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Stax

Throughout the 1960s, the record label Stax from Memphis gave birth to the biggest names of gospel-inspired soul. Though above all, Stax offers a unique sound, in total opposition to that of Motown Records. While Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records, breathed an element of pop into traditional rhythm’n’blues, Stax anchored its semantics in rhythm’n’blues, blues, gospel and even country. Both labels evoke the image of a family.

But make no mistake, only Stax could make this claim with no hidden agenda. Motown controls their artists at each stage of their career, while Stax pushes their protégés to express themselves freely within the framework of certain definitions. Overdub is king in Detroit while live recording is the rule in Memphis! Even though Motown discs are mainly arranged on mixing decks, those at Stax come out directly from the recording room. And when it comes to royalties, Motown is a lot more profitable (Stax never reaching such dividends), though the Memphis label’s sound would go on to have an unequalled influence on funk. There’s another paradox there … by winning Gold Records with the likes of the Temptations (from the Norman Whitfield period), the Commodores, the Jacksons and the Undisputed Truth, Berry Gordy now adds Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton (joint founder of Stax) to the collection with Isaac Hayes, the Emotions and the Dramatics. Stax threw in the towel in 1976, with Motown still going strong…

Created under the name of Satellite Records in Memphis in 1957 by Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton, Stax (deriving from the first letters of the siblings’ respective surnames) was nirvana for soul music up to the end of the ‘60s. It’s catalogue contains names such as Rufus and Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave, Booker T & The M.G.’s, William Bell, Albert King, Eddie Floyd, the Staple Singers, not to mention a certain Otis Redding… The influence of the label is such that Atlantic Records, artistically led by the wonderful producer Jerry Wexler, left New York to spend more time between Memphis and Muscle Shoals. On 10th December 1967, Otis Redding and the majority of his musicians died in a plane crash and that was the first electroshock that came for Stax/Volt-Atlantic. The assassination of Martin Luther King the following year was the sledgehammer blow to the label that was already losing it’s identity.

The rise in power for Al Bell, right hand man to Jim Stewart, was a double-edged sword. He was the local Jesse Jackson in a company where white people held the keys. But his methods, under the guise of a certain professionalism, sanitized Stax’s sound that was so unique before. For the producer and pianist Jim Dickinson - one of the key players of Memphis - Bell was the beginning of the end for Stax. He would go on to explain quite directly to the author and musicologist Peter Guralnick in his work Sweet Soul Music that"The day that Stax stopped using ramshackle things, the rednecks and the cretins, that was the end!"

Facing the rise of James Brown and Sly Stone, Stax didn’t know how to manage their heritage while staying close to the black community and most of all its youth. James Alexander, bassist for Otis Redding and the only band member not on board that plane on the 10th December, relaunched the Bar-Kays, an R&B band that was sucked in by the half-hendrixian, half-psychedelic black rock (by the way, his album in 1971 was called Black Rock). But the transformation of James Brown is hardly noticeable on this straight-forward soul that revisits most of the hits of the era (The Beatles, Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield…). The Bar-Kays would only become as funky as the leaders of the genre by copying them. Sly Stone first, then P-Funk, followed by Earth, Wind and Fire later. The result was always effective, but never a forerunner.

On the side of Booker T and the M.G.’s, they were contenting themselves with creating the recipe for their Green Onions (which also dated from 1962…) though they failed to redevelop it at the dawn of the 1970s. As for the oldies of the label, only Rufus Thomas succeeded in catching the funky nite train. But the cards are rigged: in changing the lyrics, this old DJ, an artisan of R&B standards (Walking The Dog) who spent a short time with Sun Records, plays the fool on Do The Funky Chicken: at 52 years old! But Thomas is above all a nonstandard entertainer who would never stray far from pure R&B. In other words, it’s not very exciting for those who live in the ghettos. But Al Bell would succeed all the same in one thing: putting on a mega-concert as big as Woodstock. In August 1972, at the Los Angeles Coliseum, Wattstax reunited the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the Bar-Kays, Albert King, Rufus Thomas, the Staple Singers and… Isaac Hayes! The real transformation of Stax lies elsewhere, like its contribution to funk. It’s under the bald head of an ex-artist of the label, a songwriter known up until then for his hits co-written with Dave Porter for Sam & Dave (Soul Man, Hold On, I’m Comin’): Isaac Hayes. After a jazzier first album with no success,  recorded in January ’68 (Presenting Isaac Hayes), Hayes revolutionized the genre in pushing the Stax sound into a pool of champagne.

Hot Buttered Soul, the result of this experience, directs the emerging funk down another path. We’re in 1969 and the Kojac of Memphis, supported by the Bar-Kays, slows down the tempo, stretches it out, highlights the bass/drum rhythms and turns black music into a symphony by soaking it in the sensual and luxurious. The 12 minutes of Dionne Warwick’s Walk On By, the 9 minutes 36 seconds of Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic and the 18 minutes 40 seconds of Jim Webb’s masterpiece By The Time I Get To Phoenix explodes the rulebook of the good old songs that were never more than 3 minutes 10 seconds long!

The instrumentation is revolutionary (the violins on Walk On By, the fuzzy guitar at the end of Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic) and Hayes would go on to develop his enchanting formula on The Isaac Hayes Movement (1970) and To Be Continued (1970). Barry White fans don’t need to search very far to find the source at which their imposing idol came to drink for the first time… Hayes forced the public to abandon the single in favour of the album.

With the soundtrack for a TV series that apparently didn’t have much hope for the future, the name Isaac Hayes went down in history. A wah-wah guitar that sounds like scraping the sides of a saucepan (Charles "Skip" Pitts), violins playing hide and seek with a funky groove from the good old days and a name: John Shaft! In 1971, Hayes signed the soundtrack for Gordon Parks’ Shaft, which went to the top of the R&B and pop charts.

Even today, the sound of the Shaft theme symbolizes this funky groove. Isaac Hayes engraves his work even deeper into the history of rhythm’n’blues and soul music, while giving funk his recipe to success. And even if Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra would popularize funk to a global scale, the strings so often cherished by disco often find their roots with Hayes. Black Moses (1972), Live At The Sahara Tahoe (1973), Joy (1973), the soundtracks to the films Three Tough Guys (with Lino Ventura!), Truck Turner (1974) and Chocolate Chips (1975), the self-proclaimed Black Moses would pour out his Deluxe soul and ethereal funk until the river ran dry. © Marc Zisman - Translated by Abigail Church

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