The Story of Stax Records Finally Gets the Spotlight

Director Jamila Wignot’s “Stax: Soulsville U.S.A.” debuted on HBO last night

May 21, 2024 6:43 am
A cut from STAX: Soulsville U.S.A.
Founded in 1957, Stax Records was a fixture in Memphis.
Courtesy of HBO

The subject of documentary films including Hitsville: The Making of Motown and Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Detroit native Berry Gordy’s iconic record label, which was founded in 1959 and boasted artists ranging from The Supremes and The Temptations to Marvin Gaye and The Jackson 5, has received countless acknowledgments and accolades over the years for its importance to American music and the Civil Rights movement.

Started in Memphis by Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton two years before Gordy founded his label (which has even been the subject of a children’s book), Stax Records has always seemingly existed in Motown’s shadow, but a new docuseries from HBO and director Jamila Wignot is giving the musical home of artists including Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes and The Staple Singers its time in the spotlight.

A four-part series that debuted last night with its first two episodes, Stax: Soulsville U.S.A. tells the tale of the rise of a label that built itself into a soul institution behind the talent of local musicians, songwriters and producers — both Black and white — before experiencing a series of hardships, including Redding’s death and a messy merger with Atlantic Records that ultimately led Stax to fold in 1975.

Using plenty of music and archival footage as her base, Wignot tells the story of Stax with insight from the men and women who lived in it, many of whom are still alive and were willing and able to be interviewed for the series. “The music is evergreen and the themes within the story are evergreen, for better or worse, but the subjects who are still around to tell their story are in their late 70s and 80s,” Wignot tells InsideHook. “This was the last time we were going to get a story from their perspective. They wanted to tell it and didn’t feel like the full story had really been told on film. They had been hoping to engage in a project to tell their own story in their own words. That’s what we attempted to do. This series meets these individuals when they have the most desire to ensure the truthful and complicated version of their story comes out. That felt really meaningful.”

With the second installment of Stax: Soulsville U.S.A. set to air tonight on HBO and all four episodes now available to stream via Max, we spoke with Wignot about the series.

InsideHook: Although Motown and Stax are similar, they’ve been covered very differently. Why is that?

Jamila Wignot: I have a lot of speculative thoughts on that. One, I think Berry Gordy was a much better self-promoter of his entity. The two companies started at the same time, but Motown succeeded with a bigger kind of crossover appeal much earlier. Right out the gate Motown was making music that was obviously Black music, but in a way that had commercial appeal. Stax had a different genesis; its story is big and unwieldy, and its ending is really complicated to unpack. I think it’s just a harder story, and it reveals uncomfortable truths. When you have a Motown, people have just gravitated to that more.

IH: Did Stax being in Memphis and Motown being in Detroit impact how they were perceived?

JW: I think that was a big factor. Stax’s director of promotions Deanie Parker always said they were geographically misplaced. They weren’t building their label from a place that had a lot of dominance in the music industry. As much as it’s a story of the divide between Black and white, I think it’s also a story of the divide between urban and rural and North and South. There was certainly the idea, “These Southern yokels who don’t know what they’re doing.” It’s a huge part of what you’d assume was a disadvantage to the label’s success.

IH: Given how divided segments of the population are today, is the Stax story particularly relevant now?

JW: I think so. In episode two, Booker T talks about how they were having a great time and allowing their love of music to guide them, but that meant everybody buying into an unspoken social contract to not talk about what was happening in the world. They were going to walk in and forget they had these differences. To me, the moment of MLK for Stax is similar in some ways to George Floyd. You have these ruptures where you realize we’ve all been going along with business as usual out of, I think, a real hope. There are plenty of people right now who know who they are and the world around them is telling them they don’t deserve to exist and shouldn’t follow their intuition. There are plenty of people asking “Do I get to be?” I think these individuals are real symbols of saying, “Yes, yes, you. You just have to try to figure it out.”

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IH: If Otis Redding hadn’t died in 1967, would the Stax story have turned out differently?

JW: It’s an interesting thing to consider. There were four posthumous records released after Otis’s death. He’s the first artist to have had that happen. With all the incredible music he was making, it’s a wonder to think how he would’ve grown and evolved as an artist. In our film, we see he was exploring the terrain of Bob Dylan and the Beatles. How would his sound have evolved? I think he was such a charismatic leader that would he have been able to do something to keep the family together in the wake of some of the political stuff that was happening in ’68. So it’s a question of where the sound would have gone and evolved. At the same time, would Isaac Hayes still have been forced into the role of hitmaker and given free rein to explore? They gave him that opportunity and he built the possibilities for Black album-making. Hot Buttered Soul is to Black artists what Sgt. Pepper’s is to the rock world. If there’s no Hot Buttered Soul, maybe there’s no Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye or Curtis Blow. It’s hard to know.

IH: Is there a takeaway or lesson from the series you are hoping viewers will leave with?

JW: We chose to end episode four with Jim’s nostalgic reverie looking back at all the label he built and having to confront the reality of it ceasing to exist. These are two truths we have to hold on to at the end of a story like this. Look at everything possible that we can do and then look at the forces that stand against this push for possibility. The legacy of that music will never go away, thank God, because the music has this possibility built into it. But you can’t celebrate the music without really wrestling with the story. I think too often, we’re looking for a heroic hooray at the end of a film. I want people to walk away in a more thoughtful place of poignancy.

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