‘Stax: Soulsville U.S.A.’ HBO Documentary: What We Learned

May 20, 2024
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You don’t have to be an expert on classic soul and R&B to recognize the American music monuments that emerged from Stax Records in the Sixties and Seventies. Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man,” Otis Redding’s “Respect” and “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” Isaac Hayes’ “Theme From Shaft,” and the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” — just a few of Stax’s greatest hits — made the case that the Memphis-based record company was the Southern version of Motown.

Whether anyone fully realizes that is another matter. But to the rescue comes Stax: Soulsville U.S.A., a four-hour documentary directed by Jamila Wignot and streaming on HBO (its first two parts premiere Monday night). The film is worth watching for its rarely seen footage alone. We glimpse Hayes and the Bar-Kays working out the still astounding orchestral soul of “Theme From Shaft” for the movie’s director, Gordon Parks. We see clips of Redding on his farm and at the Monterey International Pop Festival, as well as images from his funeral following his death in a 1967 plane crash. And there is ample studio session footage, including that of Booker T. and the M.G.’s, the label’s core backup band (and recording artists in their own right).

As with any record company, of course, music wasn’t the whole story. Stax: Soulsville U.S.A. also chronicles the attendant drama, struggles, crashes, and resurrections that went with Stax — all within a fairly compact period of roughly 15 years. Here are seven things we learned from the doc.

Stax hits were loaded with symbolism.
Many of the label’s most-played songs weren’t considered overtly political at the time, but events in and around the company and its talent, during such a racially fraught period, still made their way into the music. Songwriter and producer David Porter talks about how Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man” was a message of racial identity as much as a boast. The late Isaac Hayes explains in an archival interview that his stage garb — bare-chested and covered with chains — was also symbolic: The chains, he says, connoted “strength,” not captivity. (He also admits that he wore sunglasses onstage to hide his nervousness after making the move from behind-the-scenes songwriter to frontman.)

At WattStax, the 1973 Los Angeles stadium show organized by Stax and featuring some of its stars, Jesse Jackson provides a powerful moment when he leads tens of thousands of Black audience members in his “I am somebody” chant. We also learn that many Stax musicians would hang out in the bar or at the pool of Memphis’ Lorraine Motel — the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 assassination.

Stax had its own hidden figure.
The name Stax wasn’t a reference to stacks of records. Rather, it was a combination of the first two letters of its co-founders: musician and songwriter Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton. As we hear, Stewart asked his sister to invest in his idea of a record store and record company. Eventually, the feisty Axton (who mortgaged her house to get involved) became, in the words of one employee, “the maternal support for the organization.” Axton was a major player at the company until the end of the Sixties when she and the label’s hard-charging promo man, Al Bell, clashed, and Stewart asked his sister, in his words, to “step down.” (Bell, a prominent voice in the film, admits to their disagreements.) Axton died in 2004, but her daughter recalls her mother being “emotionally broken” after she left Stax.

Despite the talented roster of Black artists at Stax, racism lingered.
Stax started as a record store with a recording studio in the back, and Booker T. Jones recalls how both Black and white music fanatics would gather in the shop. But racism still lingered outside the building. Mainstream pop radio ignored Stax’s earliest releases. Jim Stewart recalls the time Carla Thomas, who’d already had a few hits with the label, had to ride in a hotel freight elevator because Black people weren’t allowed in the lobby. Stewart, Bell, and Redding were once pulled over by Memphis cops unnerved by the sight of a Black man in the same car with whites. The label and its talents only started receiving their due when a Stax caravan in 1967 traveled to Europe, where they were greeted like heroes.

Even back then, the music business knew that death sold.
In 1967, Redding immersed himself in the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and decided he too wanted to stretch out his arms musically. The result was the heavy-hearted folk-soul of “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” which he recorded before the fatal plane crash that took his life and four members of his band, the Bar-Kays. According to the doc, Atlantic reached out to Stewart a few days after Redding’s death and asked what music was ready to go. Initially resistant, Steve Cropper, the M.G.’s guitarist and producer, was ordered to prep something. Cropper stayed up all night, days after Redding’s death, to finish the song. Shipped immediately to Atlantic’s New York office (Cropper recalls handing the master tape to a flight attendant in Memphis), “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” was in stores within days, becoming Redding’s first Number One.

Stax knew how to work the business when it had to.
Al Bell, who eventually became a co-owner and the label’s first prominent Black executive, recounts the novel way he broke Sam & Dave’s “You Don’t Know Like I Know” in 1965. Since the track was being released before Christmas, he knew that DJs at Black radio stations in and around the area had to play seasonal carols. Figuring they’d need a break, he suggested they slip in the Sam & Dave single after every third or fourth yuletide song — which they did, resulting in Sam & Dave’s first single to break into the Top 100.

Few labels were as screwed over as Stax.
Some college somewhere needs to devote an entire music-business course to Stax. In 1965, Stewart signed what is called “a really bad contract” with Atlantic, for $1,000 and the rights to distribute their records nationally. Redding’s death was a major setback for the company, as was the moment the following year when Atlantic merged with Warner Brothers, making Stax and its master tapes fully the property of Atlantic. (“We’d been screwed over without a kiss,” one employee says.)

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In the Seventies, the company was wary of CBS, which, the doc claims, was considered a “racist” label by Blacks in the music business. But Clive Davis, then running CBS, wanted to break into the R&B market. Everything appeared to be back on track — until Davis was unceremoniously fired, and suddenly Stax albums began vanishing from record stores. According to Stax: Soulsville U.S.A. (which does not include a response from any former CBS employees), CBS began withholding money from Stax, essentially strangling it. The label was also pulled into an embezzlement case against the bank with which the label worked.

Stax had its share of WTF releases too.
Like any record company, Stax released some misfires and head-scratchers. A run-through of the label’s pre-1975 collapse includes a clip of Lena Zavaroni, a white Scottish teenager with a big voice and sassy stage persona whom Stax picked up for American distribution. Zavaroni couldn’t have been more out of place on the label. But her presence makes you wonder if she and the label helped set the stage for gimmicks like America’s Got Talent — hardly Stax’s greatest contribution to pop culture, but an interesting coda to a once-great company.



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