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The Sound That Left Stax Speechless

From early on Memphis musicians have had no problem making a statement without the encumbrance of words. As a young  man, W.C. Handy found music in the wordless sounds of the tapping of shovels, as his co-workers wove complicated rhythms to pass the time on the shovel brigade at a Florence, Alabama iron furnace. His musical genius allowed him to distil the sounds he discovered while touring the rural south. The essence he extracted enabled Handy to refine the music he described as “not really annoying or unpleasant…” but “perhaps haunting,” into a palatable form which found appeal to new audiences. If not the actual birth of the blues, it was at least the assignment of a birth certificate.

Another Alabama-born musical arranger who relocated to Memphis, Bill Justis, gave Phillips International Records (in essence the Sun Records folks) their first national number two release in 1957, with his instrumental called “Raunchy.” Bill Black landed at Hi Records after his whirlwind trip to the heights backing Elvis, and was the next to hit the top 40 with a Memphis instrumental. In 1959, “Smokie Part 2” broke the top 20, and “White Silver Sands” the top 10.  Sax player Ace Cannon stepped out the shadows of the Bill Black Combo, and into the spotlight with his solo smash “Tuff” going top 20 in 1961. 

A few blocks away from Hi Record’s Royal Studio on Lauderdale, the guys at Stax on McLemore were making sure that words didn’t get in the way of a good melody, either. On the heels of the Mar-Keys breakthrough single “Last Night,” producer Chips Moman was inspired to throw together an ensemble to record a couple of instrumental jams, “Burnt Biscuits” and “Raw Dough.” This release was credited to the Triumphs, a name inspired by Chips’ Triumph sporty red TR3. Moman played guitar on the “Raw” side, and stayed on the other side of the glass for the “Burnt” side. Marvell Thomas, brother of Carla, played piano, Howard Grimes was on drums, Lewie Steinberg on bass and Booker T Jones on organ. This was the first single released on the Stax subsidiary label “Volt” records.

After the debut of the first two Stax-produced albums on Atlantic, for the Mar-Keys and Carla Thomas, and the single, “You Don’t Miss Your Water” from William Bell, Chips Moman left Stax. There was a strong disagreement over money and power between Moman, and the label’s owners Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton. A few years down the road, Chips‘ legacy would include dozens of top ten hits and a return to number one for Elvis.

Steve Cropper was a founding member of the Mar-Keys, and already in the Stax building working for Estelle in the Satellite record shop. The departure of Moman left room for Steve behind the board and in the studio, and it proved a perfect fit. Drummer Al Jackson, Jr. was already a legend for his work backing Willie Mitchell, and in the summer of ‘62, Jim Stewart booked him for a Billy Lee Riley session with Cropper on guitar, and the former Triumphs Booker T Jones on Hammond spinet M-3 organ and Lewie Steinberg on bass. More than once, lightning has struck in a Memphis recording studio when the players killed time jamming between takes. The thunder from this particular strike still reverberates to this day. The backing band was jamming on a riff which drew interest from Stewart, who rolled tape, and figured the resulting song “Behave Yourself” would be good enough for a single. But it was the old “now we need something for a B-side” throwaway, of course, that wound up being the hit. We know it now as “Green Onions,” but the song and the group were still unnamed when an advance copy was secreted to DJ Reuben Washington at WLOK. He was taken with the tune, gave it multiple spins, and the calls rolled in to the record shop demanding that new song folks heard on the radio.

The band would be christened Booker T And The MG’s. Former Mar-Keys bassist Duck Dunn would eventually take Steinberg’s place in the lineup, and besides their own impressive list of hits, this quartet would be the bedrock foundation for what would become known as the Stax sound.

My heroes have always been disc jockeys. I especially admired the ones who could take the canvas of the fourteen-second intro of a teeny-bopper song and paint a masterpiece. From my youth, I strove to emulate them. I had the good fortune to walk in some of their footsteps, albeit a respectful pace behind.