Tom Hurka is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto. His main research and teaching is in moral and political philosophy. His writings include Perfectionism and Virtue, Vice, and Value. In this post Tom writes about Rob Bowman's Soulsville, USA: The Story of Stax Records.
Thomas Hurka on Soulsville, USA: The Story of Stax Records by Rob Bowman
Art is the product of people, a business environment, and an aesthetic vision. Rob Bowman's Soulsville, USA connects all these in its history of Stax Records, the Memphis recording studio that produced the 1960s soul music of Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MG's, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes, and more. But its primary focus is the studio's music: the effects its players were trying to achieve and the ways they achieved them, down to the specific guitar strings they used and the reeds in their saxophones. The understanding of the songs it provides makes them sound even better.
Stax was founded by a white part-time country fiddler whose primary job was in a bank. He did his initial recording in a vacant store building 30 miles out of Memphis but then wanted to find a better space in the city. What was cheap and available? An abandoned local movie theatre in what was becoming a black ghetto. That was vital in two ways.
A movie theatre doesn't have parallel surfaces. The side walls angle out and the floor rises toward the back. The resulting reverberations produced a distinctive 'live' sound you can hear on every recording made in the Stax studio.
And the neighbourhood mattered. An early visitor was Rufus Thomas, a DJ at the city's black radio station who wanted to record a duet with his daughter Carla. It became Stax's first hit and set the studio on the path of recording black music. To generate extra income Stax turned the front of the theatre into a record store serving local teenagers. Their buying patterns showed what music would succeed in the black market, and some of them, like Booker T. Jones, hung around until they became part of the house band. So did hip white teenagers like Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn: that makes three of the four members of Booker T. and the MG's, who with a horn section were the backing band on all the early Stax recordings.
In New York, studio musicians were paid by the hour, so to save money recording studios would have arrangements written up that the musicians would play from, often insipidly. In Memphis musicians were paid by the song, and if a song took several hours to record, it took several hours. Stax arrangements were therefore worked out on the floor, collaboratively, by the MG's and the horn players. The result was more drive, originality, and soul. That's why Atlantic Records sent Wilson Pickett down from New York to record at Stax: to get a funky 'In the Midnight Hour'.
A running theme in the book is the contrast between soul music, as at Stax, and the music of Motown. (Whereas the sign outside Stax said Soulsville, USA, that outside Motown said Hitsville, USA. Bowman thinks that encapsulates the difference.) The Motown sound was slick, northern, and urban, while Stax was rough, southern, and rural. That showed itself in several ways.
The instrumentation on a Motown recording is often lush: several percussionists and guitar players, strings, horns, backup singers – their sounds all melding together. A Stax recording has only the drums, bass, guitar, and keyboard of the MG's plus a horn section (typically a trumpet and two saxes) playing in unison. The guitar plays mostly just rhythm, chording on the beat, while the drumming too is stripped down, e.g. with no ride cymbal. Bowman speaks rightly of the 'austere classicism of the Stax sound.'
The mix on a Motown song emphasizes the treble sounds: the singer, strings, and tinkly parts of the percussion, with the lower sounds more muted. A Stax recording highlights the bottom end, the bass and drums, so the rhythmic 'groove' of the song dominates.
A Motown record has the singer way 'out in front' of the band, i.e. louder than the band, while at Stax the singer is more down in the mix, or just one sound among others. (Otis Redding's '(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay' is an exception, and unusual for that reason.)
A Motown singer is usually right on the beat ('There's nothin' you can say/Could tear me away/From my guy') while in a Stax recording the singer wanders back and forth around the beat, playing with it in a way more strongly influenced by gospel.
And Stax recordings after 'In the Midnight Hour' feature a delayed backbeat, i.e. a slight pause before the (highlighted) 2 and 4 in the 1-2-3-4, which creates a brief moment of tension that's then relieved and gives a song a loose, funky feel. Sam and Dave's 'Hold On I'm Coming' is a classic illustration.
The musicians at Stax envied Motown's success at the previously unimaginable feat of selling black music to white teenagers, a success they never fully matched. But they remained true to their own aesthetic, producing soul rather than hits. And while it's sometimes said that knowing how a piece of art works kills its effect, that's not true here. Knowing that the backbeat's delayed or that the drummer has his snares tight to take out the rattle makes you hear more in a song, not less.
Bowman describes the genesis of many particular songs. Otis Redding's cover of the Tin Pan Alley standard 'Try a Little Tenderness' was supposed to help him play the Copacabana in New York like his idol Sam Cooke, but the MG's and in particular drummer Al Jackson turned it into a white-hot up-tempo soul number that wouldn't at all work with middle-aged white New Yorkers.
Or you learn that their producers would have Sam and Dave rehearse a new song in a comfortable key but, then, when it was time to record, move them up to a key at the very top of their range, because the resulting vocal strain would make their singing more soulful.
But the book also has a 'paradise lost' side. In the early years the Stax community were a happy group, making what they thought was moderately successful music in comparative obscurity; many of the musicians played in clubs at night to supplement their incomes. A tour of Europe the label organized in 1967 taught them otherwise: among the cognoscenti and the press they were stars. (The Beatles sent their limos to meet them at the airport; Paul McCartney attended their opening show.) Egos grew or were perceived to grow, and the resulting tensions were partly what led half the MG's to be gone from the studio within a couple of years.
Racial tensions also developed. The owners of Stax were white and the singers black, but the musicians were racially mixed: the MG's were two whites and two blacks, and the horn players were similarly mixed. Though initially not a cause of disharmony, this became one after Martin Luther King, who'd come to Memphis to support the city's striking garbage workers, was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel and the city's black neighbourhoods erupted in riots. Now race became a major issue, with greater demands for a black role in management, the appearance of thuggish protectors, and more.
The last chapters of Soulsville, USA chronicle the decline of Stax until its bankruptcy in 1975, which Bowman thinks was induced by a white Memphis business establishment hostile to a now largely black-run business. The book's close therefore focuses more on the business side of the Stax story and was of less interest to me. But its bulk describes a joyous period in the history of popular music, showing how a particular set of personalities in a particular place and business environment produced some of the most vibrant music of the later 20th century. The bonus is that by describing that music's nuts and bolts so clearly it lets the machinery hum even more beautifully.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]