Stax Records: A Refuge From Racial Tensions

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Sam And Dave, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Booker T. and the MG’s, Wilson Pickett are just some of the soul stars whose careers were established at Stax Records -- the label that began in a Memphis garage and went on to produce hundreds of hit songs.

But Stax was more than just a record label, according to Memphis music historian Robert Gordon in his new book Respect Yourself: Stax Records And The Soul Explosion. In an interview with Soundcheck host John Schaefer, Gordon explains that Stax was both a refuge from the harsh racial realities of the 1960's South and also a reflection of the turbulent civil rights movement churning just beyond its doors.

Interview Highlights


Robert Gordon on Booker T. and the MG's song "Green Onions":

I think there's a lot of tension in this song. I think you hear the underlying racial animosity in Memphis. You hear the wariness of Booker and Steve [Cropper, the band's white guitarist] of the public outside. [The group] began as an accident in the early 1960s, and the music worked. Booker told me it would have been foolish to undertake [an integrated band] as a conscious effort at that time and that place.



On Otis Redding, who first arrived at Stax as a driver for another musician:

Everybody talks about the driver getting out and starting to unload gear. The guy brought in food and clothes -- he just lugged the stuff for the star. The star was a showman. They couldn't really get a groove going in the studio; he was more of a stage player. It was getting really frustrating, and people had to get out of the studio for their club gigs.

Al Jackson the drummer had promised the driver he would give him a listen. He comes running down at the end, and Steve Cropper says to the guy, "Show me what you do." And when the guy started to sing, when Otis started to sing, Steve ran outside and had to tell Lewie Steinburg, "Get your bass out of the car, man! I need you inside!" And they cut what became [Redding's] first single on Stax, "These Arms Of Mine."