Tuesday, September 07, 2004

From Memphis to L.A.

Soul music, as a distinct offshoot of R&B, had a brief reign--a dozen years at the most, from maybe the early 60s to the mid 70s, coinciding roughly with the heyday of Stax Records in Memphis, an independent label that provided a launching pad for Booker T and the MGs, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes, and dozens of lesser-known artists. As chronicled in Rob Bowman's excellent book, Soulsville USA, the label was as much about black empowerment as it was about music. And it was in that spirit that Stax presented a 1972 concert commemorating the seventh anniversary of the 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles. Wattstax, as it was known, has been remembered as the Black Woodstock. As at Woodstock, a film crew was on hand to record events as they happened. Wattstax was released in theaters in 1973, and it makes its broadcast TV debut on the PBS series POV tonight. Check your local listings for time and channel, as they say on TV. (A Village Voice review of the film from its 2003 DVD release is here.)

I've never seen the movie, although I remember when it came out, and I've read a lot about its role in the history of Stax. As a document of African-American culture circa 1972, it's supposed to be pretty valuable--as much in comparison with that culture today as it is by itself. Politics and sociology aside, there's some great music in it, too, including performances by Isaac Hayes (best known to the current generation as the voice of Chef on South Park) that were lost for 30 years until the restored DVD was released. It's mostly forgotten how enormous a star Hayes was for a few years in the early 1970s, but Wattstax serves as a reminder.

Wattstax was supposed to mark Stax Records' entry into movie production, which was part of label president Al Bell's plan to build a media empire. As it turned out, the label was already badly overextended, and the film didn't help. It would be only a couple of years before Stax went bankrupt. The old movie theater on McLemore Avenue in Memphis that housed the company was later torn down, and Stax was left entirely to history. Recently, however, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music has rebuilt the original building on the same site--which means I gotta get back to Memphis pretty soon.


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