As I write in today's Wall Street Journal (go here), the Stax Music Academy is working wonders down in Memphis giving at-risk high school students purpose and direction. Most interesting is that the academy treats soul like classical music and jazz—taking it seriously and teaching the next generation the essence and art of the music and performance. In case you hadn't noticed, soul is a dying art form. One of the former Stax stars who is actively involved in showing the academy's students how it's done is Eddie Floyd.
Back in the 1960s, jazz went off in several new directions. The times demanded it. There was jazz-pop, free jazz, avant-garde jazz and the esoteric jazz of the Miles Davis Quintet. The same was true of R&B. The music that artists like Lionel Hampton and Johnny Otis kicked off in the late 1940s soon was influenced by gospel singers in the early 1950s and then street-harmony groups in the late 1950s. By 1961, Motown in Detroit was leveraging a new smoother form that groomed black artists for mass-market crossover success. And then there was Stax.
Stax was based in Memphis, and its R&B style was grittier and more soulful than Northern labels. Stax was an amalgamation of Southern blues, jump beats and riffs found in church music. Black and white musicians composed and arranged the music together, and they all played behind black stars. Stax's hits often were built on riffs and licks, most often played by horns, electric guitar and organ.
The Stax name was a merging of the first two letters of the founders' last names—James Stewart and Estelle Axton. They were brother and sister. And they were white. After Otis Redding died in a plane crash in 1967, they took on a third partner, Al Bell, who is black. The fascinating thing about Stax was how integrated the company was on all levels and how the label along with Motown helped grease the wheels of the civil rights movement.
When I was down in Memphis a few weeks ago reporting this story, I spent a few hours with Eddie Floyd. Eddie wrote and co-wrote quite a few Stax hits. His biggest, co-written with Steve Cropper of Booker T. & the M.G.'s, was Knock on Wood. When I met Eddie, he had just driven eight hours from Dallas (he's a big Cowboys fan) just to be with the academy's students who were starting a new semester. [Photo of Eddie Floyd mentoring Stax Music Academy students on August 12 by Marc Myers]
Here are some of my notes from my conversation with Eddie:
"Kids at the academy need to know that soul is their music. Of course, it's everyone's music, but these students are carrying it forward. Soul music is a feeling. It's genuine. Audiences respond to soul singers, not just the music. But to be effective, a soul singer needs to feel the words and to send out those feelings. Whenever I'm on tour, I can feel my music go out from me into the audience. You see this happen particularly in foreign countries. Audience members who may not even understand English instantly grasp the music's feeling and force.
"When the kids at the academy see me in person, they are seeing the person who sang or wrote the songs on their records, and they become excited. Seeing me connects the music to a real person. It also helps them understand the big responsibility they have to take care of soul's legacy, especially Stax's legacy.
"The kids in the program don't sing and play just Stax music. The basic music is Stax but it's also Motown and other forms. The Stax rhythms were natural, not polished. They're just played well, without gimmicks. But the whole Stax-Motown rivalry is really just people having emotional reactions to music they love. It's all good.
"Back in the '60s, Stax and Motown were doing the same thing, just a little differently. I was familiar with both Motown and Stax. I started singing with the Falcons in 1955 in Detroit. In the early '60s, I came up with Motown. Back then I knew Diana Ross as a member of the Primettes in Detroit. When the Falcons broke up, I went to Memphis. When I came to Stax, I was a songwriter. I wrote Comfort Me, which became a hit for Carla Thomas. [Pictured: The Falcons, clockwise from left, Eddie Floyd, Joe Stubbs, Mack Rice, Willie Schofield and Lance Finnie]
"My advice to the kids at the academy is to focus on the audience, not yourself. Deep down, you know who you are. Your job as a performer is to let the audience know, to let go and be yourself and express what you're feeling. When you do that, audiences will love you for it.
Knock on Wood—"Steve [Cropper] and I set out to write a song about superstition, you know, good luck. We were writing it at the Lorraine Motel in 1966 in Memphis. It was the only place in town where blacks could stay. Steve is white, of course, and was a founding member ot Booker T. and the M.G.'s, Stax's house band. While we were trying to come up with a song, there was this huge thunder and bright lightning. That's how I came up with the line, "Like thunder, lightning, the way I love you is frightening." So it became a love song."
California Girl—"I was on a balcony in Los Angeles and saw those words on a truck."
634-5789—"I can't remember whose number that was but I remember there was this woman in Miami who called Stax complaining that people kept calling her house. She had that number [laughs]. When [Wilson] Pickett heard the song, he wanted to record it. I came up with the feel for that song from The Hucklebuck."
Big Bird—"I was in England on tour when Otis Redding's flight went down in December 1967. Our revue had five shows to finish but we were still going to try and fly back to the States to Otis' funeral. But as we were taxiing to take off, a problem developed with the engine. I was hoping the plane would leave and wrote Big Bird as a way to coax it into flight. But we never left and weren't able to make it."
JazzWax tracks: There are quite a few compilations of Eddie Floyd's recordings. Stax Profiles: Eddie Floyd is a good place to start. You'll find this one at iTunes or here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Eddie Floyd's Knock on Wood...