Back in 1968 in Skipton I was part of a failed experiment to turn a bar called Andertons run by a pal of mine called Pete Thwaite into a disco three nights a week. I was, of course, the DJ, and I wore a white jacket with dark pin stripes which I thought made me look the part. I hauled my collection of singles down there and sat behind one turntable doing the best I could for the few who showed up. I played singles by The Beatles, Stones and Who and anything else I had to hand but the best ones, the ones that got the ‘crowd’ of less than ten dancing, were those on the pale blue Stax label with a logo that featured a small pile of singles looking like they were about to topple over: ‘Knock On Wood’ by Eddie Floyd, ‘Green Onions’ by Booker T and The MGs and ‘Hold On, I’m Coming’ by Sam & Dave.
I couldn’t help but recall those days as I read Respect Yourself: Stax Records & the Soul Explosion (Bloomsbury), by Robert Gordon, a superb history of the label published earlier this year which I finished the other night. In many ways the book is a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions, the story of how a good-hearted white brother and sister team created something quite magnificent in racially divided Sixties Memphis, only to see it flounder hopelessly through bad luck, bad timing and not reading the small print in contracts. And there’s much more to the story than just the wonderful soul and R&B music that Stax brought to the world: the building they worked in, the studio, shop and offices, became an oasis where black and white musicians could fraternise, create, hang out and generally behave towards each other civilly, as people should, while all around them outside of this building Jim Crow laws and attitudes separated the races and created misery on both sides of the racial divide.
To take the most obvious example, Booker T & the MGs, the legendary Stax house band, was multi-racial, with a white guitarist (the superb Steve Cropper) and bass player (Duck Dunn), and black keyboard player (Hammond wizard Booker T) and drummer (Al Jackson, probably the best time-keeper ever), a line-up that played havoc with social distinctions below the Mason-Dixon line. All of which makes Respect Yourself an important social document as well as a terrific read about some terrific music.
Accolades for Respect Yourself now litter the internet, not least from my friends and fellow music writers Tony Fletcher on his ijamming website and Richard Williams on his Blue Moment blog, so rather than simply join in and say what a great book it is, I’ll reveal that the book asserts categorically that in 1966 The Beatles had decided to visit Memphis to record at the now famous Stax Studio located in a disused cinema. “The phone rang in the spring of 1966 and the crackly voice on the other end said it was England calling,” writes Robert Gordon. “The caller identified himself as Brian Epstein, manager of The Beatles. He’d gotten the number from Jerry Wexler.”
What transpired was that Epstein visited Memphis in March of 1966 to lay the groundwork for The Beatles to visit Stax to record there, probably songs written or about to be written for Revolver, and by inference this probably means ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ and ‘Good Day Sunshine’. They were especially keen to use the horn players from the Bar Kays, the session group that played on records by Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and all the rest. Epstein stayed at the Rivermont Hotel and Estelle Axton, the queen bee of Stax, suggested The Beatles might stay there too though, when he got word of the visit, Elvis offered Graceland. “Estelle’s son-in-law worked for the Memphis police and his responsibilities included traffic detail, so she assured Epstein that that The Beatles would have no trouble moving through town,” says horn player Johnny Keyes.
And then the news got out and chaos intervened. The Memphis newspaper even carried a headline BEATLES TO RECORD HERE. “She [Estelle] confirms an album and a single are planned,” said the newspaper. The Stax studio was promptly inundated by Beatles fans wanting to know when they were due to arrive. “Once fans had official confirmation of where to be on what day, The Beatles had to cancel,” writes Gordon.
So Revolver, like all the other Beatles albums, was recorded at Abbey Road and not in Memphis after all.