You may not know Stax Records by name, but you will recognize many of the artists and hit records the record company released in the 1950’s through the 1970’s. Stax Records came to be known as the “Memphis Sound” with artist that include Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes, Booker T. and the MG’s, The Staple Singers, and many more. Respect Yourself: Stax Records & the Soul Explosion would have been a great book even if it had just told the stories of these artists, however author Robert Gordon powerfully tells the Stax story in the context of a segregated Memphis and the Civil Rights Movement.
Jim Stewart was a banker and fiddle player in a country and western band. A shrewd business man, Stewart saw the opportunity to make money producing records. He decided to open a recording studio with his sister Estelle Axton, who took a second mortgage on her house to help him raise the money to run the recording studio. When his sister became his business partner, they changed the name to Stax Records, taxing the first two letters of each of their last names.
The music business side of this book is fascinating. The rise and fall of Stax Records is only half of the book. Even though Gordon details how bad business deals and accusations of payola hurt Stax, it is the people involved that make the story so interesting. How did a white brother and sister team become soul music pioneers? What happens when white record company executives and African American artists can’t have a business dinner due to segregation?
Respect Yourself: Stax Records & the Soul Explosion is available for check out at the Niles Public Library.
There is a Stax Museum in Memphis which is well worth the visit. The original recording studio and record store were torn down in 1989, and the museum was built at the original location of at 926 East McLemore Avenue.