Music: Tall Stax

Soul legends talk about the past and future of Stax Records

Apr 18, 2007 at 2:06 pm

Isaac Hayes says Stax was "a lot of work and a lot of fun."

Guitarist Steve Cropper doesn't especially enjoy talking about "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay," the song he wrote with Otis Redding just before the singer perished in an airplane crash in 1967. It just brings back sad memories of that time.

"I don't reminisce about it," Cropper said recently. "I get asked about it a lot. It's, I guess, probably the toughest job of my whole life ... fixing that record, and they still hadn't found Otis yet. That was tough. I'm not even sure why I said yes. They called and said, 'We've got to get a record out on Otis real quick. What have you got?' Well in our mind, the way he left me, it was the only thing we had at the time we knew was a hit, '(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay.'

"I started that on a Tuesday morning, put it on a plane on Wednesday and they still had not found Otis' body. They didn't find him until that Friday, I think. So that was a tough time. It's not always fun to reminisce about 'Dock of the Bay.' "

Fortunately, that's one of Cropper's few sad memories from his years working for Stax Records. Last month, the guitarist, along with several other notable Stax alumni — singers Isaac Hayes, Eddie Floyd, William Bell, bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn and long-time label publicist Deanie Parker — gathered inside a small club in Austin, Tex., during the South By Southwest music conference to talk about all things Stax as they marked the 50th anniversary of the legendary label and its return to active duty after a recent purchase by the Concord Music Group.

Later that night they reunited with keyboardist Booker T. Jones for a special Stax reunion concert at Austin's famous Blues club, Antone's. Several of the participants expressed a bit of amazement at the lasting impact of the label, which until now had been closed for nearly 30 years.

"I didn't think I would still be here," Floyd said, as he pondered the idea of a 50th anniversary of Stax. "But I think it's great. It's fantastic."

Stax certainly earned its lasting place in music annals as home to hit-makers such as Redding, Hayes, Floyd, Sam & Dave, Johnnie Taylor and Carla Thomas, artists who pioneered Soul music and recorded with one of the most famous and admired studio groups of the Rock era, Booker T & The MGs. The sound that came out of the label's studio in Memphis was so distinctive that it came to be known as its own genre: Stax Soul.

The lasting legacy of the label is celebrated on a two-CD box set, Stax 50: A 50th Anniversary Celebration, the first collection to include all of Stax's major hits. This means Soul music fans will find tracks like "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay" and "I've Been Loving You Too Long" (both by Redding), Floyd's "Knock on Wood," Hayes' "Theme From Shaft" and Sam & Dave's "Hold On I'm Comin'."

The profound impact of Stax occurred primarily during a period that lasted less than a decade. The label was founded in 1957 by Jim Stewart, and in its late '60s heyday Stax and Motown Records stood as the two leading labels giving African-American artists a chance to reach not only the R&B audience but to cross over to Pop as well.

But by 1973, the glory days of Stax were over. By that time, Stewart had sold the label to Gulf & Western, and a series of tragedies had struck the heart of Stax, beginning with the Redding plane crash.

Then came the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis — the very hotel where Cropper and other Stax artists often went to write the hit songs that defined the label. The murder ignited racial tensions in Memphis that reverberated profoundly through Stax, which had been racially integrated throughout its glory years.

By 1970, Jones and Cropper had left Stax, leaving the label without two of the key architects of its sound. A bad distribution deal, ill-advised investments in side ventures and an expensive signing of teen singer Lena Zavaroni — a flop that cost millions — were among the final setbacks that led to the demise of Stax in 1976.

Cropper, Hayes and Floyd mostly remember the good times, which by all accounts were never in short supply.

"It was a work ethic, but we had fun while we worked," Hayes said. "It was a lot work and a lot of fun. A lot of fun."

Cropper, who went on to enjoy success as a producer and session musician after his Stax days, can tell stories for hours about the writing and recording of the label's hit songs. After all, along with Floyd, Hayes and David Porter, he was one of Stax's principal songwriters and a key producer for the label.

Floyd, who made "Knock on Wood" his signature hit, remembered writing the song during a rainy, stormy Memphis night.

"We came up with the title of it first, and Steve started playing a lot of the changes," Floyd recalled. "He actually took, and I didn't know it at that time, (but he) turned 'In the Midnight Hour,' turned the chords around in reverse, and that's 'Knock on Wood.' So getting the lyrics together, I told him the story about being from Montgomery, Ala., and how the storms are — thunder and lightning and so frightening you'd hide under the bed.

"(Cropper said,) 'That's it. It's like thunder, lightning, the way you love me is frightening/ I better (Floyd knocks five times on the table at which he was seated) knock on wood.' "

Whether Concord's reactivation of the new Stax label will create more indelible hits for the label remains an open question. Concord plans a variety of releases from the Stax vault, the first of which is a stirring live CD from Johnnie Taylor, Live at the Summit Club.

The label has signed a few artists to make new CDs, including Angie Stone and Hayes, who has been making considerable progress in recovering from a January 2006 stroke and has returned to performing.

Cropper is reserving judgment on the new Stax but hopes Concord will remain true to the label's legacy.

"We'll wait and see," he said. "Obviously we're very proud that somebody has taken it upon themselves to promote it and put it together. I think it's a great idea. It's fantastic. In my mind, as long as it lives up to its name and its heritage, then fine." ©