Legendary Southern record label looks back to the future.
"Can you dig it?" rumbled the husky baritone of Isaac Hayes as he introduced the first Stax Records 50 Year Reunion concert at the South by Southwest festival in March. As the music played inside, hundreds of additional fans waited outside, hoping to witness the old-school soul revue starring many of the major players of the recently reactivated record company.
"Oh, it was like a family reunion," says William Bell, who was also on the bill. The Memphis-born singer/songwriter was also one of the earliest acts on the Memphis-based Stax label. "The Memphis music folks have always been a family. Black or white, it didn't matter to us what color your friends were ' the rockabilly guys, the Sun Records folks, BB King, Elvis ' we were all connected by the music we made."
After three decades of inactivity, the historic Stax label is alive again, mirroring the title of Bell's recent album, New Lease on Life, released on his College Park-based WilBe Records. Robert Smith, senior VP of Stax's new parent label, Concord Records, says much of the long-out-of-print catalog will get the deluxe reissue treatment this year. Hayes has signed on to produce fresh material for the label. And new music from contemporary soul star Angie Stone is due soon, in addition to a William Bell anthology.
Fifty years ago in the segregated South, Stax was a towering example of integration. It featured a potent mix of rock, blues, gospel and R&B as raw and volatile as the times in which it was recorded. The label began in the late 1950s as Satellite Records, a small company based out of a record store.
By the time the surrounding neighborhood became known as Soulsville USA, 926 E. McLemore Ave. was a hotbed of activity. As the '60s unfolded, a steady stream of hits was produced within the walls of the makeshift studio housed in the former movie theater next door to the record store. The internationally successful roster of acts included Bell ' whose 1961 hit "You Don't Miss Your Water" preceded earthy, timeless recordings from Booker T. and the MG's, Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd and Macon's Otis Redding. (The label also released "Mr. Big Stuff," the smash 1971 hit from New Orleans arranger Wardell Quezergue and vocalist Jean Knight.)
"Stax was an oasis in the middle of the desert," says Bell. "This was the time of the riots and the protesting. We caught a lot of flak from the police and the city structure because we were integrated. People were getting shot on the side of the road, hung on trees and everything else," he continues. "But we just wanted to make our music. And nobody was gonna tell us who to make it with."
He proudly notes that Stax Records played a big part in breaking down some hateful barriers. "It really came to a head after Dr. King's assassination," he says. "We had the respect of the community, the ones that were militant and nonviolent, too. They'd call me and Isaac [Hayes] and David [Porter] to come down and get on the radio and try to quell disturbances. And we did. Then we had message songs, like 'Respect Yourself,' and that pride slowly spread through the community."
Studio artifacts have been painstakingly preserved in a museum on the original McLemore Avenue site. Next door is the burgeoning Stax Academy, an intensive music institute for children and teens. "We're keeping the legacy alive here," says Deanie Parker, an early Stax artist and employee of the company since 1963. "Kids can come to Stax, see and hear the history, and then learn about the business firsthand from the originators ... and continue the story."
Pointing out the cover of Stax 50th Anniversary Celebration ' a new double-disc set featuring a flashy image of the label's iconic finger-snapping logo ' Parker adds, "See, everyone can relate to that, it's an immediate feeling. And that's Stax. It's like love: hard to describe, but you know it instantly."
Visit www.soulsvilleusa.com for a virtual tour of the Stax museum. Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story premieres Wednesday, August 1 on PBS (check local listings).