Wednesday, December 20, 2017

From Stax to Daptone and Back Again: Rob Bowman's Soulsville, U.S.A.

Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton (the ST and AX, respectively), ca. 1957, founding Stax Records.

Canadian music journalist Rob Bowman has given all of us soul music lovers a wonderful gift in the form of his deeply researched book, Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records (Schirmer Trade Books, 2003). It’s the inside story of the men and women behind what came to be known historically as the legendary “Stax sound.” His book, which he took twelve fetishistic years to compile, and which has made him the premiere expert on both the music and the business operations of a truly iconic label, simply has to be one of the most in-depth studies ever conducted and published on a single record company. In it, he explores the music, of course, but also the politics inside the organization, its finances, lawsuits, interracial harmonies and discords, studio location in an urban black neighborhood, key staff members, promotional strategies, distribution, every hiring or firing and, most importantly, the creative interplay between the soulful musical artists and their gifted producers. And what producers they were.

Young high-tech wizards like Mark Ronson (producer of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black) have been trying for years to channel its gritty groove but they just can’t quite pull it off. It seems there’s just a kind of acoustic ecology that can’t ever be approximated.

All the gritty recording ingredients which Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings alchemically reference in their contemporary soul and funk music create an environment of tightly knit and precisely calibrated live sounds that closely evokes and channels the sonic history they personally treasure so deeply: the inimitable but inspiring heavy sound of Stax Records. Its uplifting studio core of molten emotional power would move Jones far forward as a gutsy performer and its gritty analog recording techniques would enhance Gabriel Roth’s profile as her gifted producer.

The '60s and '70s sound of Memphis-based Stax was essential to the new-century but old-school spirit of The Dap-Kings, and also to the business ethos of Daptone as a studio when they were coming up in 2002. For lovers of Jones and her Kings, a short trip down memory lane might be called for, perhaps to clarify why some of us so often appear to utter the name "Stax" in such hushed, reverential tones, and how authentically Gabe Roth is evoking its ethos. And it all started with a rather eccentric Southern white genius named Jim Stewart.

In musical recordings, the perfect balance between a new hybrid blending of rural and urban spirits was often accomplished by the synthesis of two masterful production and marketing talents who harmonized their own opposite personalities in a similar manner. The best examples would of course be Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler riding the engineering genius of Tom Dowd at Atlantic Records and, in the early days out of Philadelphia, Bert Berns, Kenneth Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell, working at Gamble/Huff.

Meanwhile in Memphis there was the hyper-magical combination of David Porter and Issac Hayes, while the uncannily prescient white executive and producer Stewart guided a flock of brilliant black acts all the way through the now almost mystical annals of Stax. White-owned but black-oriented, Stax Records would become the historic soul dynasty fueling the dreams of both Roth and Jones. Their peak years, from 1961 to 1971, included a fruitful creative overlap with Atlantic, and that fertile ground was the origin of the sound we hear later embraced so effectively in the 21st century by Daptone.

The visionary Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton had purchased the Capitol Cinema building on East McLemore Street in the middle of a black neighborhood in 1959. Originally called Satellite Records, they renamed it Stax and ruled the roost from 1959 until 1975, when it finally folded and entered the history books. In Nowhere to Run, gifted producer Steve Cropper characterized their magic like this: “Now what we were doing was called the Stax sound or the Memphis sound, it wasn’t Chicago, it wasn’t New York, and it sure wasn’t Detroit. It was a Southern sound, a below-the-Bible-belt sound. It was righteous and nasty. Which to our way of thinking was pretty close to life itself.”

It was also overwhelmingly tasty. As Gerri Hirshey aptly put it, “The difference between Stax and Motown was written boldly on their studio buildings. Motown declared itself Hitsville U.S.A. in fat blue script. Stax, housed in its old movie theater, put its slogan on the marquee in workmanlike black clamp-on lettering: Soulsville U.S.A.

