2. Respect Yourself by Robert Gordon
I also finished Respect Yourself, Robert Gordon’s excellent new book about “Stax Records and the Soul Explosion.” Gordon is the lord protector of Memphis’ musical history and heritage (click here to see my thoughts on his 1995 book, It Came From Memphis, which includes a helpful comment from the man himself), and he has done an incredibly thorough job of researching the history of the Stax label.
This is the third book that I’ve read that addresses the rise and fall of Stax (the others being Soulsville, U.S.A.by Rob Bowman and Sweet Soul Music by Peter Guralnick, both excellent), and I felt that the first half of the book covered familiar ground. It’s an well-known story, but, Jesus, what a story it is! The way that Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton created an internationally-influential label out of a forgotten movie theater on the south side of Memphis and turned out so much amazing music is miraculous, and a miraculous thing to read–even for the third time.
The second half of the book, however, was more eye-opening. Gordon delves into the business blunders of the Al Bell era without blinking. There was violence, intimidation, foolish deals, misappropriation, payola, and graft taking place in the name of Stax, even as Isaac Hayes and Johnny Taylor were topping the charts. He pays particular attention to the shady business practices of Johnny Baylor, who used manipulation and strong-arm tactics to keep Stax records spinning in radio stations and record stores, but whose influence was a significant factor in the label’s demise.
Respect Yourself is often a heartbreaking book. Especially harrowing is the section concerning the death of Otis Redding and five of the Bar-Kays ensemble. There are plenty of villains in these pages–from Jerry Wexler to Union Planters to CBS records–and the anxiety that picks up at the midpoint of the story never relaxes until the miserable denouement, when Al Bell is led from the Stax studio at gunpoint.
Most impressively, though, Gordon couches the successes and failures of the label within the historical context of Memphis. In this way, Respect Yourself would appeal to anyone with an interest in twentieth-century history in general and the Civil Rights Era in particular. This one is not just for music buffs.