Review: ‘Respect Yourself’ by Robert Gordon

Categories: Chicago Tribune

Gordon tells the story of the Memphis soul label that gave us Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and Booker T. & the MG's

By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Tribune

5:39 p.m. CST, November 14, 2013

I arrived in Memphis for the first time in 1996, on a mission to visit, among other places in town, Stax Records, the recording studio and label responsible for producing the most enduring American soul music of all time from a roster of artists topped by Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Booker T. & the MG's, the Staple Singers, and Isaac Hayes.

I soon learned that visiting Stax in the mid-1990s was like trying to buy a ticket to a gladiator match inside the Roman Colosseum. My car rolled up to 926 E. McLemore Ave. and found Stax represented only by brick ash, spread across an empty lot, and a historical marker. That hurt. Unlike most record labels, Stax was fundamentally entwined with its time and place: Memphis at the height of segregation and the violence of the Civil Rights movement.

There is no other story as improbable, for much of what made Stax spin out indelible hits for so many years was the result of hunches, accidents, chemistry and blind risk by a group of people, many teenagers, who were learning as they were doing. Can we dare understand or appreciate the organic genesis of songs like "(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay" or "Hold On! I'm Comin'" in our current era, when most cultural products are machine-driven by global corporations that spend millions of dollars on research and development as insurance against duds? For us, these stories of the neighborhood singers who wandered into Stax with raw talent to later exit as international stars are as fantastic today as they are bittersweet.

To read "Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion" by Memphis music scholar Robert Gordon is to step back into a time and place where it was possible for Redding, a livery driver, to beg his way into the recording studio to get heard. All he had to do was open his mouth: "When you're in a moment like that, you're not thinking that it's gonna sell a lot of records. It's all heart, and time gets frozen. I'd never been with anybody that had that much desire to express emotion," remembered keyboardist Booker T. Jones.

Among Gordon's credits is his definitive "Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters," a book that delivers the full dimensions of another improbable story we thought we knew. With "Respect," a similar authority for the subject is responsible for passages that deliver background on the hits, but then peel these stories back further to expose the societal ingredients that made the impossible happen and established cultural benchmarks for a generation in crisis.

The creeping organ chords and sinister guitar riff of "Green Onions" by Booker T. & the MG's announced itself just in kind. Teenage friends Jones and Steve Cropper, the house guitarist at Stax, pulled them out when they needed a B-side throwaway; fleshed into an arrangement on the spot with drummer Al Jackson Jr. and bassist Lewie Steinberg, the band — an interracial unit that Gordon notes would otherwise not be allowed to enter together through most front doors in town — infused country-western and church music into a sound ("funky and stinky," Steinberg called it) that sounded like nothing else at the time.

"The song's charge came from an honesty that underlay it, the meeting of styles anticipating a racial reality on the streets that many people preferred to deny," Gordon writes.

Indeed, Gordon neatly frames the Stax story against the wider racial drama unfolding in Memphis at the same time, starting with the early labor organizing by the city sanitation workers and culminating with the riots that swept the city following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. To do otherwise would be an injustice. After all, racial unity was hardly the original intention of its founders — Jim Stewart, a country fiddler and bank clerk, and Estelle Axton, his sister who mortgaged her house in 1958 for the studio's first console tape machine. As Gordon carefully shows, the world that Stax created through its studio and accompanying record shop, where Axton tracked record sales to determine the studio's future output, was a creative and social oasis for the musicians, technicians and songwriters drawn under its eaves.

The stories from this time reflect that idyllic experiment. The first knock on the door: William Brown, a boy almost 10 years of age, showing up unannounced to tell Stewart he could sing. He ended up a singer in the Mad Lads, an early Stax doo-wop group. In these engrossing pages, many of those gravitating to Stax make entrances and exits that seem just as arbitrary. A piano player with no formal training named Isaac Hayes, working in a meatpacking plant, was hired to replace Jones when he departed. He would end up one of the label's most prolific songwriters and later, its most enduring star.

With the doors of this incubator always open, black America had a new voice.

"If you had talent — if you thought you had talent — you could go there. Nobody else was doing that around here. No studios — no nothing — ever gave any of the black artists that kind of a chance," said Rufus Thomas, the label's first star.

Gordon's writing goes deep within the music, emerging with clarity as to what made certain artists so magnetic.

In describing the voice of Otis Redding, the label's first true crossover star, he writes: "His songs were above love, but the sense of longing he conveyed was deeper than the love between a man and woman; Otis touched the heart of desire. He sang about love but summoned the poignancy of his times, of people used and being used and wanting an embrace instead of a fist."

Stax music was soon heard far outside Memphis. Beatles manager Brian Epstein showed up in Memphis in 1966 to tell Stewart of the band's interest in recording "Revolver" at Stax. (The band later bailed once the secret made headlines in the local newspapers.) A year later, a revue of Stax artists crossed the Atlantic to see for themselves — boisterous crowds crammed theaters to hear their music, and they returned home, transformed.

The triumphs of this label are many, but the pain that soon surfaced was a close match. Besides Redding's unexpected death and the surrounding racial strife the artists endured beyond the safe confines of Stax, what ultimately wounded the label were its benefactors: First, distributor Atlantic Records, and, later, Gulf &Western Industries, a holding company, and CBS. The naive agreements the label entered into proved its first undoing; financial mismanagement followed. Gordon documents these periods of "corporate homicide — polite, sterile, and deadly" to show the complexities of the personalities involved, including Atlantic's Jerry Wexler who claims to this day he was blind to his own company's contract that forced Stax to relinquish ownership of the smaller label's recording masters.

But this was Stax, and the label rose and fell again after that period, even though it never fully recovered its earlier unbridled innocence. By the time 1976 arrived, and the company became insolvent, the stories documented by Gordon become as heartbreaking as a Redding song. The author describes Stewart sitting at his kitchen table years later, sipping coffee as strangers examine everything he ever owned during a home auction. That night, his family exited the property in an eviction.

Gordon paints Stewart as a true believer, whose investment — putting his life savings into the company against all odds — was personal. He writes:

Epic heroes make epic mistakes. Jim had never done the expected. He'd been told it was unwise to have blacks in the studio, that it was stupid to leave banking. Jim acted from the contradictory heart of humanity: People do things romantic and heroic and regrettable. There may be no sense to it, but the act itself is powerful, emotional, and unforgettable.

A third act for Stax arrived more than two decades later. Efforts by benefactors, civic leaders, music historians and many of the surviving label personnel helped rebuild and reopen the Stax building in 2003 and today it's a thriving museum, anchoring a sprawling complex that includes a music academy for at-risk kids and a tuition-free public charter school. The music did not die; it couldn't.

"Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion"

By Robert Gordon, Bloomsbury USA, 480 pages, $30

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