The greatest thing about Stax is that Jim and Estelle and Al were ordinary folks. They came from no great means. They had no more opportunity than anyone else. But they stood up for what they believed in, despite the fact that society thought that was a bad idea, that everyone around them thought they were wrong. Because of that, they brought much good into the world. They became epic heroes by ordinary events. And that’s something we can all do, if we have the guts.
Robert Gordon, author of the book Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion in conversation with The Bitter Southerner: "The Power of Ordinary People: How Stax Records Set an Example for America."
Another Garage Origin Story
Stax Records co-founder Jim Stewart, second from left, with musicians Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, Booker T. Jones and Carla Thomas after recording the 1967 duet “Tramp.”
Why do American success stories so often start in a garage? This one begins long before Silicon Valley was known by that name. Back in 1957, Memphis banker and part-time fiddler Jim Gordon took a cue from nearby Sun Records, where Sam Philips was producing Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, and, oh, by the way, inventing rock and roll.
Borrowing money from his sister Estelle Axton, Gordon set up a recording studio in a garage. His first love was country music, but once he and his sister moved the studio to downtown Memphis, what came to be known as Stax Records opened its doors to black music and the black community. Producing music like "Green Onions" by Booker T and the MGs and "Walking the Dog" by Rufus Thomas, who went on to be a Stax regular with his daughter Carla, Stax became home to what was known as the Memphis Sound, described as "a sultry fusion of Southern soul, blues and gospel."
Once Jim and Estelle formed a partnership with African-American disk jockey Al Bell, things really took off. Stax was home to iconic musicians: Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, the Staples Singers, and - wait for it - Isaac Hayes. (Yes, he had a life before South Park.) Many of their hits crossed over, charting not only as R&B but on Billboard's "Hot 100" chart.
Stax Records became known as a haven for equality in the segregated South. Despite the label's success, after Otis Redding's death in a year 1967 plane crash, the company fell on hard times. After signing an exploitive distribution deal with a major record company, Stax went bankrupt in 1975. Gordon never fully recovered, many said.
Jim Gordon died Dec. 6 in a Memphis hospital at the age of 92.
But the music? It's still here.
Jim Stewart in 2013 with two instructors at the Stax Music Academy, which runs an after-school program in Memphis near the longtime home of Stax Records.
Brian's Stax Playlist
Albert King : Oh Pretty Woman
Otis Redding : Cigarettes & Coffee
Delaney & Bonnie : Everybody Loves A Winner
Sam & Dave : When Something Is Wrong With My Baby
The Staple Singers : I’ll Take You There
The Bar Kays : Soul Finger
Eddie Floyd : Knock On Wood
Booker T & The MG’s : Time Is Tight
Johnny Taylor : Who’s Making Love
Isaac Hayes : Shaft
Mel & Tim : Backfield In Motion
Otis Redding : My Girl / Respect
William Bell : I Forgot To Be Your Lover
Pop Staples, Albert King & Steve Cropper : Tupelo
Carla Thomas : B-A-B-Y
Jean Knight : Mr Big Stuff
Albert King : Born Under A Bad Sign
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