The meshing of social history and musical detail is a cornerstone of ethnomusicology (see Society and Soundscape, and cf. What is serious music?!). To follow my paeans to Stuart Cosgrove’s Detroit 67 and Young soul rebels, every bit as enthralling is his
- Memphis 68: the tragedy of southern soul (2018),
by turns passionate and dispassionate. Working month by month through 1968, the short chapters, with their snappy titles, unveil a wealth of insightful vignettes, showing a real feel for the streets and for the dazzling cast of troubled musicians in search of stardom, social justice, or just struggling to survive. Cosgrove’s vivid descriptions make one reach for YouTube—so below I complement my introduction with some of the many tracks he evokes so well.
The story hinges on Stax Records, the civil rights movement, the assassination of Martin Luther King on 4th April 1968, and increasingly violent protests. Vietnam, and the obdurate Memphis city mayor Henry Loeb, also loom large. Stax has already been the subject of several studies, such as Rob Bowman, Soulsville U.S.A. (1997) and Robert Gordon, Respect yourself (2013), as well as several documentaries.
Cosgrove’s opening chapter, “Roosevelt Jamison’s blood bank”, segues seamlessly from the segregationist rules for blood donation to Jamison’s thriving sideline nurturing soul bands.
- James Carr, The dark end of the street (1967):
In Hank Cherry’s words, Carr “dove into his own embattled soul and pulled from the painful reaches of his psyche”. Another star discovered by Jamison was O.V. Wright, who had a series of hits, including
- A nickel and a nail (1971):
The brilliant Otis Redding was only 26 when he was killed in a plane crash late in 1967, along with the Bar-Kays. Sittin’ on the dock of the bay was posthumously released on 8th January 1968:
Unlike the more controlled Motown system, or, more famously, the Hollywood studio system, Stax was informal, haphazard, and collegiate.
The company, “an oasis of racial sanity”, smashed through segregationist rules. Its (white) owners were Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton; the school system produced a wealth of black talent. The Bar-Kays were educated at the Booker T. Washington High School in South Memphis, still almost entirely black, “informal academy of southern soul”. Stax prodigies Booker T. Jones (no relation!) and the M.G.’s had a hit with the instrumental Green onions as early as 1962:
Another senior mentor was sax player, bandleader, and studio boss Willie Mitchell. At first Stax had a mutually beneficial relationship with Atlantic Records in New York and its “emperor” Jerry Wexler. Among the performers Atlantic sent to Memphis were Wilson Pickett and Don Covay, as well as Sam and Dave—all of whom were volatile and hard to work with.
- Mustang Sally (1965):
- Hold on, I’m coming (1966):
But then came the break with Atlantic, as they came under the wing of Warner Brothers—which soon ensnared Stax in knotty legal disputes with a soulless conglomerate.
As young black musicians returned from Vietnam—such as John Gary Williams, a member of the Mad Lads—a group of activists called the Memphis Invaders led student unrest, closely watched by the FBI.
- James Brown, Say it loud I’m black and proud:
A lengthy garbage workers’ strike—publicised by WDIA, the voice of black Memphis, and supported by charismatic ministers—came to the attention of Martin Luther King. He arrived in Memphis on 28th March as another violent protest march was under way. In successive chapters Cosgrove tells the story of the murky chain of events surrounding King’s assassination on 4th April.
Dr King’s supporters point in the direction of the shooting.
King had checked into the Lorraine Motel, where Stax regularly put up visiting black singers. Sax player Ben Branch was due to give a fundraising concert that night, and just before the shooting King addressed his last words to him from the balcony:
“I want you to play Take my hand Precious Lord, Ben—play it real pretty, sweeter than you’ve ever played it before.”
The inner cities now erupted.
King was among those religious men torn by a “civil war inside”, captivated by sex and love, revealed in the tension between sacred and profane, gospel and blues. Bettye Crutcher was a gifted composer of candid songs about betrayal and infidelity, including
- Johnnie Taylor, Who’s making love:
Stax, hitherto a model of racial harmony, was polarised by King’s death, with black activists increasingly concerned to claim equal rights.
Like Miles Davis, Booker T. Jones had chosen popular music over the orchestral world. He made his name on the Hammond B-3 organ, taking it beyond gospel towards rock and soul. Ironically, while working on the soundtrack for Jules Dassin’s political movie Uptight (watch here), he escaped the turmoil of Memphis to fly to Paris for a round of post-production, only to witness the May riots there.
