Updated: Nov 10, 2022
The 1960s and early ’70s witnessed two record companies with integrated ownership, integrated executive leadership, and integrated house bands vying to be recognized as the epicenter of the burgeoning soul/rhythm-and-blues movement in popular American music. Like prize fighters battling it out in the ring, these two giants released hit after hit, and helped define a generation.
As a young person growing up in an all-white rural town in a virtually all-white county, attending an all-white school system, I listened to artists who recorded on those twin towers of soul–Motown and Stax. The music coming out of Detroit and Memphis gave me a window into a mysterious, other-worldly culture.
Listening in late at night, when the radio signal came in with clarity, I heard music that was simultaneously gospel-tinged and yet sensual (Marvin Gaye’s “if the spirit moves you, let me groove you good, let your love come out”); at once similar to my own teen experiences (the Supremes’ hand-clapping, bubble-gum refrain of “baby, baby, where did our love go?”) and yet very different (Isaac Hayes’ hip, urban private eye known as “Shaft, John Shaft”); at once mindlessly sweet (Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour, pretty little girl that I adore”) and yet powerful social commentary in a way that began to raise my awareness of contemporary issues–particularly the Vietnam War and police brutality (Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and its line, “war is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate”) and the inequality of the races nearly two decades after the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision (Wonder’s civil rights classic “Living for the City” and its re-enactment of New York police brutality with the memorable, barked line, “Get in the cell, n—–! ).
Until I left for studies at a large, multicultural, multiethnic university in 1979, virtually my entire view of the African American experience came through music, and most of it was from Motown and Stax.
In his book Souled American: How Black Music Transformed White Culture, journalist Kevin Phinney suggests that soul and rhythm-and-blues music like that of Motown and Stax actually changed white American culture and race relations. Bill Withers, himself a soul/R&B artist with chart-topping hits like “Lean on Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” to his credit, critiqued Phinney’s thesis by saying that “race is too serious an issue to be discussed under the auspices of something as narrow as music….” On principle, Withers refused Phinney’s request for an endorsement of the book.
Bill Withers may or may not be correct. But at the very least, the music helped expand the narrow borders of my world. In the process, it prompted me to consider new vistas regarding race, religious faith, and sexuality–three topics that one did not talk about in my rural Indiana home. All three were seamlessly woven together in the music coming out of Detroit and Memphis and into my bedroom, into my world.
In their heyday, Stax and Motown were a formative part of American culture–both black and white. But their artists were not the first to have an impact. Indeed, journalist and filmmaker Nelson George traces the initial soul/R&B spark that Motown and Stax would ignite into a pop culture flame to an artist who never recorded for either label–Ray Charles.
But my appreciation for Ray Charles came much later. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Stax and Motown—Detroit and Memphis—carried the message my way.
Stax Records: Soulsville U.S.A.
Though neighboring Nashville had its country and western division of Capitol Records with Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, among other artists, on its roster, Memphis had Stax Records with Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Sam and Dave, and the Staple Singers. Booker T. and the MGs, who scored major hits with the instrumental “Green Onions” and “Time is Tight,” served as the integrated house band for much of the Stax catalog, laying down grooves with a distinct horn section, strong bass lines, and out-front organ solos.
Founded by a white country fiddler and banker named Jim Stewart and his sister, Estelle Axton, in 1958, Stax was originally called Satellite Records. After spending its first year in a garage studio about 30 miles outside of Memphis, Stewart–by then working his primary job as a banker in the city making $350.00 a month–signed a $150.00-a-month lease on the former Capitol Theatre at the corner of College and McLemore in a neighborhood that was turning from white to black.
For two decades, the Stax catalog of soul and rhythm-and-blues music was recorded at the sloped-floor studio that became known as “Soulsville U.S.A.” in obvious juxtaposition to Motown’s “Hitsville U.S.A.” nomenclature, which was affixed atop its studio and office building at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit.
In his book Just My Soul Responding, on the connections between rhythm-and-blues music, black consciousness, and relations between the races, Brian Ward gave his take on the impact of Stax, particularly during the 1960s as tensions mounted in Detroit, Newark, Watts, and beyond:
During the 1960s, many blacks within the industry and beyond it continued to see southern soul as both an occasion and a mechanism for promoting greater racial tolerance, respect and understanding. Al Bell, the black Stax songwriter, executive and later president, clearly believed that the label’s biracialism carried great symbolic significance, even into the heart of the black power era.
In A Change Is Gonna Come, author Craig Werner also used the popular music of the 1960s and early ’70s to explore the social transformation of that period. But rather than rehearse the massive popularity of Motown in the north, he focused on Southern soul as embodied in the music recorded at Stax.
“Part of the black community’s broader struggle to redefine the ground rules of American society, the dissonant harmonies emanating from Memphis drew on and spoke to the beloved community,” Werner writes. “Like gospel, Southern soul spoke to the burdens of life and the need to reach for something higher. The rough edges reflect something fundamental about life in a place where rednecks and the children of the ghetto shared enough of a common culture to challenge everything they’d been taught about race. It wasn’t smooth, but neither was the life outside the studio. And, for a while, there was reason to think that the dialogue that began in Memphis might spread across the world.”
