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The record label behind Otis Redding

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The rise and fall of Stax Records, the influential but underdog label based in Memphis, is the subject of the HBO documentary “STAX: Soulsville U.S.A.” It is a story of musical genius but also racism, personal tragedies and corporate greed. In other words, American history.

In the best way possible, the four-part series from filmmaker Jamila Wignot feels like falling down a rabbit hole. When it comes to the soundtrack of the ’60s and ’70s, Motown was an essential player. But the story behind — and influence of — Stax is just as relevant.

Founded by the brother-sister team of Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, the company name was derived from the first two letters of their last names: st+ax= Stax. “We made a few country records that were bad,” Stewart says about their initial efforts in the late 1950s. Shortly thereafter, the white owners quickly shifted their focus to Black singers and songwriters including Sam & Dave (“Hold On I’m Coming”), Otis Redding (“A Little Tenderness”) and Isaac Hayes (“Theme from Shaft”) and the business took off.

In 1967, the label’s roster of talent went on a European tour and someone mentions seeing Paul McCartney in the audience at one of their shows. To her credit, Wignot doesn’t interview McCartney (or any other boldface name not involved directly with the label) and it’s the right choice; the Stax artists — and by extension this series — do not need famous admirers to validate their story or the music. The Memphis sound stands on its own. And every once in a while, Wignot lets these songs play all the way through. There’s a terrific moment where Booker T. Jones sits at the piano and walks us through his thought process as he experimented with the chord progressions that led to his famously slinky instrumental “Green Onions” in 1962. There’s also electric footage of Sam & Dave in London, and we get to see the full performance of Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” at the Monterey International Pop Festival in ’67. Their talent is thrilling. And essential to the company’s success.

A photograph featured in the documentary “STAX: Soulsville U.S.A.” is captioned as showing musicians Booker T. Jones, David Porter, Al Jackson Jr., Bonnie and Delaney Bramlett, Isaac Hayes and Steve Cropper.

Business acumen, on the other hand, wasn’t Stewart’s forte. “I wanted to go to the studio and cut records and just have fun,” he says. The company signed a deal with Atlantic early on to distribute their output and the deal would ultimately have disastrous results. Call it naiveté or call it negligence; in interviews, the elderly Stewart comes across as gentle and soft-spoken. Not the kind of shark typically associated with a music executive. (His sister died in 2004, but Wignot has unearthed archival interviews of her as well.) It was Al Bell, who began as head of promotions and eventually became co-owner, who had the corporate savvy to guide Stax through some of its toughest challenges. Due to both internal and external forces, Stax was on the brink of disaster more than once.

Racism is a constant undertow throughout the Stax story as well. It was an integrated company, but the label’s white musicians were detached from what their Black friends and colleagues were experiencing. Stewart’s anecdotes make it clear that he was uncomfortable with the harsh realities of racism, but that’s as far as his thought process goes. Bell recalls: “I remember we were leaving the studio — me and Jim and Otis Redding — and as we stepped out of the door, a police car pulled up and they jumped out with their guns.” They were informed Black people weren’t allowed on the street with white people.

“It was just too strong a system to tear down in Memphis,” Jones says. “You needed to keep your mouth shut and hope for the best — or fight.” When Black sanitation workers went on strike, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis to rally support and he stayed at the Lorraine Motel, the unofficial gathering spot for Stax musicians and where he would be gunned down in 1968.

Back at the studio, “no one talked about Dr. King’s assassination,” Jones says. “I started to, deep down, feel that something was amiss. They didn’t understand my daily life as a Black person in Memphis.” Wignot cuts to one of his white bandmates: “If they felt that way, the way they do now, why didn’t they say something then?” Jones has a reply for that: “The close relationships we had in the studio didn’t happen outside the studio. So I didn’t feel comfortable bringing up those subjects with the band.”

This suggests all kinds of tension beneath Stax’s copacetic integrated surface. It’s meaty and complicated. Stewart says that “even though we were worlds apart socially,” what they had in common was that they were “rural people with rural roots.” Even so, neither he nor his white colleagues seem to grasp how disconnected they were — perhaps still are — from the effects of racism on a person’s psyche. I also would have liked to hear more details about the nature of the contracts the musicians signed with Stax. Exploitation is not uncommon in the music industry and it feels like an omission to not ask if that was the case here.

Isaac Hayes at Wattstax 1972, Los Angeles Coliseum. Photographer Bruce W. Talamon in the lower left corner also is seen in the documentary “STAX: Soulsville U.S.A.” (Howard L. Bingham/HBO)

The story of Stax is also one that anticipates our current moment: The push for rapid growth. Many of the original personalities felt the company was no longer the homey environment it had once been. It had become too corporate and feelings were hurt, people left. Ultimately it all collapsed.

But the music remains.

“STAX: Soulsville U.S.A.” — 3 stars (out of 4)

Where to watch: 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday on HBO (and streaming on Max)

Nina Metz is a Tribune critic.



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