by Andria Lisle
Just last Saturday, I was driving past the old Plastic Products building on Chelsea — where Sun, Chess, Meteor, Atlantic, ABC-Paramount, MGM, and Stax singles were actually manufactured — and started thinking about Memphis' relationship with the 45 r.p.m. record.
Now, 60 years after the 45 made its debut — and about a decade after it was phased out of existence — the folks at Rhino have decided to bring back the A-side and B-side via digital downloads such as Otis Redding's posthumous, chart-topping release "(Sittin' on the) Dock of the Bay"/"Sweet Lorene" and Sam & Dave's iconic "Soul Man"/"May I Baby."
For those of you too young to remember the pre-CD age, from the 1950s to the 1990s, singles provided a fast, inexpensive platform for labels looking to break new artists.
In Memphis, the Satellite Record Shop, located in front of Stax Records' recording studio, was where label owners Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton logged immediate reactions from fans upon hearing undiscovered artists or brand-new material. The responses they got oftentimes directly impacted the careers of the musicians and songwriters at Stax.
"We used that shop as a barometer to see if we had a hit record or not," Stewart noted in an interview stored in the Smithsonian's archives. "Even before we got records pressed, we'd get a dub cut — just a test pressing — and play it in the record shop and then watch people's reaction when they come in."
Now, for better or for worse, websites like MySpace and iTunes fulfill that niche, although vinyl is making a comeback: Just ask record masterer Larry Nix, who is based at Midtown's Ardent Studios. Just a few years ago, Nix was considering donating the lathe used to cut all the vinyl records released by Stax to a museum. Now he's using the machine more than ever, due to the number of requests he's gotten from clients to return to the vinyl format.