Respect Yourself: Stax Records and The Soul Explosion by Robert Gordon (Bloomsbury)

I read a lot of books about music, some for fun and some to review here. I like most of them, but know that often they’re appealing simply because I’m interested in learning more about music, and not because they’re particularly well-written. Respect Yourself is the rare music book with an exciting subject matter – in this case the multiple rises and falls of Stax Records – that’s also really well written. Author Robert Gordon’s lyrical prose and exquisite word choices, are a difference-maker in elevating the book beyond just a good story. For example:

Stax stood tall as a symbol of opportunity, a beacon in the neighborhood, the glow from the ascending stars ensconcing nearby residents.

You won’t find a sentence like that in Motley Crue’s The Dirt.

Gordon is also an expert on the subject, having written about Memphis and its local music scene for over thirty years. His knowledge enables him to frame the Stax story through outside elements of city politics, civil rights upheaval (a key element when talking about a white-owned Southern R&B label with an interracial house band, Booker T. and The MGs), and a cadre of local characters that came through the label’s doors at 926 East McLemore Ave.

As for the story itself, it’s a great one, with two distinct halves. The first half covers the period from when co-owners Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton launched the label as a small neighborhood enterprise in 1957, through the death of its biggest star Otis Redding and the loss of the back catalogue to Atlantic Records in 1968. The second half tracks Stax’s re-launch under new co-owner Al Bell, who returned it to the spotlight on the strength of Isaac Hayes’ genius Hot Buttered Soul. Bell also ushered in a new, capitalistic mindset at the label, marked by violent gun-toting enforcers, endless nonsensical business acquisitions, and generally shady activities. Of course, it didn’t end well, with bankruptcy shutting Stax’s doors in 1975, and Bell getting hit with hefty bank fraud charges (he would be acquitted). Amazingly, Gordon gets readers as emotionally invested in the business side of Stax as much, if not more, than the musical – the stories about radio promotions men are as electrifying as those of the label’s hit-makers. An important inclusion in any music geek’s library.