Found myself watching a great documentary a few days ago. It is titled Respect Yourself. It is the story of Stax Records, one of the greatest independent labels in the history of the music industry. The label was started by a brother and sister team- Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton. They bought an old movie theater at McLemore and College Avenues in Memphis, and turned it into a recording studio and record store, planning to record country music. Soon, musicians from the neighborhood started coming by and writing and recording some of the greatest soul and funk music ever heard. The part of the story that was most astounding was that in racially charged Memphis in the 60’s, nobody cared if you were black or white- only if you could write and play! “We didn’t see color, we just saw talent,” was Estelle’s recollection of her protégés.
Many times backed by the “house band” which became Booker T and the MG’s and scored many #1 hits of their own, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas and Carla Thomas recorded the alternative sound track of soul (Motown was the other side of the coin). Many of the songs were written by the songwriting team of David Porter and Issac Hayes, who went on to become a great star in his own right. Atlantic Records started to distribute their music, and eventually screwed them out of all of their songs.
So, under the direction of Al Bell, who started out as the promotion director, and eventually became a co-owner, they started over. He pushed Issac Hayes to record his own stuff (Huge hits) and started producing movies, also releasing the soundtracks (Most notably Shaft). He found a gospel group named the Staples Singers, signed and recorded them, and brought them to the world.
So, after I post this, I will head downtown to photograph Mavis Staples. I will be thinking about all of the history of this great label while I am watching a great singer perform.