The renovated movie theatre that became home to a unique sonic miracle in the '60s and '70s.

Stax, Muscle Shoals (Rick Hall’s other white-managed black music label in Muscle Shoals, Alabama), and even in its own lesser way Motown, were also all clear evidence that new innovations in music such as R&B and soul (and later on hip-hop and rap) were always the by-products of independent producers and executives going their own way, often against the tide of the monopoly interests of major labels such as RCA, Capitol, Decca or Columbia. Soul music would eventually be revealed to be Southern by its core definition but not necessarily by mere geography alone, and the key ingredient to almost every great soul artist was the apparent, or perceived, turning of their backs on the musical formats of sacred scripture. Eventually, however, soul wouldn’t even be limited by race, since it proved so profitable that its being usurped by white pop was all but inevitable.

In one of their early publicity releases, the Stax Records label included an obscurely crafted lyric, probably dashed off by founder Jim Stewart himself, and it tells the tale: “There’s an old saying that goes like so, keep trying and you’ll get where you want to go. You can conquer the world with your original sound. They knocked at the front door and couldn’t get in. They heard a sound and went around to the back door, where the sound let them in.” The sound let them in: that’s the secret of the outsider status of Stax that quickly allowed it to rise to the top of the recording industry.

The great Isaac Hayes put it more succinctly when he hollered: “I’m a soul man, got what I got the hard way.” That’s the way the Stax sound developed: they got it the hard way, through hard work, and, of course, by utilizing the talents of geniuses for arranging, singing, songwriting and producing. Estelle, the sibling of Stewart who assumed a commanding business role, actually took out a second mortgage on her family home in 1958 so they could purchase a piece of professional Ampex monaural recording equipment.

For readers with an appetite for the deep back story of what made this historic label so cherished half a century later, and the miraculous birth of precious sounds such as Booker T. & The MG's, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers, Johnnie Taylor, Albert King, Rufus and Carla Thomas (a model for Sharon Jones) and the majesty of The Bar-Kays, I can heartily recommend the tome to turn to. Bowman’s Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records, captures the label’s lightning in a bottle. It was an energy field of magic Memphis noise that would still be inspiring Roth, Jones and The Dap-Kings in the 21st century. Bowman’s fine book tells the inside story of a landmark record company, one that provided the inspiration for the sonic style of Roth and Neal Sugarman’s own little independent company Daptone Records, and the music they continue to make together after the untimely passing of their singing star Sharon Jones in 2016.

The glorious Sam and Dave in their prime.

Stax was one of the first truly integrated studios (another model for Daptone) with black and white musicians, songwriters and executives working together to produce a unique sound. In addition to this ideal reference book, Bowman also created a lengthy monograph that accompanied a 10-CD box set which he co-produced, The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles, 1972-1975. I’m also very pleased to mention that Bowman is a fellow Canadian journalist and music scholar, one who admits that at first he started out believing that he was simply writing about a flock of records that he loved. But he quickly realized there was a far richer side to the story of Stax, a story involving serious social changes, political shifts and even a cultural phenomenon of deep historical consequences.

The importance of Memphis in musical history cannot be exaggerated. The songs and sounds that come from there are uniquely American. And for many of us, Stax was the arterial pumping beat of the heart of Memphis, a city that literally breathed music. After commencing as a white-owned business and shifting to a half-white/half-black operation and then finally to an all-black enterprise, Stax also obviously represented an innovative model for independence and freedom of expression. This was despite the fact that it gradually unraveled due to over reaching ambition, government interference, the usurping of its content and product by CBS Records and its ultimate bankruptcy at the hands of a local/national banking system.

Equally obvious were the spiritual/musical influences hovering over a city like Memphis, which claims more churches per person than any other in America. It was the home base for the Church of God in Christ and while being a center for recording some of the most overwhelmingly emotional Pentecostal music ever created, it still somehow managed to also inspire and produce music in multiple other competing secular genres at the same time. In other words, it radiated both the sacred and the sinful.