Cosgrove gives an aside on “black bohemian” Melvin Peebles and his Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss song, whose soundtrack was also taken up by Stax. Isaac Hayes, who had assumed the persona of Black Moses after his album Hot buttered soul, went on to win an Oscar for Shaft (playlist here), his extravagant stardom playing a major role in Stax’s later travails.
More socially engaged than the “bubblegum soul” of Motown, Stax was rebuilt by Al Bell after the fall-out with Atlantic, aiming at the new market for albums. Another hit single of this period was
- William Bell and Judy Clay, Private number:
The 1972 Wattstax festival, “the Black Woodstock”, with Isaac Hayes heading the bill, was immortalised in a film—here’s a trailer:
Young mother Juanita Miller led a Poor People’s March by mule train on Washington DC, which turned out less to be far less successful than Martin Luther King’s vision, ending in disarray.
- The Staple Singers, Long Walk to DC:
As black power became more militant, Cosgrove introduces Dino Woodard, a “devout brute” who served as security guard and enforcer for Stax. With his fellow hardman Johnny Baylor he propelled Luther Ingram to stardom:
- (If loving you is wrong) I don’t want to be right (1972):
After Vietnam and some time in prison, John Gary Williams went on to reflect the changing times with The whole damn world is going crazy (1973):
The Black Power movement spread to the 1968 Olympics. Athlete Bill Hurd, from Memphis, narrowly missed selection. He was also a sax player brought up in the jazz and the marching band tradition of Manassas High School, where he was trained by Emerson Able—as was jazz pianist Phineas Newborn Jr, “the greatest soul musician that never was”. Newborn also passed through the Plantation Inn, another cradle for soul, whose house band were Ben Branch and the Largos. * Meanwhile Bill Hurd retired from athletics and became a successful opthalmologist, travelling internationally; later he reconnected with his fellow students at Manassas High to record soul albums.
Also visiting Memphis in 1968 was Mahalia Jackson, who remained faithful to her gospel roots at a time when many singers were crossing over to pop and soul. Of course, like the church, the gospel scene was far from pure, with “religious parasites, false preachers, and furious commercialism”. The battle between sacred and profane was again in evidence. Jackson’s Glori-fied Chicken franchise, part of the move towards black-owned businesses, had a branch at Stax corner. Here she is singing Take my hand precious Lord at King’s Atlanta memorial service:
This leads Cosgrove to feature the songs of Ann Peebles, such as I can’t stand the rain:
and Margie Joseph, whose reworking of Stop! In the name of love, with its introductory rap, was influential:
By December, Memphis “had been battered by a divisive rage that few cities in the world could survive, yet it not only survived, it thrived and expanded”.
Meanwhile, FWIW, white stars were making the pilgrimage too. Dusty Springfield (white only reluctantly) came to record an album—although she ended up recording the vocals in New York. Elvis showed up, recording a comeback TV show with a strong Memphis element. Janis Joplin, who also idolised the Memphis sound, did a misconceived gig there with the local regulars. She turned up for Jim Stewart’s Christmas party, “one of the most bizarre events in the history of soul music”. The following November, strung out on heroin, she joined the tragic 27 Club. (The lure of Memphis has persisted—among later pilgrims, on a quest for blues rather than soul, was alternative Chinese singer/novelist Liu Sola).
The Bar-Kays re-formed, reinventing themselves as pioneers of street funk. On stage with Isaac Hayes at the Tiki Club they broke new ground in an innovative cover of By the time I get to Phoenix, with a rap intro—“a mesmerising piece of soul alchemy that took classic Nashville and reimagined it as Memphis soul”. Here they are in the version on the visionary Hot buttered soul album, all 19 minutes of it:
With the obvious exception of jazz, most forms of popular black music had been constrained by the needs of commercialism and the demands of radio stations. Motown had perfected telling stories of teenage love in under three minutes, and not until Hayes broke the mould had any soul artist ever dared to extend songs or disrupt the rules of the marketplace.
In an Epilogue Cosgrove ponders reasons for the “banal and ignominious” demise of Stax records in the 70s: expanding too far from the centre (“like many a dying empire”), bruised by rash financial dealings, and over-indulgence.
* Like Charlie Parker, Newborn spent periods in Camarillo State Mental Hospital—cf. Bellevue in New York, among whose inmates were artists such as Leadbelly, Mingus, and Dusty.