Without making a direct declaration, Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s bracingly impressive docu “Respect Yourself” makes a great case for Stax Records as the greatest soul label ever. Memphis-based Stax was a beacon of integration, a symbol of hope as the civil rights movement became the struggle for black power and, in this century, a phoenix for the funky side of R&B. The Stax story is one of struggle and community, and the directors have organized interviews with Stax musicians and executives, a banker, some celebrity fans and a single historian to create an affecting tale that should be mandatory viewing for anyone interested in music of the 1960s.
First reel positions the Stax studio and its adjacent record store Satellite as the only places in Memphis where races could mix. Musicianship was a bond, the musicians and execs agree, that defied the segregation enforced everywhere else in Tennessee; the legendary producer Tom Dowd said Memphis’ black-white divisiveness made it seem like time had had no effect on the place.
The Stax story, a handful of Greek tragedies rolled into one, begins with country fiddler Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton, a bank teller, purchasing an old movie theater to create a recording studio that would replace the one they built in a barn in 1957. They hit upon the idea that anyone should be able to record there, much as at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios, and while Stewart had his heart set on making country records, the fact that they were in a black neighborhood meant R&B became the place’s forte.
“Motown had the sweet,” says the late Rufus Thomas, the local DJ who had one of Stax’s earliest hits, “Funky Chicken.” “Stax had the funk.”
Spirited commentary from Sam Moore (Sam of Sam & Dave), Bell and songwriter David Porter makes clear the fondness these musicians feel for the label. Some speak in a reserved manner, but that appears to reflect the shyness of the commentator rather than any bitterness behind the words. People at Stax loved the experience and were too busy working and having fun to notice that they were creating the soundtrack to a movement.
Bono, Elvis Costello and Jermaine Dupri offer their thoughts on what distinguished Stax records from all the others.
Stax created a sound that made no concessions to the marketplace, and it built a following for its releases rather quickly. Rufus Thomas, the Mar-Keys and William Bell were early hitmakers; Otis Redding, Booker T. & the MG’s and Eddie Floyd got the Stax sound known internationally; and Redding wowed the flower children at the Monterey Pop Festival, which simultaneously intro’d the Who, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin to the masses. Tragedy and misfortune followed.
Redding died in a plane crash at the age of 27; Martin Luther King Jr. was killed at the Lorraine Hotel, where the Stax folk hung out; and the fine print in Atlantic’s distribution contract meant Stax lost its entire catalog.
Label changed logos, and with former label publicist Al Bell running the show, Stax was revitalized with a new roster. Johnnie Taylor delivered an enormous hit, “Who’s Makin’ Love,” and Bell made the audacious decision to restock its catalog by releasing 27 new albums at once.
Docu’s images capture the rise of the Stax artists’ activism and the label’s growing importance in the black power movement. The Staples Singers produced their first secular album, which included the hits “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There.” “Theme From ‘Shaft'” put Hayes on top of the world, and he followed it up with the self-describing “Black Moses.”
A concert at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1972, “Wattstax,” affirmed the company’s role as the most important black record label in the world. But fame’s trappings and the financial woes of a Memphis bank with a laissez-faire attitude toward loans to members of the Stax family caused an implosion within the label walls. It all ended abruptly.
It’s jarring to watch a man like Hayes sporting elaborate clothing and jewelry in one scene, and moments later, see those items being auctioned. Stax, with a faulty distribution deal with CBS Records and a few crooked people on the payroll, fell hard and did not recover.
Like Memphis itself, everything about Stax deteriorated quickly — the legacy, the building, the catalog. The 21st century has begun on much kinder terms: The city of Memphis helped to build a Stax Museum; Concord Music Group, one of the film’s financiers, purchased the catalog and has revitalized the label. (Fortunately, Concord doesn’t toot its horn often in the docu.) Samuel L. Jackson’s narration is kept to a minimum as the players move the story at an enticing pace. Nearly every person present fills the film with facts rather than observations, and the period performance footage — one can never watch too much Otis Redding — backs up every point. One wishes there was a holy grail of tape in here — a Redding interview, perhaps — but Gordon (“The Road to Memphis”), Neville (“Hank Williams: Honky-Tonk Blues”) and Mark Crosby (“Soul Comes Home”) have captured the story, warts and all, by smartly focusing on the right people.