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Stax Records

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of Stax Records (originally named “Satellite Records” at its founding). Although this label had less than 20 years as a productive force of original music, the influence of the sound forged there would reverberate through R&B, funk, soul and rock n’ roll. Some notable artists affiliated with Stax include The Mar-Keys, Rufus Thomas, Otis Redding, The Staple Singers, Sam & Dave, Albert King, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes and Booker T. & the M.G.’s.

Initially operating out of a garage in Memphis, Tennessee, the label was founded in 1957 by Jim Stewart. A professional fiddle player, Stewart originally focused on his familiar genres of country, rockabilly and pop music. In subsequent years, Stewart’s sister Estelle Axton invested in the fledgling company and the combination of “Stewart” and “Axton” would form the label’s new name of “Stax”.

Satellite released their first record in 1958, the R&B single “Fool in Love” by The Vel-tones. While promoting this single, Stewart met with Memphis DJ Rufus Thomas. Along with his daughter Carla, Thomas would be the first artist to record at the new Stax recording studio, located in a converted theater in South Memphis, TN. The resulting single, “Cause I Love You” by Rufus & Carla, was also important as the first Stax record picked up for national distribution by Atlantic Records. This set up a business relationship which let Stax focus mainly on the recording side and much less on the distribution side of the business.

The studio’s sloped floors in the converted theater created unique acoustic properties, a happy accident which created the unique and signature Stax sound on multiple hit songs through the 1960s. Keyboardist Booker T. Jones soon became a regular session musician at Stax and recruited other session musicians to form Booker T. & the M.G.’s, a group which not only backed other artists as the Stax “house band” but also recorded numerous hit singles in their own right and were involved in virtually all of the hits coming out of Stax through the mid and late sixties.

In 1965, Stax and Atlantic formalized their distribution agreement (it had pretty much been a “handshake” agreement). Although the label continued to accelerate towards its peak in 1966, the 1965 agreement would ultimately prove to be devastating to Stax’s business. When Atlantic Records was sold to Warner Bros. In 1967, Stax lost the master tapes and any rights of reproduction for all the music distributed by Atlantic between 1960 and 1967.

The misfortune continued as Otis Redding and several members of The Bar-Kays were killed in a plane crash in December 1967. The following year Stewart sold his shares in Stax and Axton followed suit a few years later. Despite a frenzy of new releases in the late sixties  and early seventies and the recording of three new albums at Stax’s studio by Elvis Presley, the label declined through the early seventies and filed for Chapter 11 in 1975.

Stax 60 logo

In May 2017, the Stax Classics series was launched as a collaboration between Rhino and Concord. This ambitious collection currently consists of ten compilation albums, each one focused on a classic Stax artist, with more collections to be released in the near future.

William Bell
Booker T and the MGs
The Dramatics
Isaac Hayes
Albert King
Otis Redding
Sam and Dave
The Staple Singers
Johnnie Taylor
Carla Thomas

 

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History of the Blues, Part 2

In the second and final part of the series, we look at American blues as it fanned out into several sub-genres and had notable influence on rock n roll in the second half of the 20th century. This is done in conjunction with the below video, which is part 2 of a 2-part 2013 BBC Documentary called Blues America: Woke Up This Morning, with commentary by Keith Richards, Taj Mahal, Blind Boy Paxton, Buddy Guy and Billy Boy Arnold among others.

With the industrialization of cotton picking and the post-war boom of northern American cities, there was a mass migration from rural to urban areas, especially among the African American population. With this, the style and meaning of blues music continued to change as attitudes about the music evolved within the younger members of the African American community.

In 1950, the new electric blues was “every black person’s party music” as the acoustic, agrawal sound of the recent past was quickly left behind. Founded and run by Polish immigrant brothers Leonard and Phil Chess who also handled most of the music production, Chicago’s Chess Records became the epicenter of this new sound. Mississippi migrant Muddy Waters was the first real “star” of Chess, with a perfectly framed voice and harmonica played above sparse but potent musical arrangements. Waters’ first hit, “I Can’t Be Satisfied” in 1948, was the perfect bridge between the country and city sound as one of the earliest examples of an electrified take on down-home blues.

The Chess brothers began an association with Sam Phillips and his Memphis-based Sun Records in 1951, closing the talent circuit between the Delta and Chicago blues talent pools. Phillips discovered Howlin Wolf (born Chester Aurthur) and referred to Chess, resulting in the 1951 hit “How Many More Years”, an original song delivered with a powerful voice and strong commercial sensibility. Phillips also released early music by the legendary B.B. King, launching an incredibly long and fruitful career.

Of course, it was Phillips’ discovery of Elvis Presley, starting with a cover of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s Alright Mama” where the young white performer “sounded black”. From here, rock n’ roll became the great melting pot of musical genres, sneaking across an invisible racial barrier and acting as a tectonic shift in American culture. In a reversal of the Elvis model, guitarist Chuck Berry went to Chess Records and converted a country/hillbilly song into the hit “Maybelline”, where the young black performer “sounded white”.

By the end of the 1950s, young black Americans had begun to move towards the sound of Motown/soul and away from the blues that they deemed  “slave music”, “plantation music” and/or “old folks music”. But just as the hits dried up for even the most famous blues artists, a new white audience began to celebrate the traditional blues and re-frame this music as an art of “struggle and strife”. With this, the careers of older artists such as John Estes, Son House and Skip James found new life up north as these old masters performed to new white audiences. Adding to the appeal and curiosity, the “crossroads legend” combined with the 1961 compilation album, King of the Delta Blues Artists added to the legend and mystery of Robert Johnson and increased his influenced on the coming wave of (mostly) British classic rock bands such as the Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones, Cream and Led Zeppelin.

In the coming decades, artists like BB King, who played uptown, electric blues with class and dignity, kept the blues tradition alive in mainstream music with a fresh wave of blues-based rock artists, such as Stevie Ray Vaughn, George Thorogood and Robert Cray coming in the 1980s. In 1990, a 72-year-old John Lee Hooker, who had migrated to Detroit from Mississippi, to perform his famed boogie chillin’ style, had an incredible career revival with the album The Healer, proving that the blues style would live on into the future.

History of the Blues, Part 1

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