After recording some forgettable 45’s and albums in his early days as Satellite Records, which he’d been making in his wife’s uncle’s two car garage (giving new old meaning to the term "garage rock"), Jim Stewart eventually made the shift to professional standards and to the gritty theatre space he rented for $150 a month. This space had something unusual about it, a sense of “live” performance recording sonics resulting from its reverberation effects which, though intimate, also paradoxically simulated the boom of a large concert hall. It was a feeling which Bowman attributes as the evolution of what became known as the Stax sound, the very hyper-physicality which would later inspire late-'90s Daptone in its revivalist quest.

Willie “Pops” Mitchell, resident genius of rival Hi Records, studio home of the legendary Al Green, and the only reasonable competitor with Stax.

Ironically, since Stewart was operating on such a zero-budget that he couldn’t afford to level the sloping theatre floors, this limitation provided the accidental acoustic bonus of having no walls that were opposite each other. In addition to preparing the groundwork for unintentional walls of sound, the ceilings were twenty-five feet high and a false partition cutting the space in half brought the highly personalized studio working environment to forty by forty-five feet in overall dimension. That was its physical dimension; meanwhile its emotional and spiritual dimensions were almost infinitely huge and still echo loud and clear today.

The first artists issued by Satellite (as it was then still called prior to the shift to Stax) was the Rufus and Carla Thomas number “Cause I Love You,” backed by “Deep Down Inside,” which proved to be their first big success. It was also the arrival of a change of life and attitude for Stewart, who before this stage had focused on bland country or pop music, with this sudden hit plunging him into the much more vital and gripping domain of African-American music. For Stewart, it felt like he had been a blind man who regained his sight in a kind of miracle; he didn’t want to go back, he didn’t even want to look back, only forward to the future of Satellite/Stax as strictly a rhythm and blues label. At that point in 1960, remember, there was barely a name for soul music yet. It was only a glimmer in the ears of competing Memphis natives like Jim Stewart of Stax and his chief audio nemesis Willie Mitchell of Hi Records.

Another business bonus was the Satellite Record Store itself, operated by Stewart’s sister Estelle, an obvious outlet for their new product located smack in the heart of the black community, which proved to be a local cultural mecca as well. David Porter, who would eventually pair with Isaac Hayes in a hit-making songwriting machine, worked at the grocery store across the street from the studio. Booker T. Jones, the force behind The MG’s, along with its stellar white players Duck Dunn and Steve Cropper, all hung out at the store. Indeed, several of Stax’s future notable employees, such as Deanie Parker, Homer Banks, James Cross, William Brown, Johnny Keyes and Henry Bush, all actually started out as counter help at Estelle’s record store. The ambitious siblings quickly quit their day jobs and rented the empty barbershop next door to the store as the first site of Satellite Records until it morphed into Stax in 1968, a golden year for soul music in America.

In those early days, as Bowman has chronicled so well, the record industry operated much like a food chain, with larger companies picking up the distribution of potential hit releases from small local businesses like Stewart and Axton’s. Atlantic Records was particularly adept and successful at finding future gems and acquiring first the songs and eventually the distribution of the entire business concern. Once the Thomas song became popular, Satellite signed the first of many contracts with Atlantic (and others) in order to reach a wider audience, which they did immediately by selling ten times the copies they had managed to move on their own.

Al Jackson, Steve Cropper, Booker T. Jones and Donald "Duck" Dunn, aka Booker T. & the M.G.'s, in 1968.

This would be the beginning of the Satellite/Stax saga and the evolutionary leap that gained them the often referenced descriptor, “the little label that could.” At that stage Stax was also breaking serious new social ground, confounding other white Memphis-based businesses who were equally baffled by their engagement with black Americans, as well as by their commercial success. Quite without realizing it, Stewart and Axton had also invented the core concept for what might respectfully be called a mom-and- pop operation. Bowman also rightly characterized it as “a case study in how black and white could intersect and interact.” since Estelle defined it as never seeing color, only hearing talent.

