Book Review: Robert Gordon – Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion

Robert Gordon – Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion
(Bloomsbury, 480pp., £22.95. Book review by Chris Parker)

‘When we started, it was about family, and genius and Otis and the fun we were having – and now Paramount wants to know where we are at every hour and there’s guys walking around in the halls with guns’ – thus trumpeter Wayne Jackson on the story of Stax, the Memphis-based company that recorded the music of Booker T. and the MG’s, Otis Redding, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes, Sam and Dave and the Staple Singers. Jackson’s quote traces the business trajectory of the enterprise begun by brother-and-sister team Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton; Robert Gordon’s racy but meticulously assembled account also places the story firmly in its social context: the segregation-era city politics of Memphis, the Civil Rights struggle for which the company provided much of the musical soundtrack, the Black Consciousness movement, the Vietnam War.

In the hands of a less sensitive writer, Stax’s history might have been treated like the script for a jukebox musical; the classic ingredients are all there: doomed idealism, broken family relationships, racial tensions and the battle between economic independence and corporate control. Gordon, however, is always alive to the ironies and nuances of his fascinating subject, and so the story of a company that had 167 top-100 pop songs, nearly 250 top-100 R&B songs and issued the first record by a black American (the theme from Shaft) to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song, emerges with all its many complexities intact.

Replete with first-hand testimony, celebratory yet by no means starry-eyed — Gordon unflinchingly describes the violence associated with payola, the bitter in-fighting that results from Stax’s success and the distasteful corporate shenanigans consequent upon the company’s dealings with the likes of Atlantic, Gulf and Western, Columbia and Philips (Deutsche Grammophon) — Respect Yourself is a fast-moving and compulsively readable account of a uniquely important cultural phenomenon.

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