Scholar Mark Anthony Neal Discusses the Birth of Stax Records
Issue   |   Tue, 04/10/2018 - 22:46

Charles Hamilton Houston Visiting Scholar Mark Anthony Neal gave a talk titled “Love in the Stax: Death, Loss and Resurrection in Post-King Memphis” on Thursday, April 5 in the Center for Humanistic Inquiry. The event was hosted by the black studies department and supported by the Charles Hamilton Houston Lecture Fund.

Neal is a professor of African-American studies at Duke University, and has published several books including “Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities.” He also writes about black culture on his website “NewBlackMan (in Exile)” and hosts a weekly webcast called “Left of Black.”

Neal’s recent research includes examining black culture in digital archives. “In order to find blackness in the [digital] archive you have to know certain kinds of things, you have to have certain kinds of access to cultural DNA,” he said as he began his talk. Through his research, Neal began exploring the archives surrounding Stax, a Memphis-based record label founded in 1957, that focused on releasing the music of black artists throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

To frame the story of Stax, Neal began with the deaths of two prominent black figures in the 1960s: Otis Redding in 1967, and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Neal played Stax artist William Bell’s song “A Tribute to a King” for the audience to establish this connection.“Listen, people, listen, I’m gonna sing you a song, about a man who lived good, but didn’t live too long,” William Bell sings.

Neal said that the song’s deceptive title leads many to assume that Bell’s song was about King. In actuality, the song chronicles the life of Redding. Neal wanted to depict what Memphis and Stax thought about Otis Redding, setting the basis for the story of Stax.“Love in the Stax charged a transition moment of one of the defining brands of black cultural production of the late 1960s and 1970s, a transition that occurred in the midst of tragedy, loss, portrayal and what might be described as post-apocalyptic Memphis,” Neal said.

The name Stax came from a combination of its founders’ last names, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton. According to Neal, the label hit its peak between 1962 and 1967, signing classic soul artists like Carla Thomas, Booker T. and the M.G.’s and Otis Redding.

Stewart and Axton viewed their label as producing “authentic black music,” with many of their artists “embodying the de-segregationist impulse being demanded on the streets of Memphis,” and the label “[symbolizing] racial integration,” Neal said.

Stax was able to rise to national attention through a distribution deal with Atlantic Records in 1968 and a new co-owner, Al Bell. Alongside this landmark deal, however, Stax needed to confront several other issues. Within a couple of years, Stax dealt with the death of artists like Otis Redding and members of the Bar-Kays. Additionally, when Warner Brothers bought Atlantic Records, Stax was forced to forfeit their entire archive to Atlantic.

Shortly after Stax lost its artists and its archive, King was assassinated in Memphis. This combination of tragedy, Neal said, was as an immense loss for the people of Memphis. Nonetheless, Neal then focused his talk on the rebuilding of the Stax archive post-1968.

Al Bell introduced a new strategy to rebuild Stax: “buying the archives on unreleased material, aggressively signing new acts … [expanding] the breadth of the brand beyond traditional Southern soul and blues and [implementing] an ambitious plan to introduce a new product, ‘soul explosion,’” Neal said.

“Part of [Al] Bell’s efforts to rebuild the archive was to expand the narrative ranges and sonic ranges of black music in the era,” Neal said, “He curated a sound of black power.”

Neal then played the music Stax released after 1968, including songs from several different genres ranging from soul to gospel. Some of these songs were Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y,” Otis Redding’s “These Arms Are Mine” and Rufus Thomas’ “Walking the Dog.”

After playing these songs, Neal concluded the talk by saying that the “ultimate story is on one hand the devaluation of black music and the ability to rethink about how to rebuild that value by thinking more actively and broadly about the archive.”

The talk then opened up to a Q&A session, in which the audience asked questions concerning gender and Stax’s lack of modern-day fame.

Caryce Tirop ’17, who attended the event, enjoyed the use of history and archives to understand black culture. “As a historian, I am always excited by the possibilities of using different sources to write histories and this talk was really important for that conversation,” she said. “These archives allow us to highlight new narratives, make connections between events that seem disconnected, and finally understand contemporary cultural production and happenings.”