When 1968 dawned, Stax Records was both reeling and reaching new heights: Otis Redding, the label’s biggest solo star, had died in a plane crash along with three other musicians in December; in January, his “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” became the label’s best-selling single to date.
“Otis was a galvanizing force, and no one else could fill that hole,” says Booker T. Jones, founder of Booker T. & the M.G.’s, who played on “Dock of the Bay.”
This tumult, to some extent a reflection of a troubled nation, continued throughout the year. Parent company Atlantic Records ended its relationship with Stax, took its biggest stars, Sam & Dave, and claimed the entire Stax catalog. But the label’s executives and musicians worked overtime to ensure that it stayed vital.
All this played out in Memphis, a city riven by strife. A sanitation workers strike became a watershed moment in shifting the civil rights movement toward economic equality. Then Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in April. Stax musicians and executives had marched with Dr. King and recorded songs to benefit the civil rights movement; they were devastated afterward, especially as tension and violence seized the city.
In real time, it was an incredibly chaotic period, yet inside the studio, the Stax musicians kept working at a remarkable clip. A new 50th anniversary box set released Friday from Craft Recordings, “Stax ’68: A Memphis Story,” recounts the entire saga with 134 songs from Stax and its sub-labels, complemented by a 56-page booklet.
The collection includes the label’s biggest hits of the year, like “Dock of the Bay,” Sam & Dave’s “I Thank You,” Johnnie Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love,” Booker T. & the M.G.’s’ “Hang ‘Em High,” and Eddie Floyd’s “Bring It on Home to Me.” But it also revives overlooked songs, what singer and songwriter William Bell calls “the gems that slipped through the cracks,” and songs that tell the story of Stax, Memphis, and America in a turbulent year.
“These songs influenced and reflected what was going on in our lives then,” says Al Bell, the label’s executive vice president that year.
“When I think back to 1968, there’s a sadness but it was also a time of us banding together at Stax to try and survive,” says William Bell, best known for “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” “Tryin’ to Love Two,” and his 1968 duet with Judy Clay, “Private Number.” (Bell, no relation to Al Bell, co-wrote and/or sang on 14 of the songs included in the box set.)
Surviving and thriving became Al Bell’s focus that year. “My attitude was, ‘We must go on.’” After the break with Atlantic, he quickly made new deals to keep the label afloat, often pushing for a smoother R&B sound with wider appeal to fill the suddenly empty catalog.
But the community around the label was fracturing along racial lines, and its impact was felt inside. “There was resentment and hatred on both sides, and we had to work hard to make sure it did not creep into the confines of Stax,” says William Bell.
“Stax had been an oasis where blacks and whites came together,” adds Al Bell. “Now . . . there was a heightened awareness of the separation and segregation that existed outside the door.”
He walked white personnel to their cars after King’s death to ensure their safety and confronted local militants who threatened to burn the white-owned Stax building down if they didn’t get paid off. “That was thuggery,” Al Bell says. “I took a gun, not out of fear, but to make clear to them, ‘You’re not playing with kids here.’ ”
Still, 1968 took a toll. William Bell, burned out by the racial tensions and the stepped-up pace at the label, left Stax and Memphis the next year. “Artists like Isaac Hayes and David Porter and Rufus Thomas, we all helped keep the label afloat when Stax was going through a tough time, but then I needed change of scenery.”
Jones calls 1968 a “creative apex for me” — on the box set are nearly two dozen songs he co-wrote and/or produced, and he played on many more — yet he left the following year as well, disenchanted with how Al Bell was running the label. (The two recently reconciled.)
“Stax ’68: A Memphis Story” is a time capsule, but the songs still sound fresh and timely, says Deanie Parker, a former Stax executive who is the president and CEO of Soulsville, the nonprofit that manages the city’s Stax Museum of American Soul Music. “Those songs expressed our feeling about the moment and the shortcomings in this country, and they still resonate because they are relevant to what we are going through today.”Stuart Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.