Otis Redding was Stax’s first true superstar with hits like “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “Respect,” and the posthumously-released “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”
Redding’s death in a plane crash near downtown Madison, Wisconsin, in 1967 signaled the end to what Bowman considers Stax’s first life and, indeed, some feared the label would cease to exist without its signature artist. But other forces, including former Stax session musician Isaac Hayes–arguably the label’s final superstar–and the Staple Singers, a Chicago family gospel group–stepped into the gap. Hayes had huge crossover hits including “Theme from Shaft,” and the Staple Singers scored with “Let’s Do It Again,” “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There.”
Like Marvin Gaye’s 1970s music, “I’ll Take You There” combined spirituality and social protest, and it is one of the more memorable tunes from my own adolescence.
In Rob Bowman’s corporate biography of Stax, Mavis Staples said, “The songwriters at Stax knew we were doing protest songs. We had made a transition back there in the sixties 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. Pops (Staples, her father) said, ‘Now if he can preach this, we can sing it. That could be our way of helping towards this movement.’ We put a beat behind the song. We were mainly focusing on the young adults to hear what we were doing. You know if they hear a beat, that would make them listen to the words. So we started singing protest songs. All those guys were writing what we actually wanted them to write. Pops would tell them to just read the headlines and whatever they saw in the morning paper that needed to be heard or known about (they would) write us a song from that.”
Mavis Staples’ comment about “I’ll Take You There” and other Stax classics serves as a clear reminder of the difference between “Soulsville U.S.A.” and its northern counterpart–“Hitsville.” Until Marvin Gaye leveraged his superstardom and demanded the release of the anti-Vietnam War concept album What’s Going On over his label owner’s strenuous objections, Motown was not concerned with contributing to the movement as much as selling “45” records and Motown Revue concert tickets–primarily to white teenagers, like me.
Motown: Hitsville U.S.A.
If, as Mavis Staples has said, Soulsville U.S.A. was putting words from the day’s headlines into song, Hitsville U.S.A. was more of a mass production assembly line.
Though Chicago had the Chess brothers’ record company on South Michigan Avenue with the inimitable Chuck Berry, among others, in the label’s fold, Detroit had Motown Records with Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, and Stevie Wonder.
Started in 1959 by Berry Gordy Jr., with just $800 in assets and a dream, over the course of the next 13 years Motown became enormously successful–and its name became a synonym for Detroit. Gordy, a former Ford Motor Company employee, believed that music could, similarly, be organized and automated for efficiency and quality.
As journalist Elvis Mitchell has written, “Gordy was out to carve a niche for himself. Motown made Detroit a lightning rod for potential and promise, where the level of competition pushed everyone to their best. We can’t actually say what Gordy’s goal was but the accomplishment is undeniable: he turned Detroit into a Mount Rushmore of popular culture with his bare hands.”
Nelson George thinks he does know what Gordy’s goal was.
In his book The Death of Rhythm & Blues, George wrote that Motown promoted its founder and president as an “affirmative, unthreatening symbol of black capitalism, one as acceptable in the New York Times as on the cover of Ebony. In his rare public statements and in all Motown promotional materials, Gordy clearly stated that his goal was to buy into mainstream standards. He was amassing wealth and expanding his operations–a sure threat to insecure whites–but his message was, ‘Don’t worry. I just want to be like you.'”
In his pursuit of becoming just like his white counterparts at Columbia Records in New York or Capitol in Los Angeles, Gordy hired choreographers and tailors; he sent Diana Ross, among others, to “manners” courses or finishing schools to refine their dress, their movements, and their speech. After floundering with a number of records that didn’t crack the Top 40, the Supremes, with Diana Ross as Gordy’s hand-picked centerpiece of the trio, would by the mid-1960s supplant Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and The Four Tops to become Motown’s best-selling act.
Gordy had, in fact, reached his goal. In 1968, the year that Dr. King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, five of the top ten hits on the pop charts carried the ubiquitous blue and silver logo of Motown Records.
“Before Motown, the music business relegated most of the great black artists to second-class citizenship,” former NBC newsman Tom Brokaw writes in his best-selling book Boom! – Voices of the Sixties. “They played in out-of-the-way clubs in black neighborhoods, recorded on little-known labels, and were featured on stations at the far end of the dial. Gordy and Motown changed the place of black music in America by dressing it up (critics would say whitewashing it) with simple, emotional lyrics and sweet harmonies performed by artists who were carefully groomed and coached to cross over to the white audience of record buyers and radio listeners, without losing standing with their black base. Equally important, he made a black-owned company into an American entertainment colossus.”
Why the Music Matters
In the 1960s and early to mid-1970s, during the heyday of Motown and Stax, I’d not yet read a book by Dr. King or Malcolm X, by Andrew Young or Ralph Abernathy, by Cornell West or George Yancey. Those readings would come a decade later.
But like many of my generation, I had listened to the music.
Music was my “book” in the 1960s and early to mid-1970s. Through the volume written at Motown, I had been given an image of African Americans more refined, more polished, and more skilled as musicians than any white person or white artist I had encountered. Motown countered the popular images found on television of the day, offering more of a “Sidney Poitier To Sir With Love” model rather than a “Redd Foxx Sanford & Son” stereotype. Through the volume written at Stax, I had a sense that prejudice and discrimination–I would likely have called it bigotry–were alive and well in the world and the voices coming out of Memphis and, occasionally, Detroit were onto something that needed to be heard.
The Motown and Stax songs informed my experience, expanded my borders. There was power in the music. I’m convinced there still is.