Some people irrationally love Memphis. Others irrationally hate Memphis. The truth is that the whole thing is complicated. Memphis can make you cry tears of joy or sorrow with equal ease. It depends on where you're looking. Stax is one of our holy places and a point of faith. It's a source of pride, where we can point to people of different races working together. And they did. But the truth is complicated.
Robert Gordon's new history of Stax Records, Respect Yourself, dives into that complicated story and revels in its complexity. Other books have outlined the story. Gordon fills in detail that brings Stax down from the mountain of ideas and into the human, Memphian realm. This is not idolatry. It's history.
Inevitably cast in the light of race relations, the Stax story is also a tale of great women: Founder Estelle Axton's story is moving.
"She just seemed to have a great attitude," Gordon said in a recent interview. Axton was the Union Planters National Bank employee who, with her brother, not only opened a business in a poor, black neighborhood but also opened the doors of that business to the neighborhood. "Her welcoming spirit had so much to do with the whole label. Not to underplay Jim's musicality or organizational abilities. Those are all essential. But she was the face out front and helped imbue that spirit into the label."
Axton's open-mindedness was essential to the label's early success. But her fate at the label is one of the hardest parts of the book to read. It's a great story about women in the workplace and about people living in Memphis. But it's complicated.
Gordon and I recently drove south to New Park Cemetery in Horn Lake, where Rufus Thomas, Al Jackson Jr., and all but one of the Bar-Kays who died with Otis Redding are buried.
"The Bar-Kays: what a story," Gordon said. "Their narrative very much shadows the Stax narrative. That was the second tragedy [after the loss of chart-topper Redding]. Their comeback has never stopped. It's been ongoing. They've never stopped pushing to create. I try to give them their due in the book, because they have never stood still creatively."
The loss of Redding and all but two of the Bar-Kays is well told. It's primary-source history, but it never gets dry. The tale of an integrated label in the South finding huge success with an integrated talent roster is thrilling. The loss of Stax's shining star and the kids he nurtured is still raw in the telling. And that's where this book succeeds: in taking the names out of the museums and liner notes and giving them their full due.
"Have you ever seen that footage of them performing with Otis?" Gordon asked. "That is like 36 hours before the accident. You look at all of that energy onstage. You just think there's no way it could ever be terminated. Can you imagine being at the label? Isaac Hayes, I remember him saying that he couldn't create for a year. That he just shut down. I imagine that you would be stunned. The sense of promise. The sense of a new generation. And to have it ripped from your guts. So many of them were still teenagers. Matthew Kelly was 17. One of the preachers at the funeral said, 'It's a strange phenomenon. These guys are experiencing sunset at the morning of their lives.' Oh my God. It's so true."
For Memphis history buffs, the business side of the story is essential reading. One central tenet of the Stax mythology is the financial mismanagement of the label. This is another place where complexity beggars the myth. There was arguably more mismanagement among the white bankers at Union Planters Bank who financed label operations than there was at Stax. The major labels were no help either. This part of the book really works and sets the book on your shelf beside Hampton Sides' Hellhound on His Trail. The books complement one another. Gordon's work on union leader T.O. Jones and the sanitation workers' strike adds context to the Stax story. That context is missing from Peter Guralnick's Sweet Soul Music, which was only partly about Stax.
Some of the grittier aspects of the Stax story gave Gordon pause. Johnny Baylor was Stax's distribution man. His tactics were illegal on several fronts, but he broke open new markets one after the other whether it involved a handshake or a pistol. Baylor's story makes for fascinating reading.
"I worried a little bit about that," Gordon said. "The gangster thing is such an attractive idea now. But in the end, I had to think that's what happened. I have to stick to what happened. At one point I remember thinking: Will the kids at Stax Academy want to be reading about Johnny Baylor? Maybe I should be writing a different book.
"But in this book, Johnny Baylor is part of what happened. A pretty brutal man. I think representative of a certain period of business. Especially in distribution ... distribution of all things. Not just records. Who was Motown's guy like that? I don't know, but I know that there was one. So that part of the industry doesn't get talked about so much."
Respect Yourself succeeds by talking about the hard stuff. But that's what makes the sweet stuff so meaningful.
Robert Gordon will read from and sign Respect Yourself at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music on Saturday, November 16th, beginning at 5 p.m.; at Burke's Book Store on December 19th; and at the Booksellers at Laurelwood on December 20th.
Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion
By Robert Gordon
Bloomsbury, 384 pp., $30