STORIES

How Stax Records Changed the Music World

By David Jenison on July 5, 2017

The M.O.P. rap anthem "Ante Up" sampled Sam and Dave's 1969 song "Soul Sister, Brown Sugar," Jay Z and Kanye sampled Otis Redding in the artist-honoring "Otis," and 1967's "Hip Hug-Her" by Booker T. and the M.G.'s appears in countless rap tracks, including Ol' Dirty Bastard's "Hippa to da Hoppa," Jungle Brothers and Q-Tip's "Promo No. 2" and Ice Cube's iconic "Jackin' for Beats." The list can go on and on, but what do all these sampled artists have in common? Otis, Sam, Dave and Booker T. are all Stax Records artists with new compilations coming out this year as part of the label's 60th anniversary. 

The Memphis-based soul label started two years before Motown, and Soulsville differed from the more-polished Hitsville by capturing a grittier emotive sound. Stax celebrates its anniversary with 10 collections—released jointly by Concord Music Group and Rhino Entertainment—that include Redding, Booker T., Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, Albert King, William Bell, Johnnie Taylor, the Staples Sisters, the Dramatics and Carla Thomas. PRØHBTD spoke with Mason Williams, the A&R Director overseeing the anniversary releases, to learn more about the history, artists and legacy of Stax Records.

Why these releases? Are they considered the best songs or the best introduction to Stax? 

Six of the titles are ours, four are from Rhino. When we got together and decided to do this line of CDs, we made a list of which artists we thought made sense. We settled on these as the ten biggest artists with big hits, and like you said, they provided a good introduction into the label. The releases show the breadth of the sound from the early '60s all the way up to the end of 1975. The Dramatics [from the latter years] is probably the least-known act, but they still had a couple massive hits. Certainly Isaac Hayes had numerous hits. We wanted to come up with artists that spanned the early era and the later era, but also the biggest artists that were on the label.

How do the different recordings of "My Girl" by The Temptations and Otis Redding epitomize the difference between the Motown and Stax sounds in the 1960s?

The biggest difference between the two labels—and it feels like those recordings show this—is the Stax stuff was much grittier and Motown was more polished. Motown was more pop soul whereas Stax was more southern soul that came from the church [music sound].To me, that's always been the biggest difference. The Otis' version is still not a super gritty dirty soul song, but it's not as polished and clean as the Motown version. 

Aretha Franklin turned "Respect" into a feminist anthem, but Otis Redding wrote, recorded and released the song two years earlier. Did the original Redding version have a similar impact? 

No. It was a mild hit, but when Aretha came out with her version, she took it to such a different level. It was civil rights, it was women's rights, and it became such an anthem. Otis was quoted as saying she came along and took that song from him, or something along those lines. He realized that he wrote it, but she had such an impact with the song that she took it over, if you will. 

Where did Stax fit into the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s? 

Late '60s and early '70s, they were very much in with Martin Luther King, Jr., and between recording sessions, the [artists] would hang out at the hotel where he was assassinated. Stax was very involved, especially being in Memphis and as such an integrated recording company. You've got [the ethnically integrated] Booker T. and the M.G.'s as the house band. Then you move into the '70s, and you've got the Staple Singers with "I'll Take You There" and "Respect Yourself," and Al Bell, who later became the label president, was very close with Jesse Jackson and what became the Rainbow Coalition. They were involved with Wattstax, the big performance here in L.A. [that commemorated the 1965 Watts riots] captured in the [1972] movie

Booker T. and the M.G.'s scored a hit with "Green Onions." How did that single show they were more than just a house band? 

That was one of the first Stax singles, and I'm trying to remember if it was before they became the house band. I think it was kind of a fluke—being an instrumental track—and as that took off, they just became such an important part of the label's sound. Any time they had singers come through, they developed into the backing band for everybody. Booker T. was a big songwriter and a producer as well. [Guitarist] Steve Cropper, [bassist] Don Dunn and [drummer] Al Jackson, Jr. all played on a lot of different sessions, so both together and individually, they were all a very vital part of the Stax sound.

