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Clip: Soul music 101: Taking a walk through the history of Stax Records

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  • Carl Zimring
    Soul music 101: Taking a walk through the history of Stax Records February 1, 2004 BY
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      Soul music 101: Taking a walk through the history of Stax Records

      February 1, 2004

      BY DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporter

      MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The dignity of Southern soul music can be traced to an
      unassuming building at 926 E. McLemore Ave., in a middle-class black
      neighborhood, two miles southeast of downtown. Here at Stax Records, from
      1961 to 1975, more than 800 singles and 300 LPs were cut by artists such as
      Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding who put the civil rights movement to music.

      Songwriter David Porter, now 62, was a key figure in launching the Stax
      imprint. He grew up within walking distance of Stax, now reborn as the Stax
      Museum of American Soul Music. His house was four doors away from Maurice
      White, who would go on to form the '70s supergroup Earth, Wind & Fire.
      Porter partnered with Isaac Hayes to write Sam & Dave's song of
      empowerment, "Soul Man," Carla Thomas' "B-A-B-Y" and Johnnie Taylor's "I
      Had a Dream." Together, the Hayes-Porter songwriting team contributed to
      more than 200 Stax records, and they produced most of them.

      Porter was at Stax on April 4, 1968, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
      was murdered while standing on the balcony of the former Lorraine Motel,
      which once housed guests such as Roy Campanella, Nat King Cole and
      out-of-town Stax artists such as the Chicago-based Staple Singers.

      On King's birthday holiday last month, Porter served as tour guide for a
      three-hour walk through the new $20 million museum, built on the site of
      the former studio. The complex includes the non-profit Stax Music Academy,
      which offers after-school programs.

      More than half of the 20,000 Memphians who live within one mile of the new
      museum subsist below the poverty line. As dozens of shoolchildren checked
      out the museum, Porter offered up observations that were sometimes
      lighthearted, but more often, poignant.

      "Isaac and I were here writing when Dr. King was shot," Porter said in
      hushed tones. "When we heard about it, Isaac and I left to try to get
      there. But we couldn't get close enough."

      On the night of King's death, Memphis went up in flames. Company employees
      helped Stax co-founder Jim Stewart move master tapes to another location.
      The abrupt shuffle of the tapes was perhaps a metaphor for things to come
      at the label. Just months before King's assassination, Otis Redding, Stax's
      biggest star, who was on the verge of mainstream success with his hit
      "[Sittin' on] The Dock of the Bay," died in a plane crash near Madison,
      Wis., on Dec. 10, 1967. Shortly thereafter, in a corporate power struggle,
      Stax lost its catalog to the larger Atlantic Records.

      On Tuesday Stax continues to reclaim its past with the release of the "Soul
      Comes Home" DVD and companion CD. Soul Comes Home" aired on many PBS
      stations nationwide in August 2003. The DVD includes all 16 performances
      from the PBS special, as well as a bonus track of the Bar-Kays and Chuck D
      covering "Soul Finger."

      The "Soul Comes Home" concert was taped on April 30, 2003, in Memphis, to
      commemorate the opening of the Stax Museum, with featured artists Eddie
      Floyd, Isaac Hayes, Rance Allen, Mavis Staples, Solomon Burke (who covers
      Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness") and Al Green (who did not record for
      Stax, but for competing Hi Records in Memphis).

      The "Soul Comes Home" CD includes all of the DVD's musical performances, as
      well as liner notes by Peter Guralnick, author of Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm
      and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom. The Stax project is being
      released in conjunction with African American History Month.

      "When we were working in this facility, race was never an issue," Porter
      said. "Everybody bonded as a force factor for each other. True, when you're
      working 15 hours a day, you don't get out in the streets to interact with
      what's going on. But we were tremendously loyal to each other inside the
      studio. We had a mostly black environment, but you had [whites] Steve
      Cropper, Duck Dunn, Wayne Jackson, a couple other horn players who were
      working every day in the studio. It was a very special bond.

      "When Dr. King was shot, the community around us went in an uproar. People
      got bitter. It became stressful to come to work. Because of the
      uncomfortableness around us, that energy moved inside the building.

      "The world was whacked. Consequently, you'd walk into the studio, and
      instead of talking about the groove you were going to get into for that
      day, you would talk about life and what was happening around you. Things
      changed. It did not damage the respect and loyalty for each other, it just
      damaged the climate in which we worked."

      ***

      Stax went bankrupt in 1975. The bank turned the building, which originated
      as the Capitol Theater in 1930, over to the neighboring Southside Church of
      God & Christ for a planned community center. The building soon fell into
      disrepair, and despite community protests, Stax was razed in 1989.

      But Porter maintains a deep feeling of community.

