This book tells the story of Stax Records, but it isn’t just a the story of Stax the record label, as it also places the story in the context of Memphis and the civil rights movement, and there are some very interesting parallels between the rise and fall of Stax and other American businesses.
Stax is my favourite soul label and this book was given to me as a gift because of that. And I read the book because of that (and went to Memphis, in part, because of that). But even if you are not a particularly huge fan of some or most of the artists who released music on Stax in the ’60s and ’70s, there is a lot here of interest to anyone who is interested in racial politics in the US or in how businesses fail.
For me, the initial appeal of the book was in Gordon’s description of this unique label, founded by white people but putting out music by black people in one of the most segregated cities in the United States. (I had no idea how segregated Memphis was back then until reading this book.) Gordon’s choice to focus on the greater context for the label is really illuminating, and honestly makes the formation of Stax seem kind of miraculous.
Gordon tells a good story and the book is super easy to read. It’s full of interviews with most of the major players but it also moves along at a pretty brisk clip for a book as long and detailed as it is.
For me, everything builds up to Otis’ death and I figured the rest of the book might not be of interest to me, given that most of what I listen to from Stax was released prior to the crash.
But I was wrong. The story of how Stax got bigger and bigger and bigger and then imploded is more interesting than its foundation. It is a crazy, convoluted story and, at times, Gordon seems almost as confused as the reader. One kind of needs a forensic accountant to figure out exactly what happened and I do sort of wish he had presented the actual financial data of the fall a little more clearly. But that minor criticism aside, the second part of the book is a quintessential story of American business hubris – betrayals, over-expansion and what we would now call ‘mark to market’ accounting – that recalls so many other American business stories. Reading the latter half of the book, I’m left with the impression that the story of Stax isn’t so much the story of a record label as it is the story of an American business.
It’s fascinating and compelling stuff, with some aspects that are stranger than fiction. So even if Otis Redding isn’t your favourite soul singer – or Isaac Hayes, or whomever – this is worth reading for the story of how an American business could succeed against improbable odds and then fail both for reasons of racial politics and for normal the reasons so many American businesses have failed