June 24, 2024 11:32 am

STAX: Soulsville, USA
STAX: Soulsville, USA

STAX: Soulsville, USA

“STAX: Soulsville USA” is a four-part, four-hour series about the legendary Memphis soul music label’s rise and fall, and its impact on American culture and history. 

Stax was founded in 1957 by siblings who bonded over their love of music: country fiddle player Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton, who took out a second mortgage on her house to finance the construction of a music store and a recording studio. The music store was wide-ranging: it is described in the first episode of the series as sort of an ongoing focus group with a permanent address, enabling Stewart and Axton to learn what kinds of music people were open to buying. But the studio only recorded country because that’s what the founders knew best. Then the father-daughter team of Rufus and Carla Thomas entered the picture and recorded two soul songs of for the company. The second, “”Gee Whiz: Look at His Eyes,” became the company’s first chart-topping hit (in both rhythm & blues and pop). It also started their association with Atlantic Records, which gave the smaller company a $5000 advance plus promotion and distribution muscle in exchange for a five-year option on all future recordings. Satellite became Stax, a cryptic amalgam of letters from Stewart and Wexler’s last names.

As any student of music history could tell you even if they didn’t know the details of Stax’s relationship with Atlantic, this arrangement came back to bite the founders on the fanny. Over the next eight years, Stax built up the careers of multiple all-timers, including Booker T. & the MGs and Otis Redding and became a force to rival Motown, which was putting out a much slicker, altogether more palatable product, without most of the rough, funky, down-home, Southern-fried soul elements that defined the house band at Stax, as well as the company’s regular composer-arrangers (among them: Issac Hayes, who would make Stax a fortune and win them an Oscar with the original songs and score for “Shaft”). But in 1968, months after Redding’s death in a plane crash, Atlantic sold out to Warner Bros., and Atlantic’s point person with Stax, Jerry Wexler, exercised a clause in the contract (which Stewart did not read before signing) that gave them 97% of the existing catalog and forced them to start over from the ground up just when their power was at its peak. Stax persisted nonetheless, with Hayes’ great success changing the energy of the operation and propelling them into the next decade, peaking with the Wattstax event in Los Angeles.

Unfortunately by 1975, Stax was functionally nonexistent. The company fell victim not only to Atlantic and Warner’s coldblooded corporate treachery and an unfavorable distribution deal with CBS Records but also the timeless tendency of artists to start their own entertainment companies and become successes based on talent and originality, then crater because there was nobody in-house who really knew how to run a business. The closest equivalent to a responsible adult in the executive ranks was former DJ turned marketing executive Al Bell, who became the company’s vice president and a co-owner. Bell was so valuable that after repeated disagreements between him and Wexler forced Stewart to pick a side, he stood with Bell and made his sister step down. (Wexler took the money from selling her shares in Stax and founded the Memphis Songwriters Association as well as her own label, Fretone, whose biggest hit was the 1976 novelty record “Disco Duck.”) Fantasy Records bought the post-Atlantic catalog in 1978 and started signing new acts and releasing new music, but retreated and became a reissues-only label for the next twenty years. 

It’s a great story with too many colorful characters to list here, although Bell and Booker T. Jones, whose thoughtful and often challenging statements serve as cement holding the narrative together, deserve special mention. It also succeeds as an atmospheric re-creation of a specific time and place. The series is  equally striking for its mix of well-known and rarely- or never-seen footage. Among them: kinescopes of live TV concerts, home movies by Stax intimates, and TV news images of the wreckage of Redding’s plane); film clips and still photos that bring the 1960s Memphis recording studio scene to life (including repeated shots of a hand perched over a fader, a cigarette smoldering between two fingers); and archival footage of life beyond the studio (including copious shots of street life in ’60s Memphis, and hauntingly framed shots of rain on streets and buildings in the hours leading to the Rev. Martin Luther King’s assassination). 

