Memphis’ Stax Records was an international sensation, putting out hits like Sam and Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming,” “Green Onions” by Booker T. and the MGs and Otis Redding‘s “Try a Little Tenderness.” But behind the music, Stax’s story features racial harmony in a city with a troubled history. There are tragedies, lost opportunities and legal disputes, but also some of the most soulful music you’ll ever hear.
It’s fitting, then, that Memphis is a main character in Robert Gordon’s book Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion. The late ‘50s and early ‘60s was an era of institutionalized segregation that filtered down to everything, including music clubs. But while white kids listening to late-night R&B on the radio could hit up a black venue, it was never the reverse unless you were in the band playing the stage. Even then, there was a separate door.
“Everything in Memphis comes down to race,” Gordon tells NPR’s Don Gonyea. “It certainly did then, and I think it still does now.”
In this interview, Gordon shares the story of the white, country-loving brother and sister from rural Tennessee who started Stax Records and “wound up making some of the most soulful, swinging music that we still listen to today.”
On Booker T and The MGs’ ‘Green Onions’
“I hear it in a way I hear the future foretold. I hear that sense of menace that underlies the city. That’s Booker’s organ there, and you can hear him kind of furtively looking around the corner — ‘Is everything OK?’ It’s a great groove here, but there’s a wariness. There’s a cultural comment going on. You can hear in [Steve Cropper’s] stinging guitar licks, the tanks that are going to roll down the streets of Memphis in 1968 when Dr. King was assassinated.
“It’s also a dance tune. That’s the great thing about it. It’s this cultural comment and you dance to it, too.”
On Stax Records as an oasis
“Stax is picking up the sound of the street and embracing it. Even though these are white people and black people making the record, there’s none of the strife that’s outside the door. Everybody I interviewed talked about Stax as an oasis. That word just recurred and recurred.”
On keeping up with Otis Redding
“I think you can get the sense from Otis Redding’s records what it was like to be around him. You get the sense that his personality was in constant conflict with his skin trying to bust out even bigger. I think about the horn players who had been accustomed to playing whole notes for a full measure at a time and Otis is leaning into their faces: ‘No, no, no! Do it like this!’ And they’re scrambling with their horns and everything. When you’re with Otis Redding, it’s all about trying to keep up with Otis Redding.”