After several releases in 1961 that were either all-white or al- black in their basic musicianship and personnel, it would be the release of The Mar-Keys track “Last Night,” a record with an integrated band consisting of the white Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn and Charles Axton (Estelle’s son) playing with youthful chums such as Don Nix and Wayne Jackson, Jerry Smith and vocalist Ronnie Angel, that ignited their crucial mixed race message. This also appears to have been the initial historic recording on which what we now identify as the Stax sound began to emerge and evolve.

“Last Night” would be the first of many rough-and-tumble instrumental hits to come, the most important of which were those crafted by the amazing Booker T. & The MG's, the half-white/half-black band (Jones, Al Jackson, Cropper and Dunn) which Bowman has anointed (quite correctly, I think) “the greatest instrumental soul group in the world.” “Last Night” also had the honor of being the song that not only delivered the company its first chart hit but also brought it to the attention of another record company, one already named Satellite, this one based in California. This chance realization necessitated the shift in name to the now-famous surname combination of Stewart with Axton to craft the curious neologism Stax.

Meanwhile, as Booker T.’s contagious instrumental hit “Green Onions” was climbing the charts, Stewart and Axton would encounter a part-time preacher and powerhouse singer who would change the soul and pop music scene forever: Otis Redding.

Tennessee Senator Howard Baker presenting Carla Thomas and Otis Redding with a plaque in 1967.

Yet the operation at this stage in 1963 was still very much mom and pop in tone and structure, with Estelle running the record shop, Jim still working part time at a bank, Cropper running the studio, and the crew releasing a couple of singles per month, with an album maybe every three months.

By 1964, when they were just about to enter their golden age, thirty-two 45s were released by Stax on Atlantic and Volt as well as under their own imprint, twelve of these by the label’s mainstays of proven performers, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Booker T. & the MG's, as well as their newest diamond cutter, Redding. Their chief competitor, Motown, of course, representing more of the Northern urban branch of soul (as well as the crossover pop varieties), was busy breaking the bank, while the more Southern rural spirit of the sibling sonic visionaries Stewart and Axton was following a somewhat slower but (to some) much more earthy approach.

One of Stewart’s chief obsessions, curiously given his own pedigree, was to keep their sound as black as possible, declaring that even if pots of gold awaited from the crossover pop-soul boom, he just wasn’t interested if that meant compromising or betraying what he had come to appreciate as the special Stax sound he’d accidentally created. He even admitted to grudgingly envying Motown’s popular success but still claimed it just wasn’t “their thing.” This even though in a few short years they would have their own mainstream success with the issue of Isaac Hayes’ classic 1969 Hot Buttered Soul and 1971’s Black Moses albums.

After penning such soul gems as “Hold On, I’m Coming” and “Soul Man,” Hayes was more than ready to break out of the confines of a songwriting role and assume his true mantle as a performing superstar, one that almost rivaled the popularity of Mr. Brown at one point. But as big he was in the '70, practically re-inventing the groove that lead to the more accessible Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Funkadelic and Curtis Mayfield, Hayes would also be a road sign pointing to the internal changes and outward creative decline already afoot at Stax.

Commercially, however, it was still then a studio bonanza, heralded by the astonishing brilliance and energy of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett, both of whom had breathtaking but brief lives and careers, while dramatically revolutionizing soul and pop at the same time and memorializing what came to be known as the Memphis Sound, which has so impacted music history. Booker T. once naturally affirmed that of course you’re going to have an identifiable sound if all the records emerge from the same studio using the same approach and practically the same players. Part of its magic, though, also relied on a distinctive but microscopic rhythmic delay of two and four, a rhythm recognizable on most up-tempo Stax albums. Another part of it was also due (as Gabe Roth would later attest) to the minimalist mic placement, confined quarters and the quirky room’s inherent acoustic bounce.

