‘Stax: Soulsville U.S.A.’ Salutes ‘Tenacious’ Spirit Behind Label Home of Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Booker T.

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Nearly 50 years after being forced to close its doors in 1975, venerable label Stax Records became a Grammy winner once again in 2024. During the 66th annual Grammy Awards in February, the golden gramophones for best album notes and best historical album were awarded to the seven-disc box set Written In Their Soul: The Stax Songwriter Demos.

Now in further testament to the gifted artists, songwriters, producers, musicians and engineers behind the label’s treasured catalog — and the team of dedicated and persevering executives helming operations behind the scenes — comes Stax: Soulsville U.S.A. Produced and directed by Jamila Wignot, the HBO Original documentary series premieres tonight (May 20, 9 p.m.-10 p.m. ET/PT) with two back-to-back episodes. The final two episodes will air tomorrow (May 21) in the same time slot. The series is a production of Laylow Pictures and White Horse Pictures in association with Concord Originals, Polygram Entertainment and Warner Music Entertainment.

The four-part series tells the story of the family-owned Memphis label, founded by Jim Stewart in 1957 and co-owned by his sister Estelle Axton, whose color-blind approach to music turned a deaf ear to the prevailing segregation of the times. The result? Music that hurdled racial barriers to become mainstream classics by artists such as Otis Redding ([Sittin’ On] the Dock of the Bay”), Isaac Hayes (“Theme from Shaft”), Sam & Dave (“Soul Man”) and Booker T. & the MG’s (“Green Onions”).

In relaying its story, Stax: Soulsville U.S.A. integrates restored and remastered archival performance footage and interviews with the creatives and executives who helped shape the label’s musical and cultural impact amid its business highs and lows. Stewart and Axton, former Stax president and owner Al Bell, guitarist Steve Cropper, musician/songwriter David Porter, singer-songwriter Carla Thomas and Bar-Kays members James Alexander and Willie Hall are just a few of those recalling their experiences in Soulsville.  

In advance of the documentary’s HBO premiere, director Wignot and former Stax director of publicity Deanie Parker (co-writer of the Grammy-winning notes for Written In Their Soul: The Stax Songwriter Demos) share their reflections about the label’s legacy with Billboard.

Why does Stax still resonate with music fans today?

Parker: Because it’s distinctive. Stax music — a fusion of Negro spirituals and gospel, influenced by white country music and nurtured on the downhome blues of Blacks – was not a sheet music rendition. But rather authentic, heartfelt, cadenced expressions recorded in legendary Studio A. It’s a style of music birthed in our souls and dubbed rhythm and blues (R&B). Stax music is a feeling.

Wignot: Because it’s great art. It gives voice to powerful and universal human themes — love, sorrow, joy, tenacity, freedom. It’s music that’s original. You can feel in it that these were artists who had the determination to make their music their way. They were in search of and achieved honest expressions. 

What new revelations does the documentary unveil or is there any mis-information that it corrects?

Wignot: It was my hope that the series would provide a complex and nuanced portrait of the label’s story and of the rich community of artists who comprised that story. I think it will surprise audiences familiar with the likes of Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes and The Staple Singers to know just how tenacious the label had to be to achieve the success it did. And how determined it had to be in the face of the powerful forces — industry bias, racism, corporate greed —that stood in the way of its dream, which was a simple one: to make great music and have it reach audiences hungry for that singular sound. The emphasis we place on Stax’s latter chapter, 1968-1975, will illustrate what a profound effect the label had on the industry and the possibilities it created for Black artists. 

Parker: The documentary producers’ interviews with Stax Records employees, in first person, expose the depth of the pain and trauma most of us experienced that resulted from the company’s forced bankruptcy. It also validates the joy and happiness of the authors of the hits produced and respected worldwide. The documentary reveals our pride over the music catalog’s longevity and musical influence that continues today, thanks in part to Concord and our Stax Music Academy.

What do you hope fans will remember the most after viewing the documentary?

Parker: I hope music fans will appreciate the value of teaching and preserving a uniquely soulful style of music produced collectively by talented men and women with diverse backgrounds – Black and white. Stax Records happened because we practiced and perfected creating together harmoniously.

Wignot: Stax is a music story. But it’s also a story about what can happen when you refuse to accept limitations imposed upon you by the world. Its tragic ending is made less so by the music that survives and reminds us every day of possibilities.

STAX: Soulsville U.S.A.

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