"Take a step back in time and enjoy your stay."

-- Paul B Allen III: March 28, 2020


There have been some historic matchups throughout the ages. David vs Goliath, Cassius Clay vs Sonny Liston, the Boston Celtics vs the Los Angeles Lakers, the Boston Red Sox vs the New York Yankees (what is it with Boston?), Burger King vs McDonald’s, and Pepsi vs Coke. 

But, for a time, one of the biggest rivalries in music was between two record companies, one named Motown and the other named Stax. 

These two companies were worthy adversaries who had two completely different approaches to music, even down to differences in the shaping of the sound of their records. And these differences were most profound when it came to demographics. 

Motown trademarked the phrase, “The Music of Young America.” And, that in itself shows the direction of their music and marketing plan. Motown wanted music that was “cross-over” worthy. They wanted to expand the horizons of the black music culture by making music that was at once enjoyed by black America but would also be accepted by young white America. That was their thrust. And history has proven time and again that this plan worked. We all know and love the zillions of great Motown songs. 

But during a time of tremendous racial upheaval, Stax Records hit the scene, and their music was unabashedly directed at the African American market. If a song from Stax just happened to cross-over to white America, great. If it didn’t, no biggie, because young white America was not the demographic they were shooting for. 

While Motown had a sign on their building that said, "Hitsville U.S.A." Stax had a sign on their building that said "Soulsville U.S.A."

So, when it came to the match-up between Motown and Stax, Motown was serving slices of all-American apple pie, while Stax was serving slices of down-home Mississippi sweet potato pie. 

"The Motown Sound" was smooth and sophisticated.

Stax music was raw, earthy, sensually powerful, and emotionally engaging.

And those of us who were lucky enough to live during those times could have a slice of one or the other, or both. My friends, musically speaking, those days were magic.       

Stax eventually lost this match-up. Not because they didn't have the acts or the songs or dedicated management. But in business, as in most things, the devil is in the detail.

A distributing agreement that Stax signed with Atlantic Records contained clauses that gave Atlantic full and complete ownership of all of the Stax master recordings that it was distributing. When, after the fact, Stax discovered this, they were horrified. They had a gold mine, but they had inadvertently given away all of the gold inside it. And what good is it to own a gold mine when you don't get to keep the gold?

That one incident began a downward spiral that Stax was never able to recover from.  

Today, there is no Stax records, and there has not been for decades, but what a mind-boggling legacy of music and artists it left this world. 

Here are just a few of the phenomenal acts that recorded on Stax, and I’m sure you will remember these songs: 

Johnnie Taylor gave Stax Records the very first platinum record in recording history with his song “Disco Lady.” But the song that put Johnnie on the map for me, and I am sure for many of you, was the one that is featured today, called “Who’s Making Love.” 

Jean Knight’s tune, “Mr. Big Stuff” was almost like a novelty song to me, and it made me smile every time I heard it. There was just something about the attitude of the song and the way she delivered it. 

Sam & Dave had many hit songs on Stax, but “Soul Man” is their signature tune. It is perhaps the only song I have ever heard that created a new name and genre in music.

After “Soul Man” was released and did so well, official music magazines like Billboard and Cashbox and Rolling Stone started referring to, and categorizing this style of music as, “Soul Music.” Soul Music is now called Soul Music because of the worldwide and cultural impact of Sam & Dave’s song, “Soul Man.” The term was used to label the kind of music that was being produced by Stax Records, not Motown.

The Staple Singers were another amazing act on the Stax label. And what a unique group line-up. It even included the patriarch of the Staples family, referred to as “Pops” Staples. And one of Pop's daughters, Mavis Staples, was laying down some of the most soulful vocals the world had ever heard, and she did it so effortlessly that it was incredible. Mavis brought “church” right up on stage with her, no matter where she was performing. “Respect Yourself” is another classic song recorded at Stax Records.

The Dramatics did a lot for Stax, beginning with their hit song, “What Your See Is What You Get.” Ron Banks, the falsetto-singing founder of the group, became a friend. Ron was a really great guy. He was kind, funny, super-talented, and not at all pretentious, which he could have been, because at that time the Dramatics were flying high. I enjoyed hanging out with Ron as he spent a lot of time in the offices of Wayne Henderson’s At Home Productions, which is where I spent a lot of time writing music.

I think it was Ron's desire to have Wayne--one of the most sought after producers of his day--produce a solo project with him, though he planned on remaining a member of the Dramatics. I enjoyed listening to Ron as he played his proposed music tracks and sang the lyrics live for Wayne and me to hear. 

I was greatly saddened when Ron passed away. He was only 58 years old. Life on the road can be tough. 

Mel & Tim were cousins, who were discovered by the great Gene "The Duke of Earl" Chandler, and Gene produced their first big hit, “Backfield In Motion” on Bamboo Records. Mel & Tim later signed with Stax and recorded the  song, “Starting All Over Again.” 

Albert King (no relation to B.B. King) is one of the greatest bluesmen that ever sang and played a guitar. His biggest hit with Stax was called, “Born Under A Bad Sign,” which is now a blues classic. I think you will enjoy this video, as it has Albert and the  great Stevie Ray Vaughn performing this iconic song together. Simply beautiful. Any of you guitar players out there will especially appreciate this one, as will you blues lovers. 

Please remember, this is only a partial list of artists that have recorded hits at Stax records.  There were so many more, and some of them have been featured here on the The Saturday Morning Song Chronicles in the past, like Carla Thomas, Booker T. and the M.G.’s, Otis Redding, and Isaac Hayes. Still, there were others like Eddie Floyd with his song "Knock On Wood," and Fredrick Knight with "Bet You Didn't Know That."  

Motown vs Stax? Not really. Apples and oranges. Both companies, in their own way, have enriched our lives immeasurably. 

Enjoy these rare videos, and I look forward to seeing you again next week for the latest installment of The Saturday Morning Song Chronicles.