What you won’t get is much sense of the individual personalities and personal, creative and financial conflicts between the various artists and executives. Given the apparent corporate mandate of the series, that’s understandable. Film and TV documentaries about popular recorded music could not exist without the participation of major corporate players/rights holders. The three players in this case are HBO, a division of Time Warner Discovery, which bought Warner Entertainment, an earlier incarnation of which bought Atlantic; Polygram Entertainment, a division of Universal Music Group; and Concord Theatricals. The latter describes itself on its web site as a music publishing and licensing company providing “comprehensive service” to storytellers who are using lots pre-existing music in their work, but the main thing to know about them is that they bought Fantasy Records, which was built on the bones of the post-1967 Stax. Which means that, for all of its sensitivity, intelligence and raw feeling, what you’re seeing here is in some fundamental sense a huge ad for intellectual property, commissioned and controlled by the rights holders, and that if you want the down-and-dirty, unexpurgated history, you are probably better off reading music history books, or spending the day on Wikipedia clicking on key players’ names

Still, this is a stirring and often moving production, one that pushes the outer edge of the envelope of its innate limitations as product and (especially when dealing with Jim Crow) illuminates the material in an sorrowful, wrenching manner. Directed and coproduced by Jamila Wignot (“The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross”), the series’ scope, ambition, and methodical pace evoke “OJ Simpson: Made in America” (the architect of which, Ezra Edelman, is listed as an executive producer). And it would work brilliantly as a companion piece to it, because of its ability to show how massive, anonymous-seeming historical forces bear down on individual lives. 

Every ten minutes there’s an anecdote that hits you square in the heart, like Jim Stewart and Carla Thomas’ account of trying to meet with Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler back in 1960 in segregated Memphis and having to bring Thomas in to a restricted hotel through a service elevator; or Booker T. Jones (of the MGs fame) talking about how, in the aftermath of King’s murder, his white colleagues never asked him how he was feeling or even mentioned the tragedy. “I started to feel, deep down, that something was amiss,” he says. “They didn’t understand my daily life as a Black person.” He came to understand that “the close personal relationship I had with them didn’t exist outside of the studio.” 

The seeming benevolence and “color-blindness” hinted at in early sections of the story is peeled away to reveal something fundamentally selfish and passive-aggressively oblivious in America itself, not just its music business. the Black artists who revolutionized pop music rarely got to share in the financial part of its success because, with a handful of exceptions, they didn’t truly own anything, which meant that any help the establishment might give them was ultimately more conciliatory than empowering. The realization beneath it all is more powerful for not being stated in plain terms by any living witness. But James Baldwin spells it out in a historical clip from the era: “I don’t want to be given anything by you. I just want to be left alone so that I can do it myself.”

