In 1961, amateur country fiddle player Jim Stewart and his sister, Estelle Axton, proprietor of Satellite Record Shop, launched a recording company in Memphis, Tenn. Jim had an ear for music; Estelle knew her customers and knew what would sell. Soon, musicians like Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper and Donald "Duck" Dunn--the core of Booker T and the MGs--moved from hanging out at Satellite to recording for Stax, and the label eventually took off on a 15-year run feeding the musical soul of black America--a run as unlikely to be born in the center of the country as it was from the talents of two middle-class white siblings.
In Respect Yourself, lifelong Memphian Robert Gordon (author of the Muddy Waters biography Can't Be Satisfied) chronicles the exciting rise and ugly fall of his hometown music giant with a historian's rigor, a journalist's persistence, a filmmaker's scope and a musician's swing. When he describes the Stax sound as coming from "the thick funk of Memphis swamp," you know he's been there.
While Gordon's documentary film (also titled Respect Yourself) is full of great Stax music, the book provides much more detail about the key players and events in the label's history, along with the role of the notoriously segregated Memphis in the civil rights movement. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in the city in 1968, Stax recording star Otis Redding had just died; soon after, when their distribution relationship with Atlantic Records ended, they lost the rights to their backlog of hit records. As Gordon puts it: "In a state of shock, Stax was a body going cold."
But Stax still had Al Bell, a former DJ who joined Estelle and Jim as a promoter and eventually became the label's vice-president. He began rebuilding the Stax catalogue, a process that accelerated after he bought out Estelle. One of the key elements of the label's rebirth was Isaac Hayes: his breakout album Hot Buttered Soul and then the soundtrack to the hit movie Shaft brought in much-needed revenue. With early Stax stars Eddie Floyd and Rufus Thomas still around, and the newly signed Staples Singers topping pop charts, Bell was able to get a new national distribution deal for Stax, this time with Columbia Records, but the business ultimately unraveled in a series of lawsuits and financial scandals.
Respect Yourself is a prototypical American bootstrap story of poverty, race, music, money and greed. But it is also a story of "shifting the paradigm, breaking the covenant, pursuing the dream... riffing, an economic jam session, a socioeconomic symphony... determined to reach the next eight bars." --Bruce Jacobs
Shelf Talker: Memphis native Gordon explores the rise and fall of the legendary Stax Records label during the turbulent civil rights movement.