The Sound of Soulsville, USA
Everybody knows Motown. But at the same time another hit factory in the American South brought sweet soul music to the masses. Stax Records from Memphis made its mark on soul and rhythm & blues in the Sixties and Seventies, and gave the world legends like Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and Isaac Hayes. Listen up, class: this is a history lesson you can dance to.
It all began with Satellite Records, founded in 1957 by country fiddler Jim Stewart – who initially operated the label from his garage. Three years later Stewart moved operations to the Capitol Theatre on 926 East McLemore Avenue in South Memphis, a change of address that would change the world of music forever. And Memphis too, as the location now houses the fun-packed Stax Museum of American Soul Music, a must-visit for every music fan.
Back in the day, Stewart’s sister and Stax co-founder Estelle Axton operated a record store in the old concession stand of the former movie theatre. This unwittingly launched the stellar rise of Stax Records, as the label was called from 1961 on. The shop brought very much needed income to the table and proved to be an excellent listening pool for the new music that came out of the studio next door.
On top of that, a constant queue of new talent lined up at the counter. David Porter, writer of Soul Man and Hold On! I’m Coming!, worked at a nearby supermarket when he decided to give the new folks on the block a try. His writing partner Isaac Hayes lived in the neighbourhood and started his professional career as an in-house session musician for Otis Redding. Who earned his chance in 1962, when a failed session with The Pinetoppers’ guitarist Johnny Jenkins left 40 minutes on the clock for the soon-to-be legendary vocal stylings of Stax’s biggest-selling superstar.
In the meantime an unbeatable house band had formed, backing new songbirds while rapidly getting better with every beat. Together Booker T & The M.G.’s, with pianist/singer Booker T. Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper, bass player Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn and drummer Al Jackson, Jr, were a big part of what was to go into the books as the Stax sound.
The sound of Stax
But what is that famous Stax sound? According to Steve Cropper it has everything to do with the musicians playing without headphones in the big, downward slanting movie theatre that was turned into a studio: ‘When you put headphones on, everybody just sort of tightens up. I played watching Al Jackson’s left hand rather than by going what I heard in my head. I started to anticipate what lay ahead instead of waiting to actually hear the sound.’
Meanwhile the singer, standing behind a big heavy curtain behind the drummer, got the rhythm only after it bounced off the ceiling towards him a fraction of second later. For the layman these might be technical nuances, but that delayed backbeat unmistakably is the engine of the Stax sound.
Check out this Spotify playlist to hear it yourself. You’ll be shaking your tailfeather in no time!
Don’t have Spotify? Here are the tracks you should look for.
Carla Thomas – Gee Whiz (Look At His Eyes)
Sam & Dave – Hold On! I’m Coming!
Otis Redding – Nobody’s Fault But Mine
Isaac Hayes – Theme From Shaft
Booker T & The M.G.’s – Green Onions
Bar-Kays – Soul Finger
Rufus Thomas – Walking The Dog
William Bell – You Don’t Miss Your Water
Eddie Floyd – Knock On Wood
The Mar-Keys – Last Night
The Mad Lads – I Want Someone
The Emotions - So I Can Love You
Jean Knight - Mr. Big Stuff
The Staple Singers – Respect Yourself
Johnnie Taylor – Who’s Making Love