Memphis, Tennessee, is the home of Stax Records, the studio and label that discovered one of the most magnificent singers this world has ever heard, Otis Redding. They also produced some of the greatest soul music of 1960s America.
Along with Motown in Detroit, Atlantic in New York, Chess records in Chicago and Fame down in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, they released records that went on to sell millions of copies worldwide. American R&B was as popular as Elvis and the Beatles, and Motown boss Berry Gordy observed, he knew who he was making records for and how to sell black music to white America, and the competition copied him.
When you listen back to, say, Marvin, Aretha, Sam, Ray, Etta, Diana and Smokey, it’s incredible to think that these artists and labels were releasing conveyer belt-style music almost daily struggling to cope with the enormous demand. It was the zenith of the 7” single and teenagers bought them as regularly as a loaf of bread and a packet of cigarettes.
When I was younger, aunties and uncles, older brothers and sisters, would proudly boast of how many Motown and Stax records they owned; it was kudos and currency all at the same time and above all, it was very cool getting on down to American soul music.
Having trawled America making documentaries on this particular subject, what fascinates me most is how this actually happened: how did Berry Gordy gather so much talent in one place? What vision did Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, the owners of Stax, have (look carefully at their names and you will see where the name of their company came from)?
What I was looking for was the elixir, the magic potion, a secret locked away in the vaults of a large bank safe that explains how it was all done. They more I searched, the more cases of “chance” and “coincidence” seemed to crop up.
This revelation was compounded recently when I met producer, songwriter, rhythm guitarist extraordinaire and founding member of the Stax house band Booker T and the MGs, Steve Cropper. He was a lifelong friend of Otis Redding and co wrote (Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay, Mr Pitiful and Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song), among many others.
Steve was raised on country music and little else in Dora, Missouri, before moving with his family to Memphis for work in the early 1950s. Hearing gospel, R&B and the newly emerging rock ‘n’ roll sound for the first time, he was captivated.
Cropper began copying Chuck Berry riffs and, along with a school friend, formed the Royal Spades, who eventually renamed themselves as the Mar-Kays and scored a national hit with Last Night.
He also had a part-time job at Stax, which led to him forming one of the greatest rhythm sections of all time, Booker T and the MGs. They recorded Green Onions in 1962, which went on to become one of the best-known mod anthems of all time.
His first encounter with Otis could have been so different but for an unusual set of circumstances. In 1963, Steve and the other MGs were going about their daily duties searching for a groove to put on a song, when all of a sudden a big black Cadillac screeched to a halt, pulling up outside Stax to drop off a group called Johnny Jenkins and the Pine Tops, who were signed to Atlantic and, under the insistence of label boss Jerry Wexler, had come down to Memphis in search of a follow up to their first big hit, Love Twists.
Steve takes up the story: “I saw this big, tall guy jump out of this Cadillac, go to the trunk and start offloading microphones and amps, he looked like he was setting up for a gig. He was chauffeuring the band around town and his name was Otis Redding. All day long Redding was bugging MGs drummer Al Jackson to hear him croon. ‘Well, maybe later, after the session ends. If we have time, we’ll hear you sing,’ replied Al.
“The recording ended and we decided to give him a go. I sat down at the piano and Otis asked me to play a few church chords, as he called them, and off he went. I hit a big B flat and he burst into These Arms of Mine, and wow that was it,” beams Cropper. Can you imagine being right there at that moment, a moment in musical history that changed soul music for ever?
“Can you imagine, the hair on the back of my neck and arms stood on end. I bolted up from the piano and said to him, ‘Stay there, don’t move, don’t even leave the building!’ I ran out to catch bassist Duck Dunn who was loading his guitar into his car before heading off home. I shouted, ‘Get that guitar back into this damn studio, now! We’ve got work to do.’
“We gathered the assembled MGs in the studio and recorded These Arms of Mine right there and then. It was an unforgettable experience.”
A lifelong friendship began that day, which lasted until Redding’s untimely death at the age of 26 in 1967. For many at Stax Records, the death of Otis signalled the end of the label, it was like being woken up from a magnificent dream.
So was this a pure case of chance or coincidence, could Otis have knocked on another studio door and received the same reception with the same conclusion? Maybe not.
Chance or coincidence, you still need a modicum of talent to shine through, but looking back you automatically assume that Otis would have made it whatever happened.
Just think how many failed Otis’s there are out there, awaiting their one chance to prove that they are one of the greatest singers that ever lived and don’t get the chance to shine. Yes, making it needs talent, but you also need that chance meeting, that weird coincidence, that one-off strange coming together of disparate, like-minded people.
Pete Mitchell talks to Steve Cropper this Saturday at 10pm on Absolute Radio