      "We were so close," he said. "Before this was Stax, it was Satellite
      Records. I was a sacker at The Big D grocery store across the street. I was
      a high school senior. There was a little recording studio across the street
      doing country-Western. The A&R guy was Chips Moman [who would go on to
      produce soul legends Wilson Pickett, Bobby Womack and Solomon Burke]. He
      was the first guy I wrote a song with [at Satellite]. None were ever
      released."

      A former sideman with rockabilly pioneer Gene Vincent, Moman convinced
      Satellite owner Stewart to convert the old theater into a recording studio.
      And the Stax studio was born.

      In early 1964, Jim Stewart brought Porter on for a six-month trial at Stax,
      paying him $50 a week. "Isaac and I met when we were in high school,"
      Porter said. "We would sing at Wednesday night talent shows at the Palace
      Theater on Beale Street, trying to win $5. After high school, I was still
      working at the grocery store, selling insurance on the side and singing
      around clubs in Memphis."

      At Stax, Porter approached Hayes to form a writing team. "I also approached
      him about buying insurance," Porter said with a laugh. "I knew we could be
      what Motown had with [the songwriting team] Holland-Dozier-Holland. So
      Isaac and I started writing profusely. Isaac was a keyboard player.
      Melodies, lyrics and chordal directions came from both of us. We always
      wrote from a theme.

      "I could shape an artist's direction, because I was a concept person. I
      tried to bring out what they felt. After we worked up an arrangement on the
      floor, I'd direct the artist as they would sing: 'Hold up!' 'Hit the note
      high.' I thought the singer should be above where they should be [in terms
      of vocal range], because the anxiety of the soul then could come through.

      "I wanted to have more of an edge than Motown. Their records sounded so
      comfortable. On some of our records, you hear me because I inadvertently
      make a sound. On [Sam & Dave's] 'Something Is Wrong With My Baby,' at the
      very intro of that record I say 'hmmmn.'"

      Hayes and Porter speak just about every day, maintaining the friendship
      that dates back to their teenage days.

      ***

      As a youth, Porter sang with Maurice White at the Rose Hill Baptist Church
      near what would become the Stax building. Appropriately now, the Stax
      museum tour begins in a replica African Methodist Episcopal Church (circa
      1906) from Duncan, Miss., about 100 miles south of Memphis along Highway
      61. The church replica features the original pew and wood from the Delta
      original.

      In this section, the museum recognizes the Rev. C.L. Franklin, who preached
      at Memphis' nearby New Salem Missionary Church. His daughter Aretha was
      born at 406 Lucy Ave., a mile away from Stax. And another Memphis native,
      Bobby "Blue" Bland, learned his trademark squall from a C.L. Franklin
      sermon.

      Porter said, "On Sam and Dave's 'Soul Man' I told Sam [Moore] to imitate
      Bobby 'Blue' Bland's squall."

      In the Stax Museum, you won't find an audiotaped tour, in which stories
      like this are shared with visitors. Nor does the museum have interactive
      exhibits, except for a dance floor where visitors can shake their stuff to
      music that ranges from the Stax catalog to Sly and the Family Stone.

      But the museum is true to its full name as a museum of "American Soul
      Music" by giving props to what was going on at Motown, Chicago (including
      Sam Cooke's SAR label) and New York (King Curtis), and by paying homage to
      neglected R&B pioneers like Louis Jordan.

      Visitors can check out Roebuck "Pops" Staples' Gibson guitar as the Staple
      Singers' "Respect Yourself" plays in the background. There's a ragged diary
      of 1967 tour dates and locations kept by Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns
      and Steve Cropper's first amplifier (a Fender Princeton). Booker T. Jones
      donated his Hammond M-3 organ used to record "Green Onions" (the Hammond
      B-3 was his road organ).

      Otis Redding's wife donated the singer's favorite suede leather jacket. "If
      there's any one person to be given credit for what Stax ultimately became
      as far as credibility, it is Otis Redding," Porter said. "His horn riffs
      were motivation for Isaac and I. We'd try to incorporate those on our
      records."

      But the museum's big ticket item is Hayes' 1972 gold-plated Cadillac
      Eldorado. It is Stax's answer to Webb Pierce's ostentatious 1962 Pontiac
      Bonneville at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.

      When Hayes negotiated a new contract, one perk was his $26,000 peacock blue
      Cadillac. Stax leased the car for Hayes and it was insured by Lloyd's of
      London. The car included a refrigerated bar, television set and 24-karat
      gold exterior parts -- including windshield wipers. No wonder Stax went
      bankrupt.

      Porter was most excited at the end of the tour when he stood in the
      re-created Stax Studio A. The original Stax studio and offices were in the
      old Capitol Theater. A replica of the theater's marquee has been built,
      proudly announcing the destination of "Soulsville, U.S.A."

