It was supposed to be a country music record company. But, as presented in the new 4-part documentary, Stax: Soulsville U.S.A. (an HBO production, now streaming on Max), “They had no idea how much black talent was right outside that door. Great black music was all around the neighborhood.”

That neighborhood was Memphis, Tennessee. And the reborn entities that would emerge from it were the Satellite Record Shop and iconic Stax Records, named as a portmanteau of its two utterly-foreign-to-soul-music white founders, Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton. What makes the documentary so riveting is not only its detailed depictions of the truly remarkable body of music to come out of the Stax studio on East McLemore Avenue in South Memphis – indisputably one of the greatest generators of the soul sound in American music history – but also the embroiled cultural context in which it was created. In the deep south in the early 1960’s, that context could mean only one thing: race.

“It was an anomaly, especially in Memphis back then” said Booker T. Jones, a 14-year-old pioneer at the studio’s onset, and one of the documentary’s primary on-screen sources. “Before Stax, I had zero interaction with white people.” Stax, however, was a fully integrated organization, at a time when basically nothing else was. A white-owned business, stewarded under black leadership. And most importantly, with white and black musicians making incredible music together. In its earliest phase, Stax actually produced what is acknowledged to be popular music’s first integrated band, Booker T. & the M.G.’s (black members Booker T. Jones and Al Jackson, Jr., on keyboards and drums, and white players Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn, on guitar and bass).

Stax’s unforeseeable growth from mom-and-pop shop to regional powerhouse to corporate takeover target, while launching the careers of the M.G.’s in addition to Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, and Otis Redding, among many others, is tracked against the racial and societal upheaval gripping 1960’s America as a whole, but likely few places more acutely than Memphis. The assassination of Martin Luther King occurred there on April 4th of 1968, a tragedy recounted on an even more personal note for many in the Stax family. Dr. King was slain at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, theretofore considered the “second home of Stax,” an oasis where their musicians would regularly congregate together in undetected interracial harmony. Notably, in the turbulence and riots that followed King’s murder, many properties in the vicinity of the Stax studio were destroyed, but Stax was left untouched.

Soulsville U.S.A. takes us on an enthralling decade-plus ride, through the many triumphs and crises of Stax Records, to its unlikely place within the mainstream of American music: the death of its most ascendant star, Otis Redding, in a plane crash at just 26; the revolutionary conquest of in-house songwriter and session musician Isaac Hayes, winning an Academy Award for Best Original Song for “Shaft” in 1972, becoming just the third black artist (following only Hattie McDaniel and Sidney Poitier) to win an Oscar in any category; a full label trip for a London concert series in 1967, described by Director of Promotions Al Bell as the first time blacks and whites being together was treated as normal; and cut-throat corporate maneuverings by Atlantic Records and later Columbia/CBS Records, for which sadly naive owner Jim Stewart was wholly unprepared.

And, of course, we’re also provided with electrifying archival live performance footage by the Stax roster: Sam & Dave’s sweaty high-stepping in London; Otis Redding’s breathtaking set at the Monterey Pop Festival; and the historic Wattstax event at the L.A. Coliseum, an unheard-of black-produced and black-attended concert. West coast organizers were understandably skeptical that “a little record company from Memphis” could sell enough tickets to justify the booking, but on Aug. 20, 1972 over 112,000 devotees filled the stadium (a film, Wattstax, released in 1974, was selected in 2020 for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant”).

Still, my favorite performance piece by far came not from a studio outtake or some highly energized concert, but from present-day Booker T. Jones sitting calmly at an organ, matter-of-factly describing his creation of the epochal opening chords to the greatest instrumental ever made, ‘Green Onions.’ It takes place in Episode 1 – from 24:38 to 26:16 to be exact – and though I’ve replayed it now for at least a dozen views, it still gives me chills every time I see it. If you’re a music fan of nearly any variety, I highly recommend you don’t leave the earth without someday watching this segment.

Ultimately, in a denouement that was either bitterly ironic or perfectly predictable, Stax was crushed and driven to ruin in 1975 by some of the same despicable racist practices that had made its emergence so remarkable and unique. In a cynical scapegoating maneuver, Al Bell, a black executive who by this time had risen to become Stax’s co-owner, was falsely linked (he was subsequently acquitted) to an embezzling scandal at Union Planters Bank, a Memphis-headquartered establishment where Stax’s accounts were held. The fallout suffocated Stax’s business until the company was finally forced into involuntary bankruptcy and shuttered. The Stax studio building, an audacious symbol of barrier-smashing racial equality far beyond the music business, was unceremoniously demolished.

Bell unequivocally maintained that the city’s white power structure loathed the presence of such a successful black-owned company and was determined to destroy it by any means necessary, using the falsified fraudulent banking activity as an excuse. Other testimonials echo the same despairing truth. “We were trying to be that example of the American ideal,” says Deanie Parker, originally a record shop employee and later Stax’s Director of Publicity, who serves as another of the key narrators for the documentary. “But because of its successes, and what it represented, those with the power, they wanted Stax Records to be erased.”

Fortunately, that cruel eradication proved impermanent; though long delayed, there was one more rebirth still to come. The final two screens of Soulsville U.S.A. read as follows:

“In May, 2003, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music opened at the original site.

The music and legacy live on.”

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And, what better way to celebrate that music and Stax’s undiminished legacy than with a freshly prepared playlist: Stacks of Stax – my attempt to curate the top 40 songs from among the rich Stax catalog. I’m quite confident you’ll enjoy the listen; really, what living soul could resist this Soul?