The story of Stax Records unfolds like a Greek tragedy. A white brother and sister build a record company that becomes a monument to racial harmony in 1960’s segregated south Memphis. Their success is startling, and Stax soon defines an international sound. Then, after losses both business and personal, the siblings part, and the brother allies with a visionary African-American partner. Under integrated leadership, Stax explodes as a national player until, Icarus-like, they fall from great heights to a tragic demise. Everything is lost, and the sanctuary that flourished is ripped from the ground. A generation later, Stax is rebuilt brick by brick to once again bring music and opportunity to the people of Memphis.
Set in the world of 1960s and ‘70s soul music, Respect Yourself is a story of epic heroes in a shady industry. It’s about music and musicians—Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, the Staple Singers, and Booker T. and the M.G.’s–Stax’s interracial house band. It’s about a small independent company’s struggle to survive in a business world of burgeoning conglomerates. And always at the center of the story is Memphis, Tennessee, an explosive city struggling through heated, divisive years.
Told by one of our leading music chroniclers, Respect Yourself brings to life this treasured cultural institution and the city that created it.
Gordon’s book belongs on the shelf alongside canonical works such as Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley and Nat Hentoff’s Jazz Is, not solely because of its subject, but because it does what the best music writing does, and which traditional criticism often fails to do: it gazes beyond the music itself. — The Los Angeles Review of Books
The voices of the members of the Stax family, and Gordon’s deep knowledge of Memphis, give the book a significance that extends beyond a single recording studio. Robert Gordon knows the place, and he’ll take you there. — New York Times
A masterful storyteller, music historian Gordon artfully chronicles the rise and fall of one of America’s greatest music studios, situating the story of Stax within the cultural history of the 1960s in the South…Gordon deftly narrates the stories of the many musicians who called Stax home. — Publisher’s Weekly, starred review
A spellbinding history of one of the most prolific hit-making independent record companies in the history of American music. What made Stax Records so fascinating was its context in time and place: Memphis in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Gordon (Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters, 2002, etc.), who is from the city and has written and made films about its music for two decades, is uniquely qualified to tell the studio’s rather complicated story. Its beginnings as a side interest of banker and swing fiddle player Jim Stewart and his musically adventurous elder sister, Estelle Axton, were simple enough. Then, almost by accident, the open-hearted white siblings began recording songs by black neighbors of the studio’s location at College and McLemore, beginning with R&B veteran Rufus Thomas (“Walking the Dog”) and his daughter, Carla (“Gee Whiz”), who would continue to make hits with black and white listeners for Stax in the decades to come. In 1965, Stewart brought in African-American promotions man Al Bell to guide the company’s growth. This interracial partnership, echoed by the studio’s house band, Booker T. and the MGs, was unusual anywhere, let alone the segregated city where Martin Luther King would be murdered during a labor dispute between the white mayor and black sanitation workers. King’s assassination, within a year of the loss by plane crash of the label’s major star, Otis Redding, marked a stark line in the histories of Stax, Memphis and America, opening a period of revolutionary rhetoric and action and a coming-of-age of soul music as personified by a new kind of superstar, Isaac Hayes. In zesty prose, Gordon ably narrates this whole story, ending with the convoluted financial machinations that led to the label’s stunningly rapid collapse. Deep cultural and social history enlivened by a cast of colorful characters. — Kirkus Reviews, starred review