In the latest episode of Great Performances, entitled “Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story,” the show makes an attempt to recount the history of Stax Records, one of the most influential, and different, record labels of the last century. There are a number of different threads that the episode attempts to follow, some with more success than others.
The story of the music itself is well told, what Stax was putting out there, who the artists were, and the response in the country. Less well told is the racial aspect of the company and its recordings. Stax was founded by two white people, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton (brother and sister), but ended up with mainly African-American recording artists putting out a “black sound” that tended to find cross-over success. While this was not their intent, they were people to whom race did not matter. And, finally, very poorly told is the story of the internal politics of the record company. These last two threads are, I suspect, often the same, but the documentary never actually ties them together (one of its weaknesses), so I leave them separate here as well.
Most people in this country know Stax music, even if they do not identify it with the label. Otis Redding was a Stax artist, and “(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay” a Stax song. He wrote and recorded “Respect.” Isaac Hayes was a Stax artist and “Theme from Shaft” a Stax recording. It is a record label that lasted from the late 1950s to 1975, and put out hit after hit after hit, defining the “Memphis sound.” The story of the records, songs, and artist of the label, is the strongest part of the documentary. It is truly a wonder that such a small label was able to do so much. This thread of the documentary is well told and enlightens people that may not otherwise realize where all this music came from. It also provides a background as to the thoughts, feelings, and motives that went into the songs themselves.
Intersecting with this thread however is the story of race within the company. Early on at Stax it is clear that race was not an issue. Most of the interviewees seem to identify the change as coming following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was murdered at a hotel in Memphis frequented by Stax people. After this point, something changed at the record company. Of course, something changed in the country too.
And, here is where things get truly murky in the documentary. Though there is a narrator, and a great one, Samuel L. Jackson, the documentary chooses first-hand accounts over Jackson on numerous occasions. This leads to an incredible amount of confusion. The over-arching story of what happened at Stax following the assassination of Dr. King becomes lost. It is clear that there was an internal power struggle. For some reason, and the documentary never makes it clear why, Estelle Axton left the company. Jim Stewart says he had her leave. Estelle says she chose to leave. Others say it was a difference of opinion between Al Bell (an up-and-coming executive at the company). Yet, this huge change at Stax is given scant attention in the documentary. It is crucial for everything that follows for this story to be well told, and it is not.
At some point, the record company brought in a “security” man named Johnny Baylor, because some people from Memphis came into the offices with a gun. The people with guns wanted money from Stax. Why they wanted the money, who knows. Why they chose Stax, who knows. Why the Stax people then bought guns, who knows. But, what is made almost clear is that Baylor was a problem from the beginning. While no one from the outside brought guns in anymore, Baylor had no problem brandishing his. Why Baylor stayed at Stax instead of being let go, who knows.
From here, the lack of a distinct point of view for the documentary truly destroys what is left of the show. Towards the end of Stax's existence, it got into legal and financial trouble. When he talks about it, Bell states that they paid back their bank loan to Union Planters Bank (UP), almost immediately and UP got scared. A person from UP interviewed for the show states that Stax owed them 10 million dollars in outstanding loans. One of these people is wrong. The documentary never states which, but the fact that there were no less than 14 indictments handed down directed at Stax and or Al Bell (again, it is not made clear), would argue that there was something questionable happening, be it in the company's relations with the outside world or within the company itself. Bell was, it should be noted, cleared of all charges.
The story of Stax Records is fascinating one, but one that is not told properly in this episode of Great Performances. A choice must have been made in producing this documentary to let the story, or the people involved in the story, tell what happened themselves. What the audience is left with however is something of a jumbled mess where nothing is truly clear except that the music was one of a kind.
Great Performances: “Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story” airs Wednesday August 1, at 9:00pm, but do check your local listings anyway.