FEBRUARY 4, 2014
WITH THE DECLINE of magazine page space and the withering of once-towering institutions like Rolling Stone and The Village Voice, many have declared music writing dead. It’s certainly changed since Robert Christgau and Lester Bangs’s day, but work like Robert Gordon’s Respect Yourself proves that music still provides rich territory for narrative exploration.
In Respect Yourself, Gordon’s sixth book, the Grammy Award-winning music writer and filmmaker tells the story of Stax, the Memphis-based record label that gave the world Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Mavis Staples, and Booker T. & the MG’s during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
“Contrary to its intentions,” Gordon writes in his preface, Memphis, Tennessee’s racial violence and segregation “inspired great art, desperate art, lifesaving art.” As a longtime Memphis resident, Gordon understands this complex city, its darkness and glory, and the fertility of its complications. Exhaustive without being exhausting, Respect Yourself is the definitive document of one of America’s most important record labels, an engrossing tale of creativity, resilience, and struggle in the face of unprecedented adversity.
Wisely, Gordon starts his mammoth biography not with a statement but a scene: the label’s co-owner, Jim Stewart, seated in a barber chair. At this point Stewart’s a country boy, a fiddler, and despite his future collaborations, he doesn’t know a single person of color. Gordon paints this youthful portrait to contrast with Stewart’s future position as cultural arbiter and business mogul. Here, Stewart’s just another Southern Caucasian living on what bluesman Albert King called the outskirts of town. The scene is also pivotal because that chair is where he got the idea to start a label: Stewart’s barber ran one and recommended it as a lucrative side business — if you could keep the publishing rights.
Originally named Satellite Records, Stewart’s new venture released two singles, one that, Gordon writes, “sounded terrible” and another that “rocked,” though “neither got very far out of the box.” It’s tempting to assume that it would only be up for Stewart from here, but the graveyard of American independent labels proves otherwise. Through hard work, luck, openness to all races and ideas, Jim and his sister Estelle Axton modeled their company after the record that rocked.
Axton mortgaged her house so the fledgling company could get a $2500 Ampex 350 mono reel-to-reel console tape recorder and improve their records’ fidelity. What first appeared an ill-advised investment (Axton’s husband feared they’d end up living “in a tent”) proved one among many wise decisions she would make in her time at Stax.
The young label faced a series of hurdles — loss of studio space, loss of equipment, vulturous distributors — followed by an accumulation of successes. Their first big score: when Mercury Records bought national distribution rights to Satellite’s first release by a band of color, The Veltones’s “Fool in Love.” This first brush with the majors generated only a small sum, but was a harbinger of big things to come.
Gordon’s book belongs on the shelf alongside canonical works such as Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley and Nat Hentoff’s Jazz Is, not solely because of its subject, but because it does what the best music writing does, and which traditional criticism often fails to do: it gazes beyond the music itself.
Stax Records and soul music provide a window into the story of America’s central tensions and triumphs, that of racial segregation and the Civil Rights Movement. It’s there, alongside the well-known protests, marches and sit-ins that we see the small human scale on which progress also happens, the way seemingly mundane interactions between regular people help take integration out of the realm of legislation and abstraction and down to the every day of the street — the way they did at Stax.
Maybe it’s the timeless spirit of commerce. Maybe it’s the American hunger for riches, but in the first half of the 20th century, America was filled with tiny, independent record labels, from country labels that folded after months to small but significant ones like Jewell and Excello. Nothing about Stax’s first incarnation distinguished it. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, recording was the kind of business everyone from visionaries to used car salesmen got into. Two Turkish-American brothers formed Atlantic Records. A Detroit autoworker formed Motown. Two Polish immigrants formed Chess. Culturally, these labels altered life on earth. Stax did, too. But each is of a time and place. Respect Yourself is the story of a record label that functioned as an extension of a city: Memphis, Tennessee.
