How Stax Got Its Groove Back: A 'Soul Explosion' 50th Anniversary Reissue and Retrospective
The face of contemporary music as we know it might be completely different if not for the determination and zest of the owners and artists of a record label at 926 East McClemore Ave in Memphis, Tenn.
Stax Records (formerly Satellite), founded by siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton in 1957, provided a home for some of the most enduring artists in black music, including Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, and The Bar-Kays. “We were kind of like a family, just young kids and growing up, we all knew each other,” recalls soul singer, William Bell, who provided the label with hits like “You Don’t Miss Your Water” and “Private Number,” his duet with Judy Clay.
But the legend of Stax might not be the same if, 50 years ago, the label hadn’t gotten on the offensive after being dealt some bad hands and put all their creative and mental energy forward for something called the “Soul Explosion," a concentrated period of landmark releases in the label's history.
Concord Music Group/Craft Recordings has commemorated this anniversary by reissuing Soul Explosion, a compilation highlighting some of the most impactful singles from this pivotal moment such as Johnnie Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love,” Carla Thomas’s “Where Do I Go,” and The Staples Singers’ “Long Walk to D.C,” on vinyl for the first time since 1969. Additionally, In honor of Black Music Month in June, 30 albums will be released digitally for the first time by Craft, including 11 from the Soul Explosion. Listening to this album and learning of the history around it emphasizes what a miracle Stax was.
In the segregated south, Stax was something of an artistic oasis. Owned by Stewart and Axton, both white, this studio, only a few hours removed from Mississippi and Arkansas, was a place for musicians to not just play together, but also come together. “All of the things that Dr. King lost his life in Memphis trying to communicate was what Stax Records was all about,” says Deanie Parker, former Stax publicist and first President and CEO of the nonprofit Soulsville.
In-house songwriting talent from the likes of Booker T. and the MG’s, David Porter, and Isaac Hayes helped draw Al Bell to the label. Bell started as director of radio promotions before becoming a co-owner and executive vice president.
“I realized that they were producing the kinds of music and music sound that was high-quality and was music art, that didn’t exist any place in America,” Bell says, contrasting Stax’s grittier sound to the smoother sounds of Motown, doo-wop out of New York, and other, less-distinct R&B and blues artists from the south. Parker describes the Stax artists as being “raw.”
Under Atlantic Records’ ownership, which started in 1960, Stax received a 12 percent royalty on sales. “It was generating enough to keep us alive, but not for us to grow,” according to Al Bell.
As the decade progressed, Stax was victim to severe misfortune. Redding, their arguable keystone, died in a plane crash on December 10, 1967, along with four members of The Bar-Kays. It was also revealed that Atlantic had all the rights to Stax’s lucrative back catalog. Stax chose to leave, additionally losing popular soul duo Sam & Dave in the process.
Upon cutting ties with Atlantic and finding new owners through Gulf and Western Industries and Paramount Pictures, Stax had to figure out what to do and how they would do it. Al Bell had a hands-on approach of contacting independent distributors and going directly to shops with salespeople. He dubs his strategy as “guerilla marketing at the grassroots level.”
“At maximum, you had about 50 black-programmed radio stations in the United States at that time,” Bell says. “So, in order to get optimum exposure, wherever you got radio play, you needed to get word-of-mouth out at the retail level -- because of the lack of emphasis placed on black-recorded music at that time.”
In 1969, a brainstorming Bell took out a legal pad and wrote out a list of artists that Stax could release albums from. It resulted in them releasing material from every artist they had signed up to that point, 27 albums and 30 singles in just a matter of months. Included were Hayes’ breakthrough sophomore album, Hot Buttered Soul, Thomas’ Memphis Queen and Johnnie Taylor’s The Johnnie Taylor Philosophy Continues. It was dubbed “The Soul Explosion.”
Although Bell was no longer working for Atlantic, he wasn’t above taking cues from them. Following Atlantic president Jerry Wexler’s example of bringing distributors nationwide to a hotel to pitch to them, the label rented out Memphis’ Rivermont Hotel for a conference with the theme of “Gettin’ It All Together.” Impressive presentations and performances by the artists led to $3.5 million worth of business in a single weekend, according to Bell. “We went from dead to alive,” Bell says.
The Soul Explosion and the Stax philosophy wasn’t just about penetrating the market with as much music as possible, it was also about releasing the best music possible. Bell stresses that it was quality as much as quantity that mattered. When a track was recorded, the artist and their fellow musicians would listen thoughtfully, offering suggestions about what could be fixed. “It was that type of quality control in there,” Bell says. “And that was brought in by Jim Stewart.”
Stax had made it almost all the way through the first half of the new decade before another major setback. On December 19, 1975, a federal marshall informed Bell of an involuntary bankruptcy petition against the label signed by three of Stax’s creditors, at the behest of Union Planters National Bank, and that the building was to be vacated right away.
Despite the claim citing a meager debt of less than $2,000 and the label having master tapes valued at $67 million, by 1976, Stax was done, at least for the time being. It was soon revived by Fantasy Records, primarily as a means of keeping older material in circulation. But in 2004, Concord gained control of Fantasy, and, by proxy, Stax. New music has been released under the Stax banner, including William Bell’s latest album, This Is Where I Live, which won the best americana album award at the 2017 Grammys.
Michele Smith, vice president of Estate & Legacy Brand Management at Concord Music/Craft Recordings, believes these decades-old albums still resonate, based on how they influence current artists.
“I think what we’re seeing is that our younger audience is realizing that a lot of the music that they’re listening to came from the past,” Smith says, “And a lot of these artists, like a Johnnie Taylor or a Booker T. and the MG’s are the music beds for a lot of the music that they’re listening today.” She also cites contemporary usage of samples from Stax releases and William Bell teaming up with Snoop Dogg for a new rendition of his single, “I Forgot to Be Your Lover.”
William Bell believes authenticity is what has helped Stax speak to so many people over the decades. “Our arrangements and our lyrical content and everything, we wrote from the heart," Bell says. "And I think people can readily identify with something that’s truthful." Al Bell concurs that Stax legend will continue to endure, not in spite of its age but because of it. “They don’t call the Mona Lisa 'old school' as an art form -- it’s more valuable today than it was back then,” Bell says. “It’s the same thing with Stax.”
Today, the original Stax property at East McClemore is home to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, with the Stax Music Academy and Soulsville Charter School close by. Bell, 79, now based in Little Rock, Ark., has, on occasion, come back up to Memphis to give personal museum tours to contest winners.
He recalls something he once said when speaking at Memphis State University. “You can destroy the buildings, you can take all the master tapes,” Bell says. “But you can never stop Stax Records, because that music and that soul lives on in the people.”