The opening of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis this week marks the celebration of a legendary record label that did much more than simply record music.
An integrated company in a largely segregated industry, Stax gave us great dance records and soulful ballads, but also offered a soundtrack for a changing society.
The same company that gave us “Green Onions” also delivered the Staple Singers’ inspirational “Respect Yourself.” The same label that moved us with “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” launched a subsidiary called Respect to issue recordings with social and political content, beginning with “I Am Somebody,” an album by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Today, when many of America’s best-selling songs are rap, hip-hop or pop recorded by African-Americans, it’s easy to forget that popular music was once as racially divided as our society, and that it took record companies like Stax and Motown to help break down the barriers.
More than a half-century ago, rhythm and blues songs recorded by black artists were tellingly labeled as “race records” and were not played on mainstream pop radio. The advent of rock ’n’ roll and more suggestive rhythm and blues led to a significant backlash against the music by 1954.
An editorial in the September 1954 issue of Billboard magazine urged the recording industry to “control the dimwits” and tone down the music in order to avoid a government crackdown.
“The best type of control is self-imposed,” the industry magazine said. “This truism has special and current reference to the rhythm and blues field, where a number of disk manufacturers – by overstepping propriety and good taste – have already precipitated legislative intervention.”
Even radio stations with predominantly black audiences had second thoughts about playing what was regarded as suggestive R&B. In 1954, Memphis radio station WDIA compiled a list of 25 songs that it regarded as unfit for airplay, including the Drifters’ “Honey Love” and several songs by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. The station said it was declaring some songs unfit for broadcast “in the interest of good citizenship, for the protection of morals and our American way of life.”
Some of the objections to the music were, in fact, about the music. At other times, they were clearly about race.
In 1956, the city of El Monte, Calif., banned teen dances. The American Civil Liberties Union objected, arguing that racism was at the root of the ban and noting “evidence that the objection to the music extends to and may be based upon the fact that it is largely the product of Negro bands,” according to the book Anti-Rock: The Opposition to Rock 'N' Roll by Linda Martin and Kerry Segrave.
While R&B was certainly commercial and catching on with young people, many radio programmers in the 1950s were reluctant to play the original recordings by black artists. What else would explain why Pat Boone’s version of “Tutti Frutti” was a bigger hit than the original recording by Little Richard?
But increasingly, American teens began to demand the real thing. Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley were among those who wrote and successfully recorded their own material. This set the stage for Stax and others to record a generation of black artists throughout the 1960s and ’70s.
Stax and Motown were not overtly political record companies, but their visibility affected our entire society. There couldn’t be “race records” when people of all races loved and admired Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye.
When those companies used their music to say something about society, it was a bonus.
At Stax, the Staple Singers – long proponents of using music to make a difference – found a receptive home. “The songwriters at Stax knew we were doing protest songs,” Mavis Staples told Rob Bowman, the author of Soulsville U.S.A.
“We had made a transition back there in the ’60s with Dr. King. We visited Dr. King’s church in Montgomery before the movement actually got started. When we heard Dr. King preach, we went back to the motel and had a meeting. Pop said, ‘Now if he can preach this, we can sing it,’" Staples said.
The music of Stax and other pioneering companies broke down barriers in ways legislation alone could never do. When free speech comes with a rhythm section, we’re all the better for it.