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The rise and fall of Stax Recording Studio and how it reinvented itself In Memphis

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (localmemphis.com) – When you think of Memphis, you think of music, especially back in the 1960s and 1970s when Stax Records was in its pri...

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (localmemphis.com) – When you think of Memphis, you think of music, especially back inthe 1960s and 1970s when Stax Records was in its prime.

Nestledin South Memphis, Stax Recording Studio on East McLemore recorded hits likeOtis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” and Sam and Dave’s“Hold On, I’m Coming.” Although the record company launched thecareers of many successful artists, it struggled financially, eventually filingChapter 11 Bankruptcy in 1975.

“Ourfirst official recording there was in 1967,” said James Alexander, anoriginal member of the Bar-Kays.

Borndirectly across the street from Stax Records, Alexander was in high school whenhe joined the band The Bar-Kays.

“Inthose days, if a company was interested in a group, they would come in and havethem audition live. So we went to Stax – Steve Cropper was the A&Rguy,” Alexander said.

AlthoughCropper turned down the band twice, when Jim Stewart, the President of StaxRecords heard them, he wanted to hear more.

“Wehooked our equipment up and we played something for him – and as we wereplaying, he said,’ what’s that? And we just shrugged our shoulders and said ‘Idon’t know what that is.’ And he said ‘whatever it is, keep what you got rightthere’,” Alexander said. “He ran up in the control room and 30minutes later we had a song called Soul Finger. That’s how our career started,just like that.”

That’show many Stax success stories from 1960s to 1975 started. Jim Stewart createdthe company and asked his sister Estelle Axton to partner with him. Yearslater, after struggling with distribution through Atlantic Records, Stewartrecruited popular disk jockey, Al Bell.

“Hesaid, ‘well we are $90,000 in the hole and we are about to go under and what weneed is sales, we need play, etc. and you can do it’,”  Al Bell,Former Producer and Executive at Stax Records.

Bellhad proven himself as a distributor in major markets like Washington, D.C. Heled radio promotion at Stax before becoming part owner.

“Thetwo key writers at that time were Issac Hayes and David Porter. They couldlisten to an artist and hear the unique and the gift in that artist,” Bellsaid.

Bellalso had a relationship with the folks at Motown.

“Whenhe would tell me when the Temptations were going to be released, I would gointo those 10 markets I had a relationship and give the store owner a box of 30records for free,” Bell said. “When they come in and ask for theTemptations, while you go to look for the Temptations, play this Sam and Dave,and that’s how I would get the momentum started.”

“JohnnyTaylor, Sam and Dave, Albert King, just the emotions, the dramatics, Rufus andCarla and the turmoil that was going on racially outside of the walls of Staxwas not going on in the inside of Stax,” said Larry Dodson, former leadsinger of the Bar-Kays.

OtisRedding recruited the Bar-Kays as his band.  

“Oneof the many things we learned from Otis Redding was that you definitely need toown your own music.”

Aplane crash in 1967 claimed the lives of Reddin gand all the original membersof the Bar-Kays except Ben Cauley. James Alexander wasn’t on the privatejet.

“Ijust happened to be one of the guys on the commercial flight that day. We hadno system, it was no rhyme or reason, kind of like who wanted to do it – that’show it happened,” Alexander said.

“Theirdistribution agreement with Atlantic Records, ceased in 1968 and Stax wasforced to reinvent itself,” said Jeff Kollath, Executive Director of theStax Museum.

Stax’scontract with Atlantic Records said Atlantic owned the Masters to the albumsthey distributed and that’s when the financial problems got really bad. Thecompany was sold to entertainment group, “Gulf and Western.”

“Thatdisturbed Mrs. Axton, because Mrs. Axton had financed her home and got amortgage in order to build and move over here in this black neighborhood,”Bell said.

Ashort time later, Estelle Axton left Stax. Bills piled up and Stax executivescould not afford to pay their artists. In 1975, Stax closed its doors.

Therecord company was being house in the Old Capitol Theatre on East McLemore, butthat building would soon be demolished. Al Bell remembers that time vividly.

“I’dpark across the street and cry because I would see an empty lot with whiskeybottles on it all kind of trash on it,” Bell said.

SouthsideChurch of God and Christ bought the building from Union Planters for only $10.

“In1999, a group of former Stax musicians, employees, and local supporters andnon-profits decided to get together and form Soulsville – and that’s our parentorganization,” Kollath said.

Staxreopened as a museum in 2003, adjacent to the Stax Academy, which opened threeyears earlier.

“It’sa great tourist attraction for Memphis and people love what they see and feelin here, because it reflects what we saw and felt as we came in making thatgreat music, and it’s alive and well today,” Bell said.