Memphis soul, also known as the Memphis sound, was the most prominent strain of Southern soul. It is a shimmering, sultry style produced in the 1960s and 1970s at Stax Records and Hi Records in Memphis, Tennessee, featuring melodic unison horn lines, organ, guitar, bass, and a driving beat on the drums.
Many of the songs in this style were performed by vocalists backed by the house bands of Stax, Hi and Gold Wax Records. The Memphis soul sound was different from the Motown sound from Detroit. After the rise of disco in the late 1970s, Memphis soul declined somewhat in popularity. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music is dedicated to preserving the Memphis sound.
Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton converted an old movie theater into a recording studio at the corner of McLemore Avenue and College Street in Memphis, Tennessee. Shortly after, former WDIA disc jockey Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla recorded the label's first hit, "Cause I Love You." Soon after, the Mar-Keys, a local R&B group that included Estelle's son, Packy Axton, recorded "Last Night."
For the next 14 years, Stax Records launched the careers and recorded hits for the likes of Otis Redding, the Staple Singers, Luther Ingram, Johnnie Taylor, Albert King, Eddie Floyd, Wilson Pickett, Booker T. and the MGs, Sam & Dave and Isaac Hayes. Of the approximately 800 singles and 300 LPs recorded at Stax, there were 166 Top 100 songs in the pop charts and 265 Top 100 hits in the R&B charts, nine of them Grammy winners.
Under the leadership of Al Bell, the label became one of the first to evolve into a multimedia company, producing spoken-word recordings and the acclaimed documentary film Wattstax, recording an event known to many as the "Black Woodstock". The documentary featured performances by Luther Ingram, Isaac Hayes, Rufus and Carla Thomas, the Bar-Kays and the Staple Singers, along with the comedian Richard Pryor and interviews on the 1965 Watts revolt.
Stax was one of the most successfully integrated companies in the country--from top management and administration to its artists. The company was founded by Stewart and co-owned by Axton. Al Bell eventually joined the team, becoming a co-owner of Stax Records in 1968. With 200-plus employees, Stax was one of the largest African-American-owned businesses in the United States in its time.
The Stax rhythm section was the epitome of the label's integration. Composed of Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Donald "Duck" Dunn and Al Jackson, Jr., Booker T. and the MGs provided the instrumental backing for Rufus and Carla Thomas, Sam and Dave, and many other artists, The group also recorded under its own name, including the instrumental hit "Green Onions". In later years, members of the group pursued their own individual careers. Jones worked with the singer and producer William Bell and co-wrote the blues classic "Born Under a Bad Sign". Cropper supervised the recordings of Otis Redding and co-wrote hits with Wilson Pickett and Eddie Floyd.
Stax gave back to its African-American, music-buying public utilizing its marketing budget to help keep publications like Jet and Black Enterprise operating. Stax financed free benefit concerts with its artists, helped raise money for the needy during the holidays, and participated in and helped publicize the federal government's Stay in School program.
Started by a trio of Sun Studio musicians--Ray Harris, Bill Cantrell and Quentin Claunch--and Joe Cuoghi, one of the owners of Poplar ("Pop") Tunes, a local record store, Hi Records' early releases were primarily rockabilly. While the label had success with this sound, rockabilly was declining in popularity, as was Hi Records. Then the label had its first hit, courtesy of Harris' friend, Bill Black.
Just as the Mar-Keys "Last Night" helped Stax, the success of Bill Black's Combo changed Hi from a rockabilly label to an instrumental powerhouse during the early 60s. But as the decade wore on, Hi Records once again recognized a shift in the musical landscape, and, with the leadership of the producer, bandleader and songwriter Willie Mitchell, evolved into a successful soul music label.
The label first emerged on the national scene with Ann Peebles. Approached by Mitchell after an impromptu performance at the Rosewood Club, Peebles hit the charts in 1969 with "Walk Away" followed by "Part Time Love." She would later record "Breaking Up Somebody's Home" and "I Can't Stand the Rain", a song championed by John Lennon and sampled by Missy Elliott.
After a chance encounter on tour in Texas, Al Green joined Willie Mitchell and Hi Records, and together they became the preeminent source for soul music in the 1970s. With hits such as "Tired of Being Alone," "Let's Stay Together" and "Take Me to the River," Green established a permanent identity and a sound for Hi Records, based around a house band which became known as the Hi Rhythm Section. The group, recruited by Mitchell consisted of the Hodges brothers, Charles (organ), Leroy (bass), and Mabon "Teenie" Hodges (guitar), and the drummer Howard Grimes. The drummer Al Jackson, Jr. also played on and co-wrote many hits for the label. Mitchell also recruited the Memphis Horns of Stax.
One aspect of the label's success came from the fact that while Hi Records was inseparable from Mitchell, he and Royal Studio often operated separately from Hi. Mitchell often produced and arranged records for a number of artists, including Ike and Tina Turner, who were not members of the Hi roster.