“STAX: Soulsville USA” is a four-part, four-hour series about the legendary Memphis soul music label’s rise and fall, and its impact on American culture and history.  Stax was founded in 1957 by siblings who bonded over their love of music: country fiddle player Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton, who took out a second mortgage on her house to finance the construction of a music store and a recording studio. The music store was wide-ranging: it is described in the first episode of the series as sort of an ongoing focus group with a permanent address, enabling Stewart and Axton to learn what kinds of music people were open to buying. But the studio only recorded country because that’s what the founders knew best. Then the father-daughter team of Rufus and Carla Thomas entered the picture and recorded two soul songs of for the company. The second, “”Gee Whiz: Look at His Eyes,” became the company’s first chart-topping hit (in both rhythm & blues and pop). It also started their association with Atlantic Records, which gave the smaller company a $5000 advance plus promotion and distribution muscle in exchange for a five-year option on all future recordings. Satellite became Stax, a cryptic amalgam of letters from Stewart and Wexler’s last names. As any student of music history could tell you even if they didn’t know the details of Stax’s relationship with Atlantic, this arrangement came back to bite the founders on the fanny. Over the next eight years, Stax built up the careers of multiple all-timers, including Booker T. & the MGs and Otis Redding and became a force to rival Motown, which was putting out a much slicker, altogether more palatable product, without most of the rough, funky, down-home, Southern-fried soul elements that defined the house band at Stax, as well as the company’s regular composer-arrangers (among them: Issac Hayes, who would make Stax a fortune and win them an Oscar with the original songs and score for “Shaft”). But in 1968, months after Redding’s death in a plane crash, Atlantic sold out to Warner Bros., and Atlantic’s point person with Stax, Jerry Wexler, exercised a clause in the contract (which Stewart did not read before signing) that gave them 97% of the existing catalog and forced them to start over from the ground up just when their power was at its peak. Stax persisted nonetheless, with Hayes’ great success changing the energy of the operation and propelling them into the next decade, peaking with the Wattstax event in Los Angeles. Unfortunately by 1975, Stax was functionally nonexistent. The company fell victim not only to Atlantic and Warner’s coldblooded corporate treachery and an unfavorable distribution deal with CBS Records but also the timeless tendency of artists to start their own entertainment companies and become successes based on talent and originality, then crater because there was nobody in-house who really knew how to run a business. The closest equivalent to a responsible adult in the executive ranks was former DJ turned marketing executive Al Bell, who became the company’s vice president and a co-owner. Bell was so valuable that after repeated disagreements between him and Wexler forced Stewart to pick a side, he stood with Bell and made his sister step down. (Wexler took the money from selling her shares in Stax and founded the Memphis Songwriters Association as well as her own label, Fretone, whose biggest hit was the 1976 novelty record “Disco Duck.”) Fantasy Records bought the post-Atlantic catalog in 1978 and started signing new acts and releasing new music, but retreated and became a reissues-only label for the next twenty years.  It’s a great story with too many colorful characters to list here, although Bell and Booker T. Jones, whose thoughtful and often challenging statements serve as cement holding the narrative together, deserve special mention. It also succeeds as an atmospheric re-creation of a specific time and place. The series is  equally striking for its mix of well-known and rarely- or never-seen footage. Among them: kinescopes of live TV concerts, home movies by Stax intimates, and TV news images of the wreckage of Redding’s plane); film clips and still photos that bring the 1960s Memphis recording studio scene to life (including repeated shots of a hand perched over a fader, a cigarette smoldering between two fingers); and archival footage of life beyond the studio (including copious shots of street life in ’60s Memphis, and hauntingly framed shots of rain on streets and buildings in the hours leading to the Rev. Martin Luther King’s assassination).  What you won’t get is much sense of the individual personalities and personal, creative and financial conflicts between the various artists and executives. Given the apparent corporate mandate of the series, that’s understandable. Film and TV documentaries about popular recorded music could not exist without the participation of major corporate players/rights holders. The three players in this case are HBO, a division of Time Warner Discovery, which bought Warner Entertainment, an earlier incarnation of which bought Atlantic; Polygram Entertainment, a division of Universal Music Group; and Concord Theatricals. The latter describes itself on its web site as a music publishing and licensing company providing “comprehensive service” to storytellers who are using lots pre-existing music in their work, but the main thing to know about them is that they bought Fantasy Records, which was built on the bones of the post-1967 Stax. Which means that, for all of its sensitivity, intelligence and raw feeling, what you’re seeing here is in some fundamental sense a huge ad for intellectual property, commissioned and controlled by the rights holders, and that if you want the down-and-dirty, unexpurgated history, you are probably better off reading music history books, or spending the day on Wikipedia clicking on key players’ names Still, this is a stirring and often moving production, one that pushes the outer edge of the envelope of its innate limitations as product and (especially when dealing with Jim Crow) illuminates the material in an sorrowful, wrenching manner. Directed and coproduced by Jamila Wignot (“The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross”), the series’ scope, ambition, and methodical pace evoke “OJ Simpson: Made in America” (the architect of which, Ezra Edelman, is listed as an executive producer). And it would work brilliantly as a companion piece to it, because of its ability to show how massive, anonymous-seeming historical forces bear down on individual lives.  Every ten minutes there’s an anecdote that hits you square in the heart, like Jim Stewart and Carla Thomas’ account of trying to meet with Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler back in 1960 in segregated Memphis and having to bring Thomas in to a restricted hotel through a service elevator; or Booker T. Jones (of the MGs fame) talking about how, in the aftermath of King’s murder, his white colleagues never asked him how he was feeling or even mentioned the tragedy. “I started to feel, deep down, that something was amiss,” he says. “They didn’t understand my daily life as a Black person.” He came to understand that “the close personal relationship I had with them didn’t exist outside of the studio.”  The seeming benevolence and “color-blindness” hinted at in early sections of the story is peeled away to reveal something fundamentally selfish and passive-aggressively oblivious in America itself, not just its music business. the Black artists who revolutionized pop music rarely got to share in the financial part of its success because, with a handful of exceptions, they didn’t truly own anything, which meant that any help the establishment might give them was ultimately more conciliatory than empowering. The realization beneath it all is more powerful for not being stated in plain terms by any living witness. But James Baldwin spells it out in a historical clip from the era: “I don’t want to be given anything by you. I just want to be left alone so that I can do it myself.” Read More