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New documentary charts the rise and fall of iconic Memphis record label

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOKER T. AND THE M.G.S SONG, "GREEN ONIONS")

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

You probably know some of the songs that came from Stax records, like this one by Booker T. and the M.G.s, who played on a lot of other Stax recordings, including this beauty from Otis Redding.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "(SITTIN ON) THE DOCK OF THE BAY")

OTIS REDDING: (Singing) I'm sitting on the dock of the bay watching the tide roll away.

CHANG: The label's roster is full of legendary Black musicians of the '60s and '70s, like Sam and Dave, the Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes. But, you know, Stax originally started as a company dedicated to making country music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing) I sent the roses for the bride's bouquet.

CHANG: Jim Stewart was a fiddle player and self-described hillbilly from outside Memphis, Tenn. He and his sister, Estelle Axton, found an old movie theater in Memphis to turn into a recording studio, and they opened up a record store next door. Now, this was the segregated South in the late 1950s, just on the precipice of the Civil Rights Movement. And yet, the two white owners found a lot of their clientele were Black teenagers buying R&B records and Black musicians hoping to make recordings.

JAMILA WIGNOT: They sort of moved to a site with one intention and not really understanding the kind of possibilities that surround them.

CHANG: Jamila Wignot is the filmmaker behind a new documentary series called "Stax: Soulsville, U.S.A." Her story really begins when Stewart and Axton realized that their country music venture wasn't really taking off.

WIGNOT: Just as Jim's kind of at this moment of not knowing what to do, in walks Rufus Thomas, who is a famed performer on Beale Street, and his daughter, Carla Thomas, and it just completely changes the trajectory of the label because they have a song that they recorded called "'Cause I Love You" that's an R&B demo. And Jim hears it and says - you know, he just knew he had to record that song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "'CAUSE I LOVE YOU")

RUFUS THOMAS: (Singing) Baby...

CARLA THOMAS: (Singing) Baby...

R THOMAS: (Singing) Hold you by my side 'cause I love you.

C THOMAS: (Singing) I love...

R THOMAS: (Singing) 'Cause I love you.

C THOMAS: (Singing) I love...

R THOMAS: (Singing) 'Cause I love you.

C THOMAS: (Singing) 'Cause I love...

CHANG: And let's just remember, Stax came into being during segregation in Memphis. But you see in this documentary how welcome Black people feel at that studio, at the record shop early on. You see white and Black musicians playing together in the studio bands. Can you just explain in words, like, why Black people might have felt so comfortable there? Like, what was it about Stewart and Axton and the way they ran their business, you think?

WIGNOT: I think that Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton were kind of, in the parlance of their day, true Christians. They did not have a great deal of judgment for the people in the community that they had found themselves in. And Jim ultimately cares more about music than he cares about the skin color of the people who are making it. So I think there's a real surprising comfort that people find walking into that studio - kind of a social contract that happens...

CHANG: Yeah.

WIGNOT: ...Where you walk in and you set race aside for the good reason of making music.

CHANG: I mean, it's a bubble.

WIGNOT: It's a bubble. Right.

CHANG: Yeah. Though there was something quite distinct about the sound of Stax music. Like, your docuseries makes a distinction between the music that came out of Stax and the music that came out of Motown in Detroit. How would you characterize the difference between Motown and the R&B and soul music that was quintessentially Stax?

WIGNOT: I think that the Stax musicians were really into a kind of - a rooted, rural sound. They kept it a bit funkier, a bit more organic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M DEPENDING ON YOU")

REDDING: (Singing) I'm depending on you - everything that you do.

WIGNOT: It wasn't sort of top-down and crafted from jump, and musicians were walking in and being told, you play this, you play this, you play this. There was more of a kind of collaborative exchange, and I think that invariably produced a sound that was a bit rawer, a bit grittier.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M DEPENDING ON YOU")

REDDING: (Singing) I want to depend on you. Ooh, I'm depending on you.

WIGNOT: And they were not interested in then taking that raw, gritty sound and trying to kind of polish it up so that it would have potentially more market appeal.

CHANG: Which you could find in Detroit, in Motown - yeah.

WIGNOT: And New York and Philadelphia, yeah.

CHANG: Well, eventually, Otis Redding emerges as a giant in the story of Stax...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THESE ARMS OF MINE")

REDDING: (Singing) These arms of mine. They are...

CHANG: ...Someone who helped define its very sound, its style - the lure of Stax. How do you even sum up someone like Otis Redding and what he brought to the company? Like, how would you describe it?

WIGNOT: It's impossible.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: Yeah.

WIGNOT: I would describe it as an impossible task. You know, I think part of it is because he comes to Stax in 1962, and, as the series recounts, he dies tragically in 1967. So we really only have this...

CHANG: At 26.

WIGNOT: That's right. And we only have this five-year period of - when you think about it, an extraordinarily prolific amount of music that's coming out of that studio and really led by him. And then he brings something else. You know, and we have that great moment where we're able to kind of show through a piece of archival footage the way he's quite literally created a song that kind of shows how he's instructing the horns to play in a certain kind of way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FA-FA-FA-FA-FA (SAD SONG)")

REDDING: (Singing) Fa, fa-fa, fa-fa, fa, fa, fa, fa (ph)- your turn.

(HORN PLAYING)

CHANG: I mean, it makes my whole body vibrate when I hear those horns. And, you know, when you think of some of the most legendary hits of Stax Records, like Otis Redding's "(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay" or Sam and Dave's "Hold On, I'm Coming" (ph) or "Soul Man," they weren't inherently, like, political songs. But the sound of the studio - it's so much a part of the soundtrack of a really political decade, right? Like, how did you see the politics of the time expressing itself through the musicians at Stax?

WIGNOT: I think that the songs are a mix of - you know, they're a mix of political kind of expression in some way. I mean, a song like "Soul Man," which was performed by Sam and Dave, but written and produced by Isaac Hayes and David Porter - even a song like that really emerges from their awareness of what's happening with the rebellions in the late '60s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOUL MAN")

SAM AND DAVE: (Singing) I'm a soul man. I'm a soul man. And that ain't all. That's what I got...

WIGNOT: Soul was the word that was written on the places and the businesses that didn't burn. And so the song that comes out of it isn't necessarily overtly political, but even just talking about what is a soul man and a kind of consideration of - you know, you may not come from much, and you may not have the greatest car - you know, the little things that are in that song are saying, like, you may not be the most advantaged person in the world, but you have value, and you have worth. And I think there's something in this series - you know, it became clear to me that all of these artists sort of telegraphed that.

CHANG: Jamila Wignot is the director and producer of the new docuseries, "Stax: Soulsville, U.S.A." Thank you so much for this series and for speaking with us. I so enjoyed this.

WIGNOT: Thank you. It's been amazing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOUL MAN")

SAM AND DAVE: (Singing) I'm a soul man. I want to tell you. Yes I am. I'm a soul man. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Marc Rivers
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.