Friday, July 25, 2008

Respect yourself - the Stax story

'Respect Yourself - the Stax Records Story' (on BBC 4 tonight) - brought back for me so many great memories of records and shows of the 60s, not least the fantastic Stax/Volt show at the Fairfield Hall, Croydon, in 1967. For me Sam and Dave stole the show, but Otis Redding was amazing as well, and Eddie Floyd and Arthur Conley, supported by Booker T and the MGs and the Mar-Keys, made it probably the most exciting show ever. In retrospect this was clearly the zenith of Stax's fortunes. Otis was killed in a plane crash later that year, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968 and Stax began gradually to tear itself apart. The TV programme included fascinating interviews with many of the key participants, including Booker T Jones, Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, Sam Moore, Isaac Hayes, David Porter. Jim Stewart, Estelle Axton, Al Bell, William Bell, Mavis Staples, Betty Crutcher and Eddie Floyd. But it's the music that tells the story.
'Your good thing is about to end', by Mable John, poignantly soundtracked King's death and pointed the way to the future. Al Bell masterminded some great later hits with the likes of Johnnie Taylor, Isaac Hayes and the Staples Singers among many others, but the label was probably doomed from that point. At a time of racial segregation in the south Stax was blind to colour. But after 1968 things changed and the dream began to fade. The arrival of Johnny Baylor as 'protector' was the start of a slippery slope that led to the eventual downfall of Stax. The Stax stalwarts were pushed to one side and Estelle left, leaving Stewart and Al Bell in charge. The ethos of the company changed but the hits kept on coming. Right to the end the Staples Singers, Mel and Tim and of course Isaac Hayes maintained the high quality soul music that had always been associated with Stax. The Wattstax concert in LA attracted 100,000 people and brought the Stax sound - and black power - to a wider audience than ever. But the sound had lost some of its raw excitement and as the 70s rolled on it became clear that its days were numbered., with expenditure vastly exceeding income. They expanded into movies, sport and comedy and did a deal with CBS in an attempt to retain Stax's independence, but CBS lost faith in the deal after firing Clive Davis, the man who did the deal. Stax's bank pulled the plug, Baylor was suspected of fraud and even Bell's entrepreneurial flair couldn't keep things afloat. Stax's time was up - a sad end to a great enterprise - as the company was declared bankrupt and accusations of fraud flew around. The Stax building was knocked down leaving only a sign at the vacant lot on McLemore in Memphis. Now at last, the label's true worth has been recognised with the opening of the excellent Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Stax Academy next door.

The music, of course, has not been forgotten, and the Porretta Soul Festival celebrates this every year. And maybe the music will live on to the next generation. I went to see Eli 'Paperboy' Reed (pictured) again last night at the Club Fandango in London, this time with his band the Trueloves. He's a white boy from Boston who maybe tries too hard to excite his enthusiatic audience by focusing mostly on uptempo numbers. But he has a great soul voice and a real feel for the music. The music lives on, and thank God for that.


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