In 1950s and ’60s Memphis, people of color had to use separate bathrooms, separate drinking fountains, and had endured decades of systematic voter suppression and violence. It was the kind of place where policemen pulled over people of color for sport, the kind of place that preferred to shut down its public pools for two consecutive summers rather than integrate them. When the city’s sanitation workers organized to publically request bins that didn’t leak maggots on their heads, and private showers where they could cleanup after work, Memphis’s Mayor convinced the Teamsters Union to abandon the workers entirely.
Stax recorded soul music, but the way it went about it ran contrary to what the Memphis majority considered normal. It mixed races in bands, mixed races in the studio, hired full-time black employees and made some of them rich. Stax’s policy was to hire anybody with ability or promise. Its ranks were filled with people who’d come in off the streets to record, buy records, and socialize. Unlike most major studios, they didn’t erect a physical barrier between the studio floor and the control room; instead, they let engineers and musicians freely interact during the session. They kept few hard lines about song arrangements. Song ideas were loose and often hummed rather than charted (a format called “head arrangements”), and recording involved lots of improvisation. “Everyone was welcome everywhere,” Gordon said. It’s an approach he calls the “democracy of the studio.”
Stax’s business model embodied the way its staff thought about people in general. “At the studio,” said cofounder Estelle Axton, “we just looked at people as talent, not the color of their skin.” The reason: Stax assumed that everyone potentially had something to offer. Though they weren’t trying to make a statement, Stax lived by Dr. King’s suggestion that we judge people by the content of their character, rather than the color of their skin — or, in Stax’s case, their musical abilities: Can you play an instrument? Can you arrange a song? Can you cold call DJs with promotional material? Even Booker T. & the MG’s breakout “Green Onions” exemplified that ideology. Here was a mixed band led by a young black man, playing a song that blended musical styles, including Blues, R&B, rock and roll, country and swap, to create something new and unconcerned with type. Stax offered what the American dream always purports to be about: an even playing field. And they did it in the shadow of Emmett Till’s murder and the Little Rock Nine.
Gordon shows that cultural shifts occur from an accumulation of small interactions, which is to say, an accumulation of changing minds. When songwriter and DJ Rufus Thomas decided to ask Stewart for recording work, he, like many black Southerners, had had what he called “some rough experiences—wrong experiences, bad experiences—with white folks.” He didn’t trust Stewart, because he didn’t trust white people in general. “But I knew I had to work,” Thomas said, “and the white folks had the jobs so I did what I had to do.” After Stewart and Axton proved their character, Thomas continued to work with them, as did his talented daughter, Carla Thomas.
For all of its barriers, Memphis was a place where ideas and cultures still mixed enough to birth new musical forms. Elvis represents the most visible example of that hybridization: a white country boy playing his hillbilly version of what was then called black music. Jazz is filled with examples of this, from dynamic collaborations to outright cultural appropriation. Consider the origin of jazz itself in New Orleans: the blending of African and European traditions. In mid-century Memphis, you had white Southern kids sneaking around black clubs to hear R&B and doo-wop music. As one of those kids, the MG’s bassist Donald “Duck” Don, recalls: “Now if you can imagine, white kids had never heard R&B music before. It was like going to another planet, a real good planet. It was just unbelievable good vibes—Where has this been?” The “where” is clear. And yet, these kids heard it, and they took it back to their own little worlds, their high schools, bedrooms and rehearsal spaces, and later, to places where everyone else could listen.
The teenage nights those white players spent standing outside clubs watching bands play through the window, or listening to music come through bars’ outside air vents — those are the moments of quiet revolution, the points where social standards and ideas of “normalcy” get dismantled and new attitudes forged.