Were they the backing band for many of the new reissues? 

No. On the early stuff they were. They were on a lot of the Otis stuff. Sam and Dave. 

Isaac Hayes was also on Sam and Dave?

Yeah. Well, he produced them and wrote a lot of the songs. 

My understanding is that, for the first six years, the label had a one-track recorder and then moved up to the four track that came later. Were most of these albums recorded on the four track? 

I think for most of these—Carla [Thomas], Otis, Booker T., Sam and Dave—were four track. Maybe some of the early Otis might have been one track.

Do you think there's a noticeable difference in how it comes across? Was it grittier with the one track?

I think it's just a different way of recording: You are recording live as a band as opposed to the individual parts that you can mix together. Although, they did record a lot of the stuff live to tape even with the four track, at least in the early days. Listen to anything from the '50s and early 60s, and it's much more lively because it's the real raw performance. 

Would you say that Sam and Dave were the template for the Blues Brothers?

In what sense?

Sam and Dave were supposedly the main inspiration for the Blues Brothers, who had their biggest hit with the Sam and Dave song "Soul Man."

Oh, right. John Belushi and Dan Akroyd were just huge soul fans, and when they were [regulars] on Saturday Night Live, Belushi got a lot of artists on as performers that he liked. Also, there was a bar downtown that they would always go to [after the taping], and they would have bands come and play. That was the music they loved, and they would sing those old classic Stax songs. When John and Dan started doing the Blues Brothers, most of Booker T. and the M.G.'s, without Booker T., was their band. Then they went on to do the movie, and a couple of them were in that. 

I had read that the Beatles wanted to record [Revolver] at Stax, but the studio wanted too much money. Do you know the story behind that?

No. I can't believe that they would want too much money for the Beatles. That's really funny. 

How do you think the Stax sound influenced disco in the '70s and hip-hop in the '80s?

From a disco standpoint, it wasn't until you got into those early '70s albums—especially Isaac Hayes with the orchestration and the lushness of the music—but there was always that beat to it. The backbeat was a little heavier than other labels, and it's another [musical element] that differentiated Stax from Motown. I think disco was just a natural progression following where music was going, and the Stax sound certainly helped that. With hip-hop, so many samples of drum breaks and rhythm sections from the Stax catalog have been used over the years. Isaac's early spoken-word singing certainly wasn't early rap, but it kind of helped pave the way for that style years later.

I hate to have you pick favorites, but for a young millennial who's not so familiar with the catalog, what two albums would you recommend as starters?

From the early era, I would say Otis Redding's Otis Blue, which is one of the greatest solo albums of all time. From the later era, it's tough not to pick Isaac's Hot Buttered Soul

Will the reissues continue into 2018?

Possibly. We're gonna see how these do. This batch is the only thing we've got for this series. We've got other Stax projects we're working on, but for this specific series, these are the only 10 for right now. 

Besides civil rights, was there anything else about culture and society in the '60s and '70s that Stax epitomized?

Everybody that I talked to—it hasn't been a lot of people, unfortunately, because there's not a lot of people left—always bringup that it was a family. They looked after each other, they hung out with each other, and they spent their time at the studio whether they were recording or not. Being in Memphis at that time when black musicians were not allowed to play in certain clubs—and to have a company run by a white man who had integrated artists playing and working together—was something different from that time and place. That's the one thing everyone always talks about and that was important to all of them. 

In 1943, Time ran a big story about the connection between jazz music and cannabis. Did that translate into the music that came out of Motown and Stax in the '60s?

They certainly did [smoke] from the stories I've heard, but I don't think it was a huge part of their culture. 

Anything else you want to add?

If you're somebody who maybe heard of Otis Redding, the Staple Singers or any of these artists but only know a song or two, these are the perfect gateway drugs, if you will. These are great intros to these artists and Stax as a label. They're just great, great listens. 

David Jenison (david@prohbtd.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD. Images courtesy of the Stax archives. 

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