      During our tour, Porter spoke as if he were in the original place. "The
      drum set would be a little farther down," Porter said from the middle of
      the studio. "The baffle is in the right place. The songs Isaac and I wrote
      would sit on the piano. In the corner, there was a restroom. One time I
      went to the bathroom, and Isaac was telling me to hurry. I yelled back,
      'Hold on, I'm comin'.' That's how we wrote that song.

      "In order to get airplay, Jim Stewart changed the title to 'Hold on, I'm
      a-Comin.' I never heard a phrase like that before. The original title had
      too much of a sexual connotation."

      Stax acts would position themselves on one side of the microphone. Porter
      would stand on the other side. Sometimes he would grab a pen and pad,
      taking notes like a reporter to obtain a vocalist's inner feelings. Porter
      looked across the empty room and said, "I would communicate by looking at
      [drummer] Al Jackson first, give him a signal, then look at Isaac.

      "To show you how in tune Al was, on [Sam & Dave's] 'I Thank You,' I wanted
      to have a signature pocket for the record. So I said, 'Al, I want something
      to sound like horses with horseshoes on.' That was the clacka-clacka on the
      record. He could take an idea and create it from a drum perspective. He was
      the backbone of this company.

      "On 'Hold On, I'm a-Comin' I asked him to play the drum beat from Lee
      Dorsey's 'Get Out of My Life, Woman' and speed it up. That's his
      interpretation for 'Hold On, I'm a-Comin'. This was where the energy was.
      We'd work up all the songs together. The horns would be standing over here.
      Everyone was in their particular stations. We recorded live.

      "And everybody had to get together."

      POSTSCRIPT: After completing the tour, I asked Porter to sum up our visit
      through the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. He stopped to collect his
      thoughts. "I'm sure you noticed, when we were walking through, we'd be
      talking, and all of a sudden I was gone," he said. "I'd go somewhere
      emotionally.

      "The biggest thing that happens to me is that I realize I am walking
      through my life. As a kid who went to school, who got out of high school
      and made a mistake in the sense that I got a girl pregnant ... how was I
      going to survive?

      "Then to realize through my walking across the street from a grocery store
      into this place changed my life. It gave me a sense of direction. And now,
      to see it talked about in this format, on top of being a humbling
      experience, makes me cognizant of the fact there is a power much greater
      than we are. If we take the effort to make one step, that power gives us
      avenues and potential that can impact our lives in a positive and
      meaningful way. That's what this has been to me."

      And those are the dignified footprints that lead to Stax Records.

      JUST THE STAX

      Some little known facts and anecdotes about Stax Records:
      *Stax was founded in 1961 by Jim Stewart and her brother Estelle Axton.
      "Stax" was a combination of their names. When Axton left Stax in 1969,
      part of her buyout agreement stipulated that she not work in the music
      business for five years. Upon the agreement's expiration, she produced Rick
      Dees' 1976 novelty hit "Disco Duck (Part 1)."

      *On Oct. 1, 1975, Stax songwriter David Porter attended the closed-circuit
      Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali fight at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis. Porter
      ran into Al Jackson Jr., the hard-driving drummer for Booker T. & the MGs,
      who also provided the beat for 99 percent of the material recorded at Stax
      in the 1960s. Jackson had planned to go to Detroit to produce a session
      with Chicago soul singer Major Lance, but changed his mind when he learned
      about the fight.

      "I saw Jackson, said good night, got home and later heard on the TV that he
      was dead," Porter said during an interview at the Stax Museum. "He came
      home, somebody tied up his wife and killed him. She was left alive. It's
      still hard to talk about."

      *The late Bobby Bloom, who had the 1970 crossover hit "Montego Bay," also
      wrote the 1971 Staple Singers hit "Heavy Makes You Happy
      (Sha-Na-Boom-Boom)."

      *Memphis mainstay Elvis Presley had two recording sessions at Stax in 1974.
      According to songwriter Tony Joe White, the first session began around
      daylight. The sessions produced White's "I Got a Thing About You Baby" and
      "For Ol' Times' Sake." Presley had planned to record White's "Rainy Night
      in Georgia," which had been a hit in 1970 for soul singer Brook Benton.

      *Neo soul singer Macy Gray will play Stax singer Carla Thomas in an
      upcoming episode of NBC's "American Dreams."

      *Despite regional 1960s success with Eddie Floyd's "Knock on Wood," William
      Bell's "You Don't Miss Your Water" and Carla Thomas' "Gee Whiz," Stax did
      not penetrate pop music's Top 10, until 1967, when Sam & Dave's "Soul Man"
      climbed to No. 2 on the national pop charts.
      Dave Hoekstra
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