofit foundation, Soulsville. This organization partnered with a nearby African-American college, LeMoyne-Owen, and amassed a pool of public funds and private donations to construct the Stax Museum of Soul Music and the Soulsville Charter School on the studio’s former site. While educational inequality persists in Memphis, the school’s graduation success rate offers a reason for hope.
Mavis Staples’s career has also rebounded since her family’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. Her voice is hoarser now, but a quiet, indomitable force pervades such recent albums as You Are Not Alone and One True Vine. A couple of years ago, at the Chicago Blues Festival and at the city’s Americana/rock festival, the Hideout Block Party, a standout song of Staples’s sets was “This Is My Country,” Mayfield’s statement of black pride and inclusion. Mavis added a caustic spoken-word interlude to it, attacking the racism inherent in the Tea Party. Sure, she was preaching to her own choir, but it’s always heartening to see such a spirit unbowed.