Lincoln Center’s Out of Doors summer series concluded with it’s tribute to one of the most prolific record labels that give the world its own unique blend of soul, blues, gospel, comedy, and deep roots music. Stax Records was formed by the brother and sister team of Estelle Axton and Jim Stewart, a country and western fiddler. These two visionaries, along with former record disc jockey and records promotion guru Al Bell, would produced and record some of the most influential and ground-breaking soul records to come out of the mid-south. The cadre of artists that Stax and its other labels would include Carla and Rufus Thomas, Otis Redding, The Bar-Kays, The Mar-Keys, Eddie Floyd, Albert King, and Isaac Hayes.

Two entertainment visionaries that changed the game of how soul music and black cinema had the power to dominate a heavily white controlled Hollywood. Al Bell, the former Vice President of Operations of Stax Records and independent filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles discussed the important role of Stax Records in a session called “Soul to Soul: Reflections of the Legacy of Stax Records.”
When brother and sister Estelle Axton and Jim Stewart moved their ‘mom and pop’ based business to the old Capitol Movie theater on 926 East McLemore in 1959, the neighborhood changed. Working class whites moved to the suburbs and many blacks migrated there right in the middle of the segregated south. Both Axton and Stewart were bold and rash and hired both black and white performers and had a integrated staff at a time when this wasn’t fashionable as well as dangerous. Groups like the Mar-Keys and Booker T. and the M.G.’s backed the likes of all of acts like Otis Redding, Johnnie Taylor, and Wilson Pickett. Stax had developed their own style of music and sound unlike other famous Memphis labels like Sun and Advent Records.

Al was the promotions director for Stax Records while as a disc jockey in Washington, DC when co-owner Jim Stewart asked him to join the label at a time when Stax split ways with Atlantic Records in 1967. This was time when Otis Redding was killed in a airplane crash, Atlantic due to a clause in their contract owned all the masters to Stax Records, and the label was over 90,000 in debt. Al came in and aggressively put Stax back on the map. He and the Stax house staff recorded over 27 projects and in over a year made the label millions of dollars. Signing groups and vocalists like The Emotions, The Staple Singers, Mel and Tim, Isaac Hayes, and Shirley Brown.

Under Al’s direction he’d change how Hollywood and black film goers saw and bought soul music. Film director Melvin Van Peebles directed a film that no one in Hollywood would touch. This movie was a independent film about a black man who was wrongly accused for a crime that he didn’t commit and sets out on a chase from the “man” (the police who tried to tag him for this heinous crime.) The film “Sweet Sweetback’s Badassss Song” was released independently in city to city by Van Peebles himself. He rented the theater and made his profit from each head that attended the movie. In a move to save money because their was no money in the budget, Melvin composed the music himself. His secretary’s boyfriend was suggested to play the music for the score. In hopes that people would become aware of the music before movie hit their city, Melvin approached Al at Stax Records to release the record so disc jockeys would play the music so listeners would become interested in the music. Al agreed and the soundtrack featuring an unknown group named Earth, Wind and Fire was an instant smash. Every city Melvin took Sweet Sweeback drew record crowds and sold many records. After the success of Melvin’s film, Al repeated the same marketing tactics as Sweetback for another Stax artist Isaac Hayes for what would become Shaft. What Al and Melvin did was set the pace of how black motion picture soundtracks would draw big number for other iconic records like Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly,” “Aretha Franklin’s “Sparkle,” and Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man.”

In the first part of my interview with Melvin and Al, they talk about opening up the doors in black cinema as well as the legacy of the label. For more info on these visionaries please visit them on the web at albellpresents.com and melvinvanpeebles.com

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