The Soul of Stax
The South's quintessential R&B label had its ups and downs but never lost its soul
by Ericka Blount Danois
“Show us the master tapes,” a steely voice said, stealing all the air from the room.
Al Bell walked with measured steps toward studio “A,” where $67 million dollars of the Stax catalog master tapes were housed. Bell’s face was flushed as heat soared through his body, and he alternated between nervousness and anger. He asked one of the federal marshals that followed close behind him if he could stop in the restroom as they walked down the long corridor. There he splashed his face with cold water and tried to settle down as he stared in the mirror wondering what to do.
As he gained his strength, he walked towards the restroom door and pushed against it. Something was blocking it. One of the marshals leaned his head around the door. “Be cool man. They came to off you.”
“What?” Bell asked.
“Be cool. They came to off you,” the marshal spoke slowly.
This was the culmination of a five-year investigation, where the criminal intelligence division of the IRS—the same division that took down Al Capone—investigated Bell, following him around the world, scaring people from doing business with him, flashing their badges and telling people that he was being investigated for allegedly defrauding Union Planters bank for $1.8 million.
Bell would face a fourteen-count indictment and two life terms—140 years in jail—and was defended by James Foster Neal, the famed Watergate prosecutor who had also prosecuted Teamsters Union President Jimmy Hoffa.
Every day, Bell walked into the courtroom ebullient. A deeply religious man, when asked why he was so cheerful, he replied: “My Heavenly Father is my attorney, and he’s never lost a case.”
On December 19, 1975, an involuntary bankruptcy petition for Stax Records was filed. The marshals had come to padlock the doors to the building that had housed some of the sweetest sounds of Memphis soul—the epitome of gut-bucket feeling; hit-makers from the likes of the country-gospel-soul of Otis Redding, the passions of the sexy-preacher-soul-singer Isaac Hayes, and the gospel roars of the Staple Singers.
But on this day, a barrel-chested White man, a consultant for the bank, was the only one making any noise. He was standing next to the marshals.
“Nigger, you got fifteen minutes to get out of the building,” he told Bell.
“We may be in the slum, but the slum is not in us. We may be in the prison, but the prison is not in us. In Watts, we have shifted from ‘Burn, baby, burn’ to ‘Learn, baby, learn.’
“When we stand together, what time is it?” the country preacher, Reverend Jesse Jackson, asked the crowd in the Los Angeles Coliseum.
“Nation time!” 112,000 Black faces answered him in unison. Heads nodded. It was what they needed to hear.
It was 1972.
Seven years prior, August 1965, gunshots fell like hail throughout the streets of Watts. The Watts Rebellion would last for six days and would kill thirty-four people. Though an incident between the Los Angeles Police Department and a twenty-one-year-old African American man, Marquette Frye, was largely reported as the impetus for the rebellion, that incident was just the Molotov cocktail that exploded the frustration of years of high unemployment, poor schools, and substandard housing in the Black ghettoes of the city.
Spiritual redemption for the destruction caused by the riots would come in the form of music—a twelve-hour concert featuring the Bar-Kays, Johnnie Taylor, the Emotions, Rufus Thomas, Kim Weston, and a majestic, Cadillac-driven entrance to a finale performance by Isaac Hayes. Audience members were only charged one dollar for admission.
The security personnel, headed by filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, at the insistence of producer Larry Shaw and Al Bell, were all Black. None of the police officers from the LAPD (also all Black) were armed with guns inside the stadium. Audience members represented a large swath of the community, from gang members to the working class and professionals, to artists and entertainers like Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. There were no fights; and not a single incident.
The jewel of the entire documentary was candid interviews with members of the Watts community sounding off without self-censorship on issues ranging from love to unemployment—(in one interview, a man says, “If I can’t work and make it, I’ll steal and take it,” a quote that illuminated the frustrations of unemployment better than any study of the problem)—discrimination, and everything in between. A Black camera crew from South Central conducted the interviews. Stax insisted in their contract with Wolper Films that they would have “absolute right of prior approval of film or narration which is included in the Motion Picture which relates to Black relationships and feelings; words or phrases having a special Black connotation.”
“We have never been portrayed the way we are. We have often had our history rewritten. We wanted it done right,” said Bell.
These interviews with community members were intercut with clips from the concert and improvised monologues by then relatively unknown comic Richard Pryor. According to Mel Stuart, Pryor was added like the chorus in Shakespeare’s Henry V; someone who would sum up what the film was about and would be the voice of the community in comedic terms. Pryor would later record That Nigger’s Crazy for Stax’s Partee comedy label. Brilliantly devised, there was no better tool than Wattstax to showcase the vitality of music in the Black community while simultaneously showing music as a reflection of what goes on in the lives of people in that community. Ticket sales of over $70,000 were donated to the Watts Summer Music Festival, Martin Luther King Hospital, the Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation, and the Watts Labor Community Action Committee.
“Wattstax came four years after King died, seven years after Malcolm, a year before the Vietnam peace treaty was signed; the Panthers were on the wane, Watergate followed, politics and protest were in the news every day,” remembers Gary Harris, a music supervisor for television and film who was inspired by Stax to create the New Jack City soundtrack. “Ali had regained the ability to fight. Billie Jean King was fighting to get Title 9. Stax was the soundtrack for all of this. And that shit Al Bell was putting out was so Black it was blue—it should have included a discount coupon for Johnson hair care products and a five-dollar coupon for a rib, collard green, and black-eyed peas dinner.”