How a Memphis record label became a hit-producing machine during the civil rights era
Stax Records and the Soul Explosion
by Robert Gordon
$30.00 List Price
For most of Stax Records' initial run, from roughly 1961 to 1975, its headquarters on Memphis, Tennessee's McLemore Avenue was the capitol building of southern soul. It wasn't just a record label, but the headquarters of a creative movement: the place where an integrated (in multiple senses) cluster of artists and businesspeople created a new kind of popular music, sold it to the world, and tried to unite their divided community by example.
That's a compelling story, and Robert Gordon's well placed to tell it: He's a historian of Memphis music, and the codirector of a 2007 PBS documentary about Stax, which, like his new book, is called Respect Yourself (after the Staple Singers' 1971 hit). It's also a story that's been told before, notably in Rob Bowman's 1997 book Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records. Bowman was more concerned with the record-by-record history of the label; Gordon focuses more on the evolution of Stax as an organization, and touches on what Stax's success at the time meant for Memphis and for the civil rights movement across the nation.
Despite Respect Yourself's subtitle, there's not much here about Stax's sound in the context of the '60s and '70s "soul explosion"—the musical arms race that drove black American pop forward from the dawn of Motown to the rise of disco. Where Gordon digs deeper, though, is the story of the people behind Stax, beginning with Jim Stewart, the white country fiddle player who created one of the great R&B labels, saw it through to its peak of success, and was ultimately dragged down by its crash.