Satellite Records was launched 50 years ago in Memphis. The company became better known when the name was changed to Stax—a conflation of its two owners' names, Jim Stewart and his sister, Estelle Axton. Stewart and Axton were both white, but they set up their recording studio in an old movie theater on McLemore Avenue in a Memphis neighborhood that was rapidly becoming black. And the rest is history—a history gloriously preserved in Stax 50, a recently issued two-disc collection of the company's 50 greatest hits.
During the 1960s and early '70s, outside the Stax studio doors, Memphis was a rigidly segregated city. Its political and economic leaders were firmly committed to white supremacy. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated there. As late as 1971, the Memphis city government closed all public swimming pools rather than desegregate them. Meanwhile, on McLemore Avenue, inside the studio that became known as "Soulsville USA," black and white people worked together as equals to produce music that moved hearts, souls, feet, and pelvises the world over.
A scan down the track listing for Stax 50 tells the story: Rufus Thomas, Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MGs, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes, Johnnie Taylor, Eddie Floyd, The Staple Singers—and those are just the ones who had pop hits. Dozens of other Stax artists placed records on the rhythm-and-blues charts during the Soulsville era.
What they made at Stax—and what you'll hear on the reissue—is, essentially, African-American country music. It had the conversational lyrics and plaintive melodies of white country, the groove of rural Mississippi Delta blues, and the raw, unabashed emotion of African-American church music. The confluence happened because all the players and singers were from the same Deep South roots, and they all had grown up listening to the same music—country from the Grand Ole Opry and rhythm and blues from Memphis' WDIA, the first radio station devoted solely to black music.
ON THE SURFACE, and from this distance, the Stax picture doesn't look like anyone's interracial utopia. All the talent was black, and the owners were white. That's rock and roll … isn't it? But as you can read in Peter Guralnick's epic book, Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, the reality at Stax was more complicated.
The vocalists who supplied the gospel grit and intensity on all the Stax recordings were black. But the musicians who laid down those bottom-heavy grooves and call-and-response horn parts—Booker T. and the MGs and The Memphis Horns—were almost equally black and white. In 1969, African-American Stax executive Al Bell bought Estelle Axton's share of the company, and Stax became an equal black-white partnership at every level—from the rhythm section to the ownership.
And most of this happened during years when local law prohibited the people involved from sitting down at a coffee shop together. I'd call that a miracle.
Of course, the Stax story, like most American tales of glory, couldn't happen in today's globalized, blockbuster-oriented pop music marketplace. Soulsville USA wasn't a marketing concept in search of substance. It grew slowly and organically over a decade. Otis Redding made his first record in 1964 but didn't become a pop star until just before his death in December 1967. And Stax was rooted in the street-level experience of black Memphis. It was an intensely local phenomenon.
In the early years, in what had been the concession stand of the McLemore Avenue movie theater, Estelle Axton operated a retail record store. Black men, women, teenagers, and children of the surrounding neighborhood would come in to buy records, listen to the latest Stax demos, and just hang around. Some of those customers became Stax employees and recording artists, and all of them provided the company with a flesh-and-blood, nonvirtual connection to the life of the community that it both fed and fed upon.
All of that life made its way into the grooves of the records. Now old guys like me can finally retire some of our Stax vinyl, and the youth of the 21st century will finally get to learn—from Rufus Thomas himself—exactly how to "Do the Funky Chicken."
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.