Black History Month – The 1960s

By Perry Timms

The 1960s

Part 2


Whilst we covered Detroit in our first post, we move to the South of the USA for this second post. Memphis, Tennessee to be precise. The home of Graceland and Elvis Presley pilgrimages. Talking of Mr Presley, I have it on good authority that Elvis’s favourite singer was Roy Hamilton. An African-American soul/jazz singer most people have never heard of.


This leads to the links between Caucasian-White and African-American Black citizens in making music. And the bizarre anomaly of multi-racial groups. In Memphis, as part of the Stax Record Label, we saw one of the world’s first big-selling multi-racial groups – Booker T and the MGs (MG standing for Memphis Group). You might have seen some of this group as The Band in the iconic Blues Brothers movie in the 1980s.


Al Jackson Jnr, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Steve Cropper and the band leader keyboard maestro Booker T. Jones – the “house band” for the Memphis-based Stax label. 


A label that was started by a white Brother and Sister Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, recording executives who bought the disused Capitol Theatre in Memphis and turned it into a recording studio and HQ. And signed a roster of almost exclusively African-American artists and performers and the multi-racial MGs and Mar-Keys backing them all.


Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Carla Thomas, Eddie Floyd, William Bell & Judy Clay, Sam & Dave – more legends of the 1960s music scene – albeit somewhat in the shadow of Detroit’s Motown ubiquity.


Yet Stax had something different to Motown and other labels. A gritty, earthiness to it. A favouring of a big horn section, more bluesy content, and stable or writers (the aforesaid Isaac Hayes, David Porter, Otis Redding, Steve Cropper and Booker T Jones in particular) who gave us Soul Man, B-A-B-Y, Respect, Knock On Wood and more iconic moments that would make this post purely a list of brilliance.


What was unique about Stax as a business was its affiliations. With Jerry Drexler’s much larger Atlantic record label for distribution and its use of their studios and writers to grace that bigger audience and opportunity. Stax had a feeling, a vibe, an groundedness that others utilised. And instead of owning it all themselves, Jim and Estelle affiliated. Creating a bigger legacy and movement of music that pushed soul music from the 1960s hotbed of rhythms to the 1970s emergence of more sophisticated, orchestrated moments. Isaac Hayes’s outputs of the 1970s bear testimony to that influence the funk era and the hip-hop moments in the 1980s and 1990s with the advent of sampling (The Wu-Tang Clan’s hit C.R.E.A.M. samples The Charmels “As Long As I Have You” as just one example).


Whilst much of the 1960s pop music and soul genre is dominated by Gordy’s Motown empire, the Stax sound has a strong place in soul music aficionados for its realness. No chart-friendly productions, but real, earthy R&B. Personified by Redding, Thomas and Floyd.


By the early 1970s though, the world was in love with prog-rock, disco and the sounds of Memphis were withering on the record playing radio stations and buying public. And yet the Blues Brothers movie proved what an enduring sound it had. With I Can’t Turn You Loose (one of Otis Redding’s biggest hits) being the instrumental entry to Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi’s characters, the legacy really did live on beyond the eventual closure of this once great bastion and collection of real soul music.


The Stax Studios is now – like its Motown counterpart in Detroit – a museum and a pilgrimage to thousands whose lives have been touched by the music, writing and performing of these iconic heroes. Whereas Motown declared itself Hitsville USA, Stax was somewhat defiant to its core and used the phrase Soulsville USA. To those that know, that’s pretty telling.


The perhaps ironic element to this post around Black History month is the founder figures of this black music legend were white middle-class Americans. Who just happened to realise the talent of their African-American citizens and colleagues showing a perfect racial harmony in a performing, business and movement sense. Ironically in the deeply segregated South of the USA just around the time of the Civil Rights Movement marching in Alabama and being written into American constitutional law.


Jim and Estelle provided the platform for a truly integrated and integral part of the heritage that is Music of Black Origin. 


Its now-iconic logo beautifully sums up the sentiment behind the label: Finger-clickin’ good.