Black Music: Business Challenges

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Music History

In 1967, singer Otis Redding’s fans enjoyed a song by the Dixie crooner  that began with the lyrics: Sittin' in the morning sun,  I'll be sittin' when the evening comes, Watching the ships roll in,  Then I watch 'em roll away again, yeah,  I'm sittin' on the dock of the bay..

The song, “Sitting in the Dock of the Bay,” was not descriptive of his life as one of Stax Records major recording stars during the tumultuous sixties and seventies.

Redding was not a spectator in the musical era of his time—he innovated, cajoled not just for romance, but for revival of spirits.           

Redding died tragically in 1967 in a plane crash as his star had risen as a major player in the music industry; at the time of his demise he was the leading entertainer of a recording label whose history captured U.S. musical, political, and economic upheavals during racially tense times that contrasted with rising interest in Black music.

This complex story is told in a new Channel Thirteen/WNET New York presentation of  Great Performances which tells the story of two white southerners who bought an abandoned movie theatre in Memphis, Tennessee which hosted history in the voices of Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Booker T. Jones and the Reverend Jesse Jackson. The piece airs in New York City on August 1 and repeats many times in other cities.

Called “Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story,” the television biography is ably narrated by premier actor Samuel L. Jackson, and attempts to detail the rich and complex history of a record label, which fell prey to its rich burden of catering to artistic egos but of acquiring legal and financial sophistication in corporate America.

The piece aired in New York City on August 1 and repeats many times in other cities.

Stax Records began in the late fifties with the savings of a white brother and sister team, Jim Stuart and his sister Estelle Axton.  These two novices knew almost nothing about soul music, but they prided themselves upon being concerned with musical tones, not skin tones, in a city where the races were divided even in cemeteries. Soul artists like Rufus Thomas came for opportunity.

In a the first of many corporate entanglements which caused the waters to rise over the dock where Redding and other Stax artists sat, the management of the Memphis label were astonished to learn that that their distribution deal with Atlantic gave distribution rights of all Stax releases to Atlantic for five years.

But the management of Stax was determined to rise again. They began to scour for new talent. Johnny Taylor’s hit, “Whose Making Love to Your Old Lady,” coupled with Isaac Hayes’s “Hot Buttered Soul” to attract revenues.

Once again, corporate America came calling—this time in the form of Clive Davis, head of Columbia Records who promised to get Stax product in the white suburban markets. But Davis was replaced in 1973 because of tax evasion charges. Stax was left hanging after Davis’ departure.

Isaac Hayes was asked to write what became the first Black Academy Award winning score for the movie Shaft, co-production arrangements with the Reverend Jesse Jackson and comedian Richard Pryor expanded Sax’s exposure into new venues. But despite these successes a confused jumble of financial irregularities, mismanagement, and internal friction attacked Stax’s stability.

In1975, the door of the historic site of Soulsville, USA was closed in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings. Although the building now houses a school for upcoming musicians and a museum of the Stax legacy. Its walls contain much food for thought for the next crop of musical talents. Stax never realized that the music industry giants needed them more than they needed the corporate backing.

By mid 1974, it was the fifth biggest Black-owned business in America. In the throes of internal and external confusion, the label continued to produce first-rate product by the likes of the Staple Singers, Johnnie Taylor, Isaac Hayes and Luther Ingram.

Despite music executive Al Bell’s active support of causes in the Black community like Operation Push, the Free Angela Davis Movement, the real message of economic and social development may have escaped him—responsible management and control of one’s fiscal assets and human capital may be the most lasting building block to watch the rising sun and the tides of change.

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