The beginning of 1968 was a bleak time for Stax Records. Within the brief span of four months, the Memphis recording studio had lost half a dozen of its biggest stars to a plane crash, the majority of its music catalog to a poorly negotiated distribution deal, and the lauded harmony of its racially-diverse workforce to the incendiary civil rights battle catching fire just beyond its front doors. With few artists, little music, no income, and mounting internal discord, the label that had once single-handedly defined the Memphis Sound seemed to be primed for its swan song.
For some men, the arc of descent signals a time to bow out, yet for others, it represents opportunity—something upon which to climb—and from the flames of Stax Record’s emollition, there rose a dark horse. His tactics were sometimes criticized, his technique challenged, and his motivation questioned—but his results were undeniable. Armed with a singularity of vision and purpose, he not only pulled Stax Records from the brink of extinction but catapulted it into the national spotlight. That man was Al Bell.
When Bell was hired on to Stax Records as a promotions man in 1965, the studio stood as an oasis of harmony in a city wracked by racial discord, one where blacks and whites had worked side by side for almost a decade to define the musical zeitgeist of Southern Soul. Though for all intents and purposes, Bell seemed committed to the unifying promise of the Stax vision—first as a promotions man, and later as co-owner—he had been through the fire beyond the rosy glow of the utopic studio. He had grown up in the segregated schools of Little Rock, worked as a deejay on a black radio station during the heat of the Civil Rights movement, and had served on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Despite what must have been a wary hope, Al Bell prickled hot with the country’s mounting tensions, and this sentiment colored his drive and the future of Stax. While the defunct distribution deal with Atlantic Records may have begun Stax’s downward spiral, the shots that rang out from the Lorraine Motel completed it: the murder of MLK only two miles away from the Stax studio ran a deep fissure through the label’s delicate racial unity, and it was in these mounting tensions that Al Bell saw the potential for resurrection.
Though with no catalog, few artists, and little income, Stax seemed irrevocably doomed, Bell was not willing to see the studio go down without a fight. He knew that if he could harness the raw energy of the black power movement, he could use it to drive Stax forward. Enter the Soul Explosion, a furious drive of writing, wooing, recording, and producing in which Bell generated a staggering thirty singles and twenty-seven albums—all in less than eight months.
This massive forward thrust pulled Stax out of almost certain demise, and though this new incarnation bore the scars of its past—much of the freeform creative style and effortless racial harmony that had once been the hallmarks of the Stax brand were gone—it was a movement in its own right. If Stax had once been an island that stood for racial equality, it was now a wave of force that demanded it. With Bell at the helm, Stax became a symbol of black power, producing songs with politically-charged lyrics, generating soundtracks for the first Blacksploitation films, and culminating in the 100,000 voice-strong rallying cry of Wattstax, a documentary film chronicling the black experience through the Los Angeles Watts Festival.
Unfortunately, with success comes the dark pull of temptation, both from those immersed in it and from those outside looking in. When the IRS caught a Stax employee in the Memphis airport with $130,000 in cash, the studio’s flash-fire success—and Bell himself—fell under the scrutiny of the law. In an eerily familiar choreography, the label’s trouble came in waves: its new distribution deal with CBS imploded, the label fell quickly into debt and was forced into involuntary bankruptcy, and Federal marshals raided the studio and led Bell away at gunpoint. Less than ten years after its rebirth, Stax Records was shut down.
Bell was charged with bank fraud, and within weeks, went from owner of one of the largest black-owned businesses in the US to a tenant in the unfinished basement of his father’s home. The trial that followed—heavily laced with racist rhetoric from the side of the accusers and shouts of persecution from the defense—ended in an acquittal for Bell, though his future in the music industry—and Stax Records—was shot. The building that once housed Stax was sold to a church for $10, the entirety of its catalog auctioned off to the highest bidder, and Bell himself sent into a self-imposed exile for the next ten years.
History is often unkind to those left holding the torch when it is extinguished, but with time, the complexity of our flaws are weighed against the endurance of our contributions. Though much of the Stax Renaissance remains weighted with the dark underpinnings of its fall, the story that surrounds Al Bell is complex and incomplete. Only one thing is certain: without Al Bell, Stax Records would have fallen, and some of the greatest soul music to come out of Memphis, from Isaac Hayes’ “Shaft,” to Jean Knights’ “Mr. Big Stuff”—songs that helped to shape the new symbol of strength in Black America in a time when it so desperately needed it—would never have seen the light of day. As time goes on, only these will remain: the music, the memories, and the man who brought them from the ashes to rise up for one final song: Al Bell.
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