Years after Elvis, Jerry Lee, Johnny and others launched rock and roll, there was still a distinct sound made here in Memphis that was bringing in big name artists to record at one of its studios. That still goes on, by the way.
Starting with Stax, there was an old theater that got turned into a recording studio. James Stewart, a banker, had started a country music recording studio in his wife’s uncle’s garage in North Memphis.
His sister, Estelle, jumped in with him, mortgaging her home to buy recording equipment for it. By this time, the studio had moved east, to Brunswick, TN. Satellite Records was the name. They got so good with this enterprise that they had to expand again. This time they went south, to an old movie theater at College and McLemore.
This was just a few years after the launch of rock and roll, beginning in 1959. In 1960, WDIA disc jockey Rufus Thomas, and his daughter recorded a duet “Cause I Love You” Satellite’s first hit. It was about this time that James was informed that there was already a record title called Satellite. So, they took the first two letters of their names and came up with Stax, a mix of Stewart and Axton.
The next year, a high school rhythm and blues band got together and made a legendary recording “About Last Night”. It featured some musicians who went on to become legends- Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, Booker T Jones, Alan Jackson and others. It had brass, keyboards and a sound you could not get out of your head. Cropper, Dunn, Jones and Jackson went on to become the house band for Stax, recording under the name of Booker T and the MG’s. Before you go thinking there was a British car involved here somewhere, MG’s stood for Memphis Group.
A little side note here: An artists’s best work can be something he doesn’t think much of at the time. I well remember my niece picking out a photo from Scotland that hadn’t impressed me much, until she picked it. It went on to win 2nd place color print in annual competition some years later. But in this story, Booker T & the MG’s recorded a song they didn’t much like. They asked studio owner Estelle Axton what stinks. She said “Green Onions”, which they named the song they just did. It became their first gold selling single, and put them on the map.
For a short time, there was a producer that worked with Messrs. Stewart and Axton at Stax, named Lincoln Wayne “Chips” Moman. He produced Carla Thomas’s 1960 hit “Gee Whiz”. He parted ways with the Stax organization a few years later to start another Memphis studio, American Sounds Studio. We will get back to him later on.
Rufus “The Dog” Thomas started making some recordings that established him as a legend at Stax. His hits were “The Dog”, “Walkin the Dog”, and “Can your monkey do the dog?”. I well remember, “Walkin the Dog”, which is where he got that nickname, which he kept till his death. His daughter, Carla Thomas, later teamed up with a Georgia native named Otis Redding to be queen and king of soul. Indeed, there is an album of that very name, “King and Queen”. Otis later died when his plane crashed into Lake Michigan in late 1967 on the way to a gig. The Stax label became a southern soul music phenomenon, rivalling the Detroit label “Motown”.
Stax had groups like Sam and Dave, Luther Ingram, Eddie Floyd, Booker T & the MG’s and the songwriting team of Isaac Hayes and David Porter.
Isaac would later go on to write the soundtrack for the motion picture “Shaft”. One particularly unique aspect of Shaft is it was only one of a handful of songs to be a gold selling single, record of the year, and Oscar Winning Best Song from original material, all in the same year.
In the sixties, there was a musician named Willie Mitchell who recorded a number of his own songs, including “Soul Serenade”, his hit, recorded at another studio called “Hi Records”, which he took over in 1970. His artists included Al Green, Ann Peebles, and Alan Jackson, drummer for Booker T and the MG’s. While Al Green is undoubtedly the biggest name he had, Ann Peebles was no slouch with her hit “I can’t stand the rain”. As did Stax, Al was recording songs with strings and brass influences. Al being a trumpeter, this was a natural inclusion. Al Green recorded all of his music at Hi Records, and made this a popular label.
One of the absolute prettiest r&b songs is on a 45-rpm record I still have, called “Private Number”, sung by William Bell and Judy Clay. If you ever get to hear it, you will see what I mean. It is a classic, recorded in 1968.
So, after Elvis and his band of players got rock started, along came Stax getting the Rhythm and Blues genre going with all their legends. Thus it went on into the 60’s and into the middle 70’s, when Stax went bankrupt.
Another studio that made its share of recordings with its own stable of nationally popular pop recording stars was American Sound Studios.
Chips stable of singers included Merilee Rush, Sandy Posey, Mark Lindsey, Aretha Franklin, BJ Thomas, and the kid from the housing projects, Elvis Presley, who recorded a lot of his music in his own studio, built into his gym. Big names, like Dionne Warwick and others wanted the Memphis Sound in their music, and Chips was there to please.
Neil Diamond wrote his homage to the former First Daughter, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, with the song that he wrote the night before he recorded it there at American. That song was “Sweet Caroline”
While there was a distinct, uniquely local sound to the Stax and Hi Studios, Chips’ artists came from all over the country. They included household names we all associate with pop music. But that’s just it- every town has its own sound, and Memphis had a sound favored and desired by many recording artists from everywhere. The musical legacy of this city lives on!