Stax refers to the music that came out of the famous Stax record label in Memphis, Tennessee. If you think of the town’s other major musical star, Elvis Presley, and mix in a dose of Southern style then you’re not far off the essence of Stax music. The label became a powerhouse of soul and rhythm and blues music, producing record after record of soul icons and smash hits in 1960s and 70s. It turned unknown artists into major stars, creating a cultural phenomenon that still resonates in music today. With its house band, the recording studio became a community, with artists performing and writing for each other, forming a hubbub of creativity.
Sometimes soulful and pained, other times lively and jubilant, Stax music is rooted in its simplicity and groove, generating a sense of effortless cool. With songs emerging from jamming sessions, licks turned into riffs and riffs into hit records.
Despite its roots in Black American music and Southern soul, Stax Records was originally formed as Satellite Records in 1957 by a white banker named Jim Stewart. The country fiddler tried to release his own records, inspired by the success of Elvis Presley, who often performed in the Eagle’s Nest club where Stewart was in the house band. Undeterred by rejections, he set up his own label and Stax began its life. In an era where Black Civil Rights movements were at their peak, at Stax was revolutionary as ethnicity didn’t matter. Its house band were of mixed race and Stewart signed numerous black acts. As well as soul and rhythm and blues, the label also released gospel, blues, funk and jazz music, reflecting its mixing pot of styles and influences.
Cited as one of the best singers in popular music, Otis Redding’s powerful brand of rhythm and blues combined open-throated and soulful vocals with gospel cries and smooth melodies. Favouring simple lyrics and tunes, Redding’s songs were often about love. Try ‘These Arms of Mine’, ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay’ and ‘Try A Little Tenderness’.
As the house band, Booker T. and the M.G.’s were the base of the Stax sound, yet their own instrumental records are absolute gems. Summing up the genre in their bluesy, jazzy, driven grooves and riffs, the band became one of the most prolific groups of the genre. They released both covers of popular tunes and their own self-penned hits, including ‘Green Onions’, ‘Time is Tight’ and ‘Soul Limbo’ (the soundtrack to the BBC’s cricket coverage). The title for ‘Green Onions’ came from their bassist, who said that “the funkiest thing I ever heard of was onions”; he was presumably thinking of funky in the smelly, not musical, sense.
Hayes and fellow songwriter David Porter made up the Stax ‘Big 6’ with Booker T. and the M.G.s., yet he became a global icon in his own right, releasing successful solo albums Hot Buttered Soul, the soundtrack to the movie Shaft and Black Moses.
What Came Next
Stax was forced to close in 1975, existing only to produce re-issues until it was revived in 2007. It recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, re-releasing an album of highlights showcasing its rich legacy. Stax songs have been covered by the likes of Aerosmith, The Rolling Stones and R Kelly. Whether or not you’ve heard of the label, you can be sure that its music influenced what we listen to today, permeating nearly every genre.