Sunday, January 16, 2011

The King Took the Music With Him

The tragic death of Martin Luther King, Jr. was felt all over. From the riots in Chicago all the way to Uncertain, Texas where the restaurant at Crip's camp was burned to the ground. The chimney is the only thing left standing to this day.

This story is about music and the battle between North and South. And how the death of one man tore our country apart as well as a modest little record company that was color blind.

In 1957, Berry Gordy wrote a song for Jackie Wilson that hit the pop charts and would plunge Gordy from the Lincoln-Mercury assembly line to the record business. Motown would soon become the first all black owned record company pushing out hits faster than they could cut the records.

Artists like the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson Five and the Supremes were all breaking new ground while crossing over to a white market. A market that had been taboo for many white kids with the darkness of race records preached against by many a minister.

Gordy had been around the corporate world long enough to learn how things were run within marketing. He knew that the cars he helped put together went through long processes of focus groups before they ever hit the assembly line. He was sensitive to the white market and knew that the real money to be made was in the pockets of white kids. So he made great efforts in determining what records would sell using grueling focus groups on each record they produced.

A well oiled marketing department resulted in the biggest cross over platform for selling records than any other record company had experienced. Gordy had broken new ground not only with how records were made but also how they were penetrated within a market that was nearly impossible to break into.

The clean sound you hear  from Motown is just that. A sound that has been refined to an almost "easy listening" brand of soul music. It's pretty. It's well thought out. It's soul dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit. And most importantly to Mr. Gordy, it was money and lots of it.

In an interview given by Rufus Thomas on the birth of Stax Records, he explains in great detail about the sound of Detroit and how clean it was. But when you crossed that Mason Dixon line and came into Memphis, it was raw. It was big, bold and you knew it was Stax when you heard that bottom sound.

Unlike Motown, Stax Records was an accident. In 1959, Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton opened a recording studio in the old Capitol Theater on McLemore Avenue. In 1960, they recorded Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla with their first hit, "Cause I Love You" putting the  studio on the map within the black market. The irony of it all was that Jim and Estelle were about as white as you can get and were soon becoming the talk of the black community.

Pulling in the Mar-Keys in 1961 which was a local high school R&B band, Jim and Estelle scored again with an instrumental hit titled "Last Night." The Mar-Keys, a racially mixed band, would become Booker T. and the Mgs forming the studio band that would back every artist rolling through to record. Artists such as Sam and Dave, Little Milton, Otis Redding, Johnnie Taylor and Isaac Hayes became the staples of the "Memphis Sound" that was resonating against the clean sounds of Detroit.

Aside from the success of the music being produced in this modest studio, the real miracle taking place was the interaction between black and white musicians pushing each other to the limit on what they could do with the music. Inside the walls of Stax, there were no barriers between race which gave way to the freedom of expression within the studio. The "Memphis Sound" became the doorway to a divided South and historically led to the very first integrated music company in the United States.

On April 4th, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis and aside from the rest of the country, Memphis fell apart. The black community raged against his murder and let the world know just how they felt in all the major cities. Chicago looked like some sort of war zone and the soul of Memphis was pulled completely out of the people that lived within her.

Stax Records would never be the same as race relations were undergoing so much friction. To this day, the musicians still tear up just talking about it. All the ground broken between blacks and whites within that studio would be buried along with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the dreams he stood for.

In 1960, there was a battle on the Mason Dixon line. It began with the dreams of people that dared to be different. A difference that led them to discover that great things can be accomplished when there are no walls.

"I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together."

– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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