Stax vs. Motown (part two)

The second of three installments in my conversation about the golden era of Stax and Motown with soul music fan and Stax afficiando Brad. Don’t forget to check out part one.

Brad S.: I have to admit, when I think of Motown, I almost only associate it with the ‘64-‘65 period. Although I know, to cite one example, one of my old favorites, “Reflections” incorporates just enough psychedelica to distinguish it from what I consider Motown to sound like.

So what are some of those Motown songs that brought you back in?

Joel Francis: For a label so reliant upon singles, it was the albums that drew me back into Motown. “What’s Going On” made me realize there was more to Marvin Gaye than “It Takes Two.” Stevie Wonder’s “Talking Book” and “Songs in the Key of Life” and The Temptation’s “Cloud Nine.”
These albums showed more depth, emotion and creativity than the monotonous parade of mid-60s oldies radio staples would have you believe. Motown may have made its name with its assembly line parade of hits in the first half of the ’60s when it set the agenda, but its output gets more interesting to me in the second half of the decade as it responds to the Beatles, psychedelica, the civil rights movement, etc. That’s when the artists and songwriters really started to grow.

Getting back to Stax I don’t think it ever really recovered from the death of Otis Redding. The near-simultaneous loss of its biggest star in a plane crash and back catalog to Atlantic records was the beginning of the end. I know they regrouped and had massive success with Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers and Wattstax, but the Stax I enjoy most – Otis, Sam and Dave, Rufus Thomas, Booker T and the MGs, sessions with Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Aretha – was never entirely recaptured.

BS: I hear you with the post-Otis era of Stax, but that also begs this question: What were the true prime lifespans of these labels? I’m not talking about the point at which they continued only in name. The other question that comes to mind is how much of the label’s success is because of a fortunate luck of the draw with artists or is it because of the efforts of record owner or signature producer? Or to put it another way, is there an equivalent to (Motown founder and visionary) Berry Gordy on the Stax side?

JF: For me, Motown loses its luster when it relocated to Los Angeles. There are two reasons for this decline. The first factor is the rise of disco, which practically killed soul music until the neo-soul rebirth of the late-’80s. Second, Berry Gordy’s ambition to branch out into movies and television scattered the label’s focus and brought “mission creep” into his boardroom.

Stax golden years for me are its time with Atlantic when the late Jerry Wexler was helping run the studio. With the exception of Isaac Hayes and the Staple Singers (who were signed later), no one performed as well after the split as they did before. That said, it’s important to remember Stax two big ’70s non-soul successes bluesman Albert King and power pop rock combo Big Star. Many of today’s indie rock bands owe a huge debt to Alex Chilton and Chris Bell’s fantastic Big Star.

If there was a Berry Gordy figure at Stax, I would say it was Wexler in the early days and Al Bell in the later period. Not only was Wexler involved with much of Stax material, but he was also the person responsible for bringing other Atlantic artists, like Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and Solomon Burke, to record at Stax.

After Wexler left, Bell assumed more production duties and became Stax co-owner. Bell patterned his business model off of Gordy. Bell was the person responsible for getting Stax into the soundtrack business (think “Shaft”) and movie business (think “Wattstax”). Ironically, after Stax bankruptcy and demise, Bell worked with Gordy at Motown in the ’80s.

To answer your question, though, I’d say both Motown and Stax’ success came because they were great at identifying talent – be it the songwriting teams of Holland-Dozier-Holland or Hayes-Porter or the raw talents of Mary Wells and Carla Thomas – and had a great business plan for delivering that talent out to the masses. Success breeds success and once those initial singles broke the charts, other artists wanted in.

Continue to part three.

One thought on “Stax vs. Motown (part two)

  1. “Stax golden years for me are its time with Atlantic when the late Jerry Wexler was helping run the studio.”

    “If there was a Berry Gordy figure at Stax, I would say it was Wexler in the early days and Al Bell in the later period.”

    Hey there,

    I was reading your column, and couldn’t leave without offering a correction on the two quotes above

    Jerry Wexler was absolutely NOT a Berry Gordy figure at Stax, and he NEVER helped run the studio.

    Jerry Wexler cut a distribution deal with Stax, and left them alone to write, perform, record, produce, and promote their material. Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton were the nominal “Berry Gordy” figures, in that they owned and ran the label, but the actual operation of Stax records, at least musically, was far more collaborative and organic than anything that was going on at Motown.

    As far as Atlantic artists being sent to Stax goes, Wexler would do that because he knew that the musicians, writers, and general atmosphere at Stax would bring out the best in his artists. In the case of Sam and Dave, Atlantic had had a string of failures with them and sent them to Stax as a ‘last resort’ to see if they could make something of the duo. The rest, as they say, is history. Eventually Wexler and Atlantic ‘reclaimed’ Sam and Dave and once again were utterly incapable of getting a hit out of them. Sam and Dave were broken up within a couple of years of leaving Stax. Incidentally, while not up to the standards that were set at Stax, Sam and Dave’s later Atlantic recordings were still quite good.

    Finally (and thanks for reading this far if you have), it should be noted that in the previously mentioned distribution deal between Atlantic (run by Wexler) and Stax, there was a clause that gave Atlantic ownership of the Stax catalog after the distribution deal ended. Jim Stewart, the founder of Stax has gone on the record and said that this clause was not mentioned in the original contract discussions and that he didn’t read the fine print when he signed the deal. If this is correct (standard distribution deals do not normally hand over entire label catalogs and Stewart’s account has never been disputed), then rather than being the Berry Gordy figure at Stax, Wexler was a swindler who stole the Stax Records catalog (up until that point) and very nearly destroyed the company.

    If you’d like to know more about Stax records, there’s a terrific book called Hitsville USA written by Rob Bowman that tells the story of Stax in tremendous detail with a ton of interviews. There’s also a PBS American Masters documentary called Respect Yourself that does a good job of telling the story in an hour and a half.

    Cheers!

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