Al Bell of Stax Records, one of the industry’s most imaginative publicists and promoters.

The vocalists at Stax employed a slight and instinctual delay as well, which, as Bowman has pointed out, was likely the result of standing about ten feet or so from the drummer behind a sound baffle while wearing no headphones, hearing what came over the top of the baffle as it bounced off the ceiling and hit them in the head. Apart from this unique sound, their rise was also propelled by hiring one Al Bell, a dynamic promoter, public relations wiz and radio specialist, to help spread the soul gospel of Stax. According to some historians, Stax didn’t really start until rabid publicist Al Bell got there (he would eventually be engaged in some production as well as management and was even co-owner at one stage) because apparently the Stewarts and their musicians had tons of talent but absolutely no marketing skills whatsoever.

Within weeks of Bell’s arrival at the company, Isaac Hayes and David Porter crafted a seminal masterpiece for Sam (Moore) and Dave (Prater) which proved to be their breakout hit: “You Don’t Know Like I Know.” Once again, it was clear that much of the form and content of soul music came directly from the call-and-response techniques and lyrical forms of gospel. Hayes provided the kernel of the song, simply adapting melody, chords and the first four lines from a sacred hymn, admitting comfortably that most of his ideas and titles did come from the church. The title references a gospel song called “You Don’t Know Like I Know What the Lord Has Done for Me” and Hayes openly declared that "if the Lord can make you feel so good and do things for you, why couldn’t a woman do the same things too?” Thus “You don’t know like I know what this woman has done for me.”

The same core philosophy of adaptation can also be interpreted in other Stax masterpieces such “In the Midnight Hour” or “Knock on Wood,” or almost any song featuring the incredible Otis Redding, perhaps especially his posthumously released classic “(Sitting on) The Dock of the Bay.” Fervor is fervor, wherever or whoever it comes from, whether scripture or sex. Porter had divined (no pun intended) that all the best songs followed a certain formula: they all had an opening that introduced a scenario which led to some sort of action, followed by a kind of denouement, though he probably didn’t use that fancy word. They were mostly in the first person and very few if any of them ended with a formal resolution of their dilemma. The first song utilizing this stated formula and resulting in a phenomenal effect was the classic “Hold On, I’m Coming” in 1966. Believe it or not, the song’s timeless lyrics had originated with Hayes, impatient while waiting in the studio, calling out gruffly to Porter, who was in the washroom, to hurry up and get out here . . . and Porter had responded with those golden hold-on tag lines. Apparently, chance really does favor the well-prepared.

A Stax subsidiary, Volt Records, also performed studio magic.
Among the key differences in recording techniques during this Stax golden age was a rapid search for perfect feeling rather than perfection in the sound per se, unlike today’s world of perpetual auto-tuning and computer digital toying and tinkering. Rapid, because they often recorded several tracks from different bands in one day, one right after the other, with the rhythm section generally working out the foundation while the horn players might be out to lunch or for a smoke. Then, once the rhythm section had worked out the map of the song, the horn section would work out their parts, and finally everyone would cut the record “live” in the studio together as if they were performing in a club, which in a sense is exactly what they were doing.

Stax never bothered themselves over the occasional little audio mistake, or tempo flaw, or delayed action or reaction, especially not if the song had real soul power that couldn’t ever be duplicated. At Stax, as Bowman has written, “it was of little consequence. If a given take had that gospel-infused sanctified feeling, it was a keeper.” With this crucial mix of ingredients -- Al Bell choreographing the radio stations, Jim Stewart or Steve Cropper playing the mixing board, Isaac Hayes and Dave Porter starting to rip it up as songwriters -- the formula and its execution started to hit high gear.

roducing-wise, the efforts were similarly communal and family-oriented, with ace promoter Bell initiating the policy of song credits' saying “produced by staff,” though there was an equal amount of deferment to the acknowledged masters of the groove in the persons of Cropper and Wayne Jackson. By 1967, Stax had become so hot that Stewart could no longer handle all the production and engineering duties on his own, so they brought in Ron Capone to serve that function. Capone was somewhat amazed at how primitive their technical set-up still was, despite the fact that the end result was so often stellar. He found a studio which had been designed with a Scully four-track recording machine and overdubbing capability but where headphones were still not used at all. When they were recording an overdub, the studio speakers were used for monitors, which meant that the sound coming from the speakers bled into the microphones.