Revolution comes in many forms. As writer James Baldwin said, “[W]hen the black man, whose destiny and identity has always been controlled by others, decides and states that he will reject the identity imposed on him, and control his own destiny, he is talking revolution.” Teenagers’ challenging their culture’s dominant paradigm was nothing short of revolutionary. They weren’t trying to change anything. They just liked music. It’s that same casual attitude that defined the Stax label and created such honest music. As Gordon says:
Musicians had been crossing proscribed thresholds in the city [of Memphis] for years. B.B. King had gotten his radio show on WDIA by walking through the front door on a rainy day and asking for an audience. Howlin’ Wolf walked into Sun [Records], having heard that the white man Sam Phillips would give you a fair shake. The door Elvis walked through was metaphorical, but his success grew from his knowledge of music on the other side.
Gordon’s sentences are simple and his scenes strong. His prose gets out of the story’s way. His style isn’t blandly workmanlike, it’s sonorous and sufficiently textured, but it does favor function over form.
As with the scene of Stewart in the barber chair, Gordon isolates key moments within the flood of historical detail to bring the story to life. A fancy hotel forced Rufus Thomas’s family to ride the back service elevator, accessible through an alley, in order to talk business with Stewart and Atlantic Record’s white representative Jerry Wexler. Gordon shows us how Stewart and the Thomases had known each other on “only respectful, pleasant terms. [Yet] Here, the real world intruded; the alley, the freight elevator—the humiliation.” As Wexler the New Yorker put it, Memphis and its leaders were “Stone Age.”
Other absorbing scenes show the way original music gets made. Here, it’s often accidentally: musicians goofing around in the studio, tinkering with riffs they’d written or combinations of notes they find themselves drawn to. In this quiet way, Respect Yourself portrays the enigmatic workings of creativity — and the role of common, unplanned events — as with the way the chorus to Sam and Dave’s breakout hit “Hold On, I’m Comin’” resulted when Dave was sitting on the toilet, and Isaac Hayes kept telling him to hurry up and get back downstairs to the studio. The way Otis Redding came to Stax’s attention while working as a chauffeur for a visiting guitarist, and kept asking people at the session to let him sing. And how Rufus Thomas casually recorded his big hit “Walking the Dog” during a quick studio visit on the fly between church and Sunday dinner. Gordon wisely contrasts Stax’s loose “organic” approach with Motown’s assembly line, automaker approach. As Isaac Hayes put it, “Stax was down-to-earth, raw, very honest music.”
The book also unveils the mystery of hit-making. Unassuming books still become best-sellers and promising titles still get ignored, proving labels haven’t figured out why one song becomes a hit while another flops. The forces that propel songs to the top of the charts remain elusive, mysterious, often a combination of sound, exposure, timing, and luck. In the Stax story, you can see many of these mechanisms at work: missed opportunities and dogged self-promotion, session tapes that got shelved too long, and songs played at the right place and the right time. Also on display: the essential role of serendipity. When a singer leaves a session prematurely, he inadvertently creates an opportunity for the remaining musicians to record an original instrumental. Not only did that song become a nationwide hit, it established a model for countless sultry, Southern, late-night jams. That song was “Green Onions.” You can’t plan for coincidence, but you can leave room for it the way Stax did.
As Gordon puts it, Memphis was “the town where nothing ever happens, but the impossible always does.” Respect Yourself provides a clear look into the South’s mind through the story of some of the world’s finest music-makers, offering a broader, more nuanced conception of this influential region. The South is beautiful. It’s bountiful, and it’s fascinating. Its complicated and contradictory character also inhibits easy summation. Thankfully, Respect Yourself shines a necessary light into its past and works against its stereotypes.
Music is undoubtedly the universal language, a unifying medium of both simple pleasures and revolutionary power. It stirs us partly because it works on the physiology that we all share, offering further proof that no matter where you live, what you look like or what you believe, we are, at our core, more alike than we are different. Stax knew this. Many of us do, but we could work on showing it. Music can help.
Aaron Gilbreath has written essays and articles for The New York Times, Harper’s, Bookforum, Paris Review, The Believer, Kenyon Review, Oxford American, The Threepenny Review, and Brick and Narratively.