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Stax '66

Before the Beatles came to Memphis for the August, 1966 concert, their manager Brian Epstein came to scout Memphis as a potential recording destination. The band was anxious to expand their aural horizons, and their interest in the R&B sounds coming from the states along with their respect for the technical sound coming from the records recorded in Memphis, led Epstein to get in touch with Atlantic Records. Atlantic turned the project over to Stax, and in March, 1966, Epstein booked into the Rivermont and set about to explore the possibilities.

Stax co-owner Estelle Axton put together a tour of the facilities on McLemore, and even lined up an estate on Walnut Grove which would potentially accommodate the band during their stay. According to the book Soulsville USA, once the story leaked to the press, Memphis’ own version of the Apple Scruffs, the girls who camped outside London’s EMI studios at Abbey Road in anticipation of possible Beatle sightings, congregated on the corners near Stax in South Memphis. In the end, however, Epstein determined that security would be inadequate for the safety of his boys and scrapped the plan altogether.

So, even though the Memphis Horns playing wouldn't be playing on “Got To Get You Into My Life,” Stax nonetheless had a hot summer in ‘66.

The story, as Isaac Hayes told it, was that he was warming up in the studio as collaborator David Porter was momentarily indisposed. Isaac was working a riff on the piano, and hollered for David to hurry up. Porter was able to hear Hayes clearly because the tiled men’s room had a speaker feeding audio from the studio. Combined with a mike input back to the control board, this arrangement took advantage of the acoustics of the restroom and functioned as an ersatz echo chamber. David hollered back, “Hold on, I’m coming!” and a hit was born then and there. The duo of Sam and Dave was on loan to Stax from Atlantic, and their version of this song would top the Billboard Black Singles chart, and peak at number 21 on the Hot 100 nationally.

Eddie Floyd was born in Montgomery, Alabama, and raised in Detroit where he founded the Falcons with future Stax stalwart Mack Rice. Floyd came to Stax as a songwriter in 1965. He found instant success collaborating with Steve Cropper to compose “Ninety-Nine And A Half Won’t Do” and “634-5789 (Soulsville USA),” key tunes for Wilson Pickett. “Knock On Wood” was originally intended for Otis Redding, but when Atlantic Record’s Jerry Wexler heard the version Floyd and Cropper put together, he convinced Jim Stewart of Stax not to wait on a remake. Eddie Floyd’s “Knock On Wood” hit number on the Soul Singles chart, and number 28 pop. Over 100 artists have covered it, including Amii Stewart’s take on the song, which topped the pop charts in 1979.

With their 1960 single “Cause I Love You,” Rufus and Carla Thomas first directed the attention of Atlantic Records to the music that was being recorded in Memphis. Carla’s follow up, “Gee Whiz,” cemented the distribution arrangement between Atlantic and Stax. Throughout the early 60’s, Carla interposed recording with college, and continued to keep popping up with albums and hit singles. Carla’s 1966 release, “B-A-B-Y,” went to number three on the R&B charts, and crossed over to number 14 on the Hot 100.

1966 also saw Stax releases from The Mar-Keys, Johnnie Taylor, Albert King, William Bell, Mable John and Booker T And The MG’s. Simultaneously, their allied imprint Volt records enjoyed hits from The Mad Lads and Otis Redding.

A world away on the west coast, 1966 was the breakthrough year for a group called the Mamas And The Papas. That group would be instrumental in the production of an event in 1967 which would open the talent of Otis Redding to a new audience altogether.

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.