Soul music knows a little something about struggle. A combination of the heart-searching depth of a gospel hymn, the tender plea of a classic country tune, and the strong and steady moan of the blues, Southern Soul was born in the spirit of dissonance and raised in the hope of change. As is often the case, that change took hold in the unlikeliest of places, in a city that would ostensibly become the nucleus of racial strife in the South. For a fleeting moment in the 1960’s, however, Memphis, Tennessee, was home to an oasis of harmony that saw neither black nor white but the common color of the human experience. That place was Stax Records, and its language was Soul.
Ironically, in the summer of 1957, soul music was something that Jim Stewart, the future founder of Stax Records, knew absolutely nothing about. A banker with thick glasses, a thin tie, and a serious brow, Stewart had been raised in the tradition of the region; he had grown up playing the fiddle, and was known to pull a chord or two in a weekend country band, but had never seriously entertained the idea of entering the music industry. Until, that is, an offhand comment from his barber, during a routine short-back-and-sides, made him stop and think: along with the small-talk of the small town, the barber relayed his recent success with a portable tape recorder, which he used to record local musicians in exchange for the publishing rights. This offhand comment changed the trajectory of both Stewart’s life and, arguably, that of music, forever. Within months, Stewart had scrabbled together the enthusiasm and modest financial support of a few local musicians, borrowed the barber’s tape recorder, and set up shop in his wife’s uncle’s garage. Satellite Records, the precursor to Stax, was born.
The fledgling record company was almost over before it had begun. The first tunes cut in the cramped quarters of the two-car garage were paper thin, saccharine sweet, and lacked anything resembling quality production value, a fact that Jim’s sister, Estelle Axton, was quick to point out. Adding to the troubles, Stewart’s initial investors wanted out, his wife’s uncle needed his garage back, and the barber—along with his tape recorder—was moving. Fortunately, Estelle was too intrigued by her brother’s endeavor to let it fail. After brief deliberation (and a bit of sweet talking at home), Estelle remortgaged her house and used the money to purchase a new recording machine, the $2500 Ampex 350. The duo moved their studio into an abandoned grocery store on the outskirts of town, a building that sat, ironically, on the property of Stewart’s new barber, who gave them run of the location for free in hopes that they would take interest in and record his fifteen-year-old daughter. The girl never made it to the studio, but the Veltones, an all-black five-piece band brought over from West Memphis by Estelle’s hard-drinking, good-timing son Packy, did. The doo-wop harmonies and lively style of the Veltones couldn’t have been further away from Satellite’s original recordings, but also unlike Satellite’s original recordings, this one sold.
The success at the abandoned grocer’s was short-lived. Though Estelle had helped make ends meet by running an ice cream shop out of the side, the location was an impediment to success in almost every other way. Not only was it too far out in the country to lure in many aspiring artists, it also sidled up to a set of railroad tracks, and the schedule of trains appeared specifically tailored to align with Satellite’s recording schedule. The duo’s perseverance was soon rewarded, however: when the studio finally decided to move, the new location was as good as the last was terrible.
Though their budget was tight, Jimmy and Estelle found that for the investment of around $150 a month and a bit of elbow grease, they could transform an abandoned theater in the city into a workable studio. A combination of acoustic tiles and homemade curtains were hung to muffle the cavernous space’s echo, the rows of chairs removed for space, and the stage repurposed to accommodate a soundboard. Even the one thing that the budget would not allow for—the leveling of the sloped theater floors—was soon revealed to be a serendipitous boon. The unique grade of the floor worked magic with sound waves and lent an immediately recognizable tone to each recording, a raw and gritty echo that became the hallmark of the Stax sound.
Unique acoustics were not the only thing that the location had going for it; situated in a neighborhood where the demographics were shifting from white to black, the theater offered the opportunity to garner the foot traffic—and musical opinion—of a broad sampling of clientele. The unique vantage that this offered encouraged the seamless integration of product and consumer, allowing Estelle, who operated a record store from the old concession stand, to keep a finger on the pulse of what was popular. From her perch behind the counter, she scrutinized what records sold, hosted writing workshops, tested new material on the shop’s customers—and then took this information a few feet back to the recording studio, where it could be immediately integrated into the creative process.
The combination of their distinctive sound and grassroots creative process soon shot Stax to the top of the R&B charts. Powerhouses such as Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes, and David Porter churned out hit after hit, and Stax artists played to sold-out concert halls around the globe. Perhaps even more important than their success in the outside world, however, was the internal magic of the studio itself. Though the city outside was strictly divided along race lines, behind the walls of Stax no such distinction existed; the pool of staff, from the writers to the racially-split house band, Booker T and the MG’s, was not only racially diverse, but unostentatiously, naturally so. Despite the fact that it sat in the middle of a city characterized by the friction between its black and white residents, Stax stood as a paragon of potential for ten years, a representation of what was possible when the color line was erased.
Unfortunately, the utopic success was not to last; beginning in 1967, Stax suffered a series of tragedies from which it never truly recovered. Within the span of six months, the label lost its star performers—Otis Redding and the Bar-Kays—to a plane crash, the majority of its master tapes to an oversight of fine print in an Atlantic distribution deal, and the unity of its mission with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Even though the label would continue to be relevant for a number of years, it was irrevocably changed. The company eventually floundered, and in 1977 the doors were closed, the remaining Stax catalog passed to a liquidating company, and the theater sold to a church for $10.
The midcentury South is not often remembered for its harmonies, yet among the discordance of racial tension and strife that so often defines the region, there arose an unlikely, common note. For a brief moment, in a repurposed movie theater on the corner of McLemore and College, there was a perfect symbiosis, a melding of common human emotion that saw not black nor white, but a shared rhythm, beauty, pain, and joy. This was Soul. This was Stax Records.