He also found that Stewart wasn’t at all interested in stereo effects, with all the 45’s they created being made in mono. In this regard, of course, Stewart was actually a visionary, not a reactionary, since today’s audiophiles, all the way up to a genius such as Brian Wilson, regularly express and extol the superior virtues of a mono mix. As the new in-house engineer Capone recalled it, Stewart would put the Voice of the Theatre speaker in front of you with an eighteen-inch woofer and he’d put that in front of the mono machine and order Capone not to listen to the four-track. He declared that he didn’t care what went to the four-track even if, for a technical specialist like Capone, some of the levels that went into it were “outrageous.” When the original mixing board was installed there (by Welton Jetton), he had padded it down so severely that if Stewart opened the sound up huge with the meters cranked up all the way, there was still no way he would ever get any distortion from the board.

For reverb, there were two live chambers at the back of the studio, one of which was so humid it filled with water, and Capone recalled that often crickets would set up homes in the other chamber. On top of all those surreal features, the chambers were outfitted originally with the cheapest speakers money could buy, so they actually then put in the tiny speakers you find in drive-in movies. The microphones in the chambers were also of similar low-grade quality. And yet the sound that resulted from this weird mix was a kind of blissful sonic utopia: it’s all about music first, and mechanics, if ever, never.

The analog recording techniques of Stax, using only primitive 4 and 8 track equipment, would set the standard for mono brilliance for decades to come.

Later on in the Stax saga, during the Atlantic distribution years, and then Warner Brothers, and then the rough era of CBS Records, the recognizable aura of Stax’s sound and spirit started to alter, even if the technology wassupposedly superior. And as Bowman effectively points out in his chronicle, once the use of strings and background vocalists from Detroit, and then the use of different rhythm sections, entered the nebulous alchemical mix that was the secret Stewart domain round about 1967-1970, followed by the looming social and cultural shift towards the new disco aesthetic, “the idea of a readily identifiable sound was beginning to fade into history.”

After they folded in 1975, the Stax family went through a number of last-gasp convulsions. A series of events lead the company to become a victim of a number of forces, especially over-expansion, an ill-fitting distribution deal with CBS, a clash of corporate cultures beyond repair, greed and poor decisions, and the mismanagement of their local bank, which doomed them. The storied history of this innovative record company is both a sad saga of creativity colliding with commerce at the same time as a glorious achievement in music, especially soul and funk. Unfortunately, Jim Stewart did not fare well after the collapse of his intensely personal creation, despite an attempt by Fantasy Records to revive Stax in 1977. Having never drawn up a contract with himself as a producer on the recordings made by his own company in its first seven years of life, to this day (at 88 years of age) he receives no royalty payments at all for the remarkable music he helped manifest. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 and sent his granddaughter to the ceremony to accept the award on his behalf.

That much is the sad part of the Soulsville saga, while the glorious side is the quirky fact that the Stax master tapes and the East Memphis catalogue have evolved into a revered national treasure of sorts and have undergone significant reissuing to the tune of three annotated boxed sets containing every A-side of every R&B single ever created by the studio. They comprise some twenty-eight discs with just about three full days of solid musical magic. As Bowman states so emotionally in his fine book, “It’s a legacy that makes the world just a little bit richer place to live.” Amen, brother. I’m once again pleased to say that occasionally some old folk adages we all heard do seem to ring true. Here’s another one: history never actually repeats itself, but it often rhymes.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Spring 2018.

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