…and if you’re a music fan, don’t miss Respect Yourself, the new PBS documentary on Memphis’ Stax Records, produced by my fellow Memphian, Robert Gordon. It’s a beautifully done tribute to the label that produced some of the greatest American soul music, from Otis Redding to Booker T and the MGs to the Staples Singers. Heartbreaking, too, particularly the story of how the friendships forged between black and white musicians at Stax – unusual for the times – were shattered by the assassination of Martin Luther King. It’s a reminder of all that is great about America, and its ugliness too. Below is an excerpt from Gordon’s classic book, IT CAME FROM MEMPHIS – one of the best guides to cultural and political roots to American rock & soul music.
Robert Gordon, on Memphis and the origins of Stax: “In the 1950s, with Elvis as an icon, white audiences were ready for new artists like Little Richard and established artists like Ike Turner, whom they’d previously missed. Though rock and roll now sells everything from hamburgers to presidential candidates, white society did not readily embrace such interracial, intercultural concepts. Segregation was still the law of the land in the 1950s, and anyone who respected black culture was given the same treatment as blacks: second-rate. Only when white eyes witnessed blacks laying down their lives for their country in World War II did some begin perceiving blacks as their allies. That slight opening of the door coincided with a push from the other side. Black witnesses to their brothers’ deaths — deaths for a country that enforced apartheid — moved their community to rebel en masse: the Civil Rights movement and desegregation. Despite the passage of laws and the enforcement of various race-mixing programs, this conflict is still being resolved today. Welfare, substandard housing and education, prejudice from the bank’s loan desk — the violence that is a response to this covert domination is a testament to the chasm that still runs beneath our society.
“This same lack of understanding between the races is responsible for the innovation of rock and roll. Most of the machinery for recording and manufacturing was owned by the whites, and when they got in the studio with blacks, a bridge had to be established. An example of the cultural collision is cited by the aforementioned Jim Dickinson. “There’s a box set of Little Richard outtakes that’s out on CD, with Earl Palmer on the drums. Brilliant drummer, one of the most influential in early rock music. You hear the first take of, I think, ‘Lucille,’ and they run it down several times till they get the master. Lee Allen, the sax player, plays the same solo from the first cut to the last. But Earl Palmer starts out playing a shuffle! He’s not playing the eighth note thing that became Little Richard’s signature. He’s shuffling. You also hear these insets of white voices on the talkback, and one of ’em is Cosmo Matassa, the engineer, and the other one must be the producer Art Rupe. And Rupe is saying the most insensitive, typically white things. But those had to be said in order to make the shuffle into what we now know as rock and roll. The racial collision, it has to be there.”
“The forces of cultural collision struck thrice in the Memphis area, first with the Delta blues, then with Sun, then Stax. These sounds touched the soul of society; unlike passing fads, these sounds have remained with us. By definition, most of popular culture is disposable, but Memphis music has refused to disappear. In electrified civilization, even when stripped of the particular racial and social context in which it was born, what happened in Memphis remains the soundtrack to cultural liberation.”