In 1968, Stax Records was pronounced dead by the Recording Music Industry. Otis Redding, Stax’s biggest star, had just died tragically in a plane crash; the label had ended its deal with Atlantic Records, losing all of its masters; and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot at the Lorraine Motel, an establishment frequented by Stax musicians and writers. Stax, Memphis’s most popular musical export since Elvis, had seemingly lost all importance.
As the panel discussion on February 20, 2018, “From ’68 to ’18: Perspectives on Memphis Music” showed, however, Stax’s influence was just beginning to bloom in 1968. The panel, hosted by the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, included Al Bell, former executive and co-owner of Stax, and Marco Pavé, Memphis-based hip hop artist, and was moderated by Dr. Zandria Robinson, professor of sociology at Rhodes College.
Dr. Robinson introduced the panel as two “cultural workers,” activists who are “distilling culture to find possibilities for the future.” It was this activism that rebuilt Stax after 1968. Under Mr. Bell’s leadership, the company released 28 albums in two years. At a time when “black music” meant only soul records, Mr. Bell knew “the diversity of black musical taste,” and the music Stax produced matched the rich complexity of the sounds black people around the country wanted to hear. “This art reflected and influenced our lives,” Mr. Bell said, insisting the diversity of sounds also matched the complexity of the black experience after Dr. King’s assassination. Dr. Robinson echoed this, saying that Stax’s music reminded people of the “black joy, black pleasure, and black happiness” that exist “even after tragedy strikes.”
In addition to this artistic influence, Stax played a key role in the development of a black economic base. “Stax was the third largest employer in the city of Memphis,” Mr. Pavé reminded the audience, and music offered Memphians a way out of poverty. Between 1968, after the dissolution of the Atlantic deal, to 1975, Stax’s asset value went from $0-$82 million. For Mr. Bell, this was all part of a continuation of the plan of Dr. King, whom Mr. Bell knew personally: “the next step after non-violence is economic development and economic empowerment,” Mr. Bell said.
While Stax was forced to close in 1975, to this day it is far from dead. Mr. Pavé maintained that Stax has exerted “unmatched impact” on his life, both artistically and economically: “[Al Bell] is Jay-Z to me,” Mr. Pavé said. He was inspired by Stax’s economic success and is committed to advocating for music as an economic base for the city of Memphis and the black community. Like Stax, he also strives to make his music simultaneously reflective and influential. “I can’t afford to go to jail,” Mr. Pavé said, “so I make the soundtrack to the movement.” Mr. Pavé is a self-professed ethnographer, capturing the stories of the oppressed black community in his music. This work is powerfully captured by his 2017 album Welcome to Grc Lnd, which intersperses the stories of Black Lives Matter protesters abused during a protest at Graceland last year. His dedication to the struggle, the hope, and the joy of the black community is just one example of the “long-term cultural impact” of the Stax cultural workers that Dr. Robinson lauded, an impact that will likely never die.
Text by Sean Moore