May 6, 2015 by Lo
Robert Gordon, Respect Yourself
This history of Stax Records is simply a fantastic book by any standard. It’s compulsively readable, it’s painstakingly researched, and it is about a wonderful topic. It works very well on two levels: one, the personalities (on both sides of the art/business divide) that make timeless, deeply influential music at Stax from 1958 to 1975; and two, for more serious historians, the parallels between the Stax story in Memphis and the broader regional and national stories of racial oppression, unrest, and the golden years of the Civil Rights movement.
Stax is often twinned with Motown, which existed at roughly the same time (but lasted longer). Both were hugely important to the history of American music, and both maneuvered in the neutral zone between R&B, pop, rock, and funk to create new kinds of musical experiences that proved irresistibly appealing and surprisingly lasting. But there were many differences too: while black-owned Motown built an assembly line model inspired by its Detroit location, and made a successful business at the occasional expense of its artists, both their income and their creative autonomy, multiracial Stax was an artists’ label first and foremost, where creativity was king — and business often took a back seat. Otis Redding, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave, and house band Booker T and the MGs were part of a musical and social family that was all the more incredible for having been born in the heart of ultra-segregated Memphis at the damn of the 1960s. Gordon does not sugarcoat, and there is plenty of dark stuff — payola, drugs, violence, and the tragic plane crash that ended Redding’s life at age 26 — but on the whole, the Stax story is an inspiring one about how a dedicated record company can change both music history and the world itself.
For me there was an extra edge to this having been to Memphis in the 1990s to record $1.99 Romances, my first major label album, and having listened to endless stories of Memphis recording lore — stories that now make sense to me in light of Memphis native Gordon’s deep context. Along with, perhaps, the Jac Holzman/Elektra autobiography, this is probably the best book about a record label ever written.