Memphis in the meantime
The purple melamine egg chair, suspended on a chain from the ceiling, swung slowly around above the white shag-pile carpet, disclosing a first sight of its occupant. This was the shaven-headed Isaac Hayes, the recipient that very day in February 1971 of an award for the sales of Hot Buttered Soul, an album released two years earlier and something of a game-changer. Its success had announced a new era, one that promised undiminished creativity and infinite success.
Outside the building on East McLemore Avenue in Memphis, the sign that said SOULSVILLE U.S.A. was still to be seen above the entrance to the old cinema. The special magic, however, had left by the back door. Stax-Volt Records still made hits, and would make many more in the next three or four years, but no longer in the organic, all-for-one-and-one-for-all manner that had characterised the label’s true golden era in the 1960s.
Otis Redding was dead, along with four of the Bar-Kays. Sam & Dave had gone, whisked back to Atlantic Records by Jerry Wexler along with the entire Stax back catalogue upon the expiry of a distribution deal that ended in severe acrimony and tore the heart out of the company started by Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton in 1959. Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper, no longer wanted on the payroll, had decamped, in Booker’s case to Los Angeles and in Cropper’s to his own Memphis studio. Hayes and his erstwhile partner David Porter had ceased writing together.
True, as I drove around Memphis that week on assignment for the Melody Maker I was listening to Johnnie Taylor’s “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone” on WDIA, the great R&B station that had once numbered B.B.King and Rufus Thomas among its DJs. Here was a newly minted Stax classic in heavy rotation alongside Gladys Knight’s “If I Were Your Woman”, the Chairmen of the Board’s “Pay to the Piper”, Candi Staton’s “He Called Me Baby” and Diana Ross’s “Remember Me”. And back in the Stax offices all was brightness and optimism as I interviewed Hayes, Porter (then attempting to launch his own solo career) and others, watched the reconstituted Bar-Kays prepare a recording session in the studio, and met various members of the hierarchy, including Stewart, Al Bell and Deanie Parker.
But, as Robert Gordon describes in Respect Yourself, his new history of the label, just published in the US and the UK by Bloomsbury, bad things lay just around the corner. Bell, an energetic, charismatic, visionary wheeler-dealer brought in by Stewart to lengthen the company’s reach, had big plans for expansion, decentralisation and community involvement, which would eventually lead to the filming of the Wattstax movie in Los Angeles. But the Atlantic debacle — caused by Wexler’s lawyers inserting a clause that Stewart failed to read before signing — turned out to be the first of many reverses that led to the company’s closure in January 1976, under siege from a variety of creditors.
In the beginning Stax was a modest operation run by a core of perhaps a dozen enthusiastic and talented people to whom skin colour was never a consideration and who were surprised and delighted by their success. Then, having been screwed by the business, it decided it had to play by the business’s rules, which meant learning about payola and hiring men with guns. And there, with growth, was where it started to go wrong. “Employees wandered the halls not knowing each other’s names, even what their jobs were,” Gordon writes, and quotes Stewart: “I couldn’t go to the studio and solve people’s problems like had had before. Six people, eight people — you can do that.”
Gordon sets the story in the context of the civil rights struggle, including school busing, union activity, riots and the murder of the Rev Dr Martin Luther King in 1968 on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, where Stax’s artists, writers and producers often hung out. It was at the Lorraine, two years earlier, that Hayes and Porter had got together with Mable John, who had just been signed to the label after an unsuccessful spell with Motown.
“Isaac and David said, ‘Did you bring anything with you to record?’” she told me a few years ago in an interview for the Guardian. “I said no. I didn’t take anything to Motown to record. Motown told you what they wanted you to do and how they wanted you to do it. That’s how Motown was created. So Isaac and David said, ‘We’ll get something together for you.’ Since I was only going to be there for four days, they would come over to the Lorraine Motel, where I was staying, and we would use it as a place to write.
“They had a piano brought up to my room, but by the end of the second day they still didn’t have anything for me. So I said to them, ‘There’s a story that I need to tell. It’s about a bad marriage.’ Isaac began to play. David had a pad and pencil and he was standing beside me, with the pad on top of the piano. As I talked, he’s day, ‘You could sing that. If you take the last thing you just said and we put that at the beginning of the verse, we could do it just like that.’ And Isaac carried on playing. I had no idea how the music or the melody should go. I just knew it was a story that was inside of me. It was a pain and it need to get out. And when we got finished that night, we had it.”
The next day, over at the converted cinema on East McLemore, in company with the A-team, they recorded it. And of all the great records Stax made, “Your Good Thing (Is About to End)” remains my favourite.
I had a great time in Memphis that week in 1971. There was an evening at a club called TJs, a musicians’ hangout where the blind singer-pianist Ronnie Milsap, some years before his move to Nashville and swift transformation into a country superstar, played a couple of sets of dynamite blue-eyed soul, including a version of the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” that I can still hear today. Another night some college kids who were working at a hamburger joint took me to an after-hours bar in West Memphis, on the other side of the Mississippi, where the four-piece house band was good enough to have been the understudies to the MGs or the Hi rhythm section.
But at Stax, for all the cheerful sales patter, there was a sense of unease. It all seemed a little too bright, a little too brittle. Were Margie Joseph and Billy Eckstine, their latest signings, really the heirs to Carla Thomas and William Bell? I went to interview Cropper, who was at his new studio, TMI (Trans Maximus Inc), cutting tracks with his old friend Eddie Floyd. They were good to talk to — Cropper later wrote me the only thank-you note I’ve ever received from an interviewee — and the music sounded great, but you could tell nothing was quite the same as it had been only four or five years earlier.
Some people were willing to admit, although not on the record, that things had never been the same between black and white after Dr King’s murder. In Gordon’s view, race was certainly a significant factor in the tragedy that overwhelmed Stax: once Al Bell took effective control, there were plenty of powerful people in Memphis and elsewhere who did not want to see a black man running an operation that was making it possible for black artists to get rich and ride around in limousines.
Gordon relates how in 1981, after lying derelict for several years, the Stax building was sold to a church for $10 (that’s right: ten dollars). They demolished it in 1989. A decade later, realising what had been done, the city rebuilt it to the original specification as the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, under the guidance of Deanie Parker. Respect Yourself is a terrific book, and a reminder of some wonderful, timeless music, but it’s a sad, sad story.