Sunday, August 16, 2009

Soulsville on the cover of Arts & Leisure




Should there be any doubt that history is written by the survivors, the cover story of the New York Times Arts & Leisure section affirms it today. Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding-- gone. Al Bell, still around. The cover story of the Times is on the occasion of Al Bell, former head of Stax Records, returning to Memphis as chairman of the Memphis Music Foundation, to redeem his own legacy as an executive who took Stax to both great heights and great depths.

In a book called Boogaloo, by Arthur Kempton, the author distinguishes Stax before and after Bell. "Where Jim Stewart [label founder] had seen himself as an exporter of regional crafts, Al Bell envisioned himself at the heart of a complex modern enterprise that manufactured and sold black American popular culture all over the world."

In a Hit Parader story in October 1967, Steve Cropper, a linchpin of the early Stax sound, details the painstaking process of recording which confirms the "regional crafts" phrase.

In our store, we have one of the first releases from the company that became Stax Records, a white label promo by Charles Heinz. The label was then called Satellite, and chances are you've never heard of Charles Heinz.

In its early days Stax was much better at producing than promoting, and the reason we know its artists and sound today is because people such as Jerry Wexler and Al Bell got involved. The price one pays to taste such precious fruits from a far distance, as consumers of radio and records, is that we see and read stories such as the one the Times published today.

The demise of the Stax empire was due to some bad business deals which the Times calls "complicated." It then goes on to portray Mr. Bell as essentially a bystander and a victim in the machinations.

This is what I mean by "history written by the survivors."

Many people more knowledgeable than I am can take issue with the details of this newspaper story, if they wish to. It seems apparent that Bell pushed out the white guys who created the brand, and re-branded the company with one new album, Isaac Hayes' Hot Buttered Soul. After all, the company founders had lost all their backlist masters in a contract with Jerry Wexler, so the status quo that Bell inherited had no "sweat equity." Now the label was to be marketed the same way that the former "Newport Jazz Festival" became the "Kool Jazz Festival"-- as a necessary vice for the late 1960's, early 1970's emerging urban black consumer.

From then on, the Stax Records story becomes a tale of high finance too sordid to repeat here. As the Times points out, Al Bell was acquitted by a jury. But it would be nice for the newspaper to make less of a whitewash when they are attempting to chronicle a history they don't hesitate to call "complicated."

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