HBO Documentary Films is in the process of producing a multi-part docuseries on the meteoric rise and fall of the legendary Memphis rooted record label Stax Records. Among the stars featured will be Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding and the Staple Singers, and other artists who dominated music charts in the 1960s and early 1970s. The series will also feature rare and never-before-seen archive material as well as delve into how musical traditions, race, geography, and record industry challenges helped shape the Stax spirit.
The series will be directed by Ailey filmmaker Jamila Wright and executive produced by Ezra Edelman and Caroline Waterlow, “OJ: Made in America.” Rob Bowman, author of “Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records, ” will serve as a documentary consultant.
Edelman released a statement saying, “In both the sound that fueled its rise and the events that triggered its demise, Stax Records manifested the soul of America. There is no better person to bring this quintessentially American story to HBO viewers than Jamila Wignot, whose work I’ve long admired.”
“As a lifelong fan of Stax Records, what has most inspired me about the label is its defiance,” Wignot added. “The individuals who built Stax knew their worth and had a willingness to risk everything to make something on their own terms.”
Also known as “Soulsville USA,” the label was founded by Jim Stewart, a country music fan, who started the company as Satellite Records in 1957, co-owned by sibling Estell Axton and later led by Al Bell. Exton mortgaged her house to help afford recording equipment. The sister and brother team took over an old movie theater in Memphis with plans to turn it into a recording studio and discovered a roster filled with R&B acts. Soon afterward, they released Rufus & Carla’s “Cause I Love You” before having changed the label’s name to Stax in 1961 and signing a distribution deal with Atlantic Records. Al Bell joined in 1965 and became co-owner in 1969 after Axton grew unhappy with her brother’s vision for the company.
Things only grew worse from there. The label had a track of phenomenal record sales, but after Redding’s fatal plane crash in 1967 and the revelation of Stewart’s distribution deal switch and disastrous deal in giving over ownership of his masters, setbacks quickly followed, and the label never reached the same success as its rival – Motown.
In 1972, Staxx organized “Wattstax,” a benefit concert commemorating the 7th anniversary of the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles, and was filmed for a seminal documentary. Some of the performers included Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, and a young Richard Pryor. In 2020, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
The year 1972 was also the beginning of Stax’s initial decline and unfortunately, somewhere around 1975-1976, the label was forced into bankruptcy. The last hit record for Stax was the 1974 song “Woman to Woman by Shirley Brown.
Al Bell saw his share of personal troubles. He was arrested and indicted for bank fraud but acquitted of the charges in 1976. And yet, the Stax “sound” lives on.
Photo: Otis Redding (public domain)