reclassified afro-punk: stax records is punk music

May 13, 2010

From one Memphis label, we can hear mod, soul, country, blues, rock and the beginnings of punk. Oh, you thought MC5 and The Stooges were proto-punk, right? Well take a look and listen to the artists of STAX. They’re in the same category as early 60’s bands like The Sonics, The Monks, and The Fabulous Wailers. If those bands are respected for their early contributions to rock, then Stax is in need of an Afro-Punk Reclassification because they embody the very same style, sound, and attitude.

Reclassified Afro-Punk: STAX records is punk music
Words: Amari Eaglin
Original post and comments can be found here

Johnny Jenkins and The Pinetoppers





Johnny Jenkins and The Pinetoppers, were an early back-up band for Otis Redding. A talented left-handed guitarist, Jenkins was known for on stage guitar antics like playing the instrument behind his head. In a NY Times article written after Jenkins passed away in 2006, vocalist Arthur Ponder who played with him recalled “a little guy who would follow us around a lot. Next thing we know he’s Jimi Hendrix.” Yeah Mr. Ponder dropped that little bit of info like it was nothing; but use the picture above as your guide, and you can see how these guys might be hard to impress.

Proving once again that even legends have idols, here is Otis Redding in his Little Richard phase. Decked out in his rockabilly finest, he wonderfully compliments the jumpy jangling backing of The Pinetoppers. Known as one of the best soul shouters in music Otis is at his rawest here; and it could very well be the company he’s keeping. While Booker T. and The MG’s cut through a song on stage with control and precision, The Pinetoppers and Johnny Jenkins can barely be contained. They threaten to tear off the stage into the crowd of the wildest party you wish you were a part of.


Otis Redding backed by The Pinetoppers on “Shout Bamalama” and “Fat Girl” (1961)

The Mar-Keys and Booker T. and the MGs

The Mar-Keys were the first official house band for Stax records, and its members branched off in to their own successes over the years. Steve Cropper and Donald Dunn went on as a part of Booker T. and The MG’s. These groups played behind many of the Stax artists, and were influential in building the sound of the label. Both bands had their own hits as well, like “Last Night” (Mar-Keys) and “Green Onions” (The MG’s).

The MG’s were the most consistent line up as a Stax band and they consisted of Booker T. Jones (organ,) Steve Cropper (guitar,) Donald “Duck” Dunn (bass,) and Al Jackson on (drums)

Here’s Booker T. and The MG’s, The Mar-Keys, and Arthur Conley opening The STAX Volt Tour of Norway in 1967.


Arthur Conley must have known these music acts were history in the making, so along with his mentor Otis Redding he wrote “Sweet Soul Music” a song that detailed the names that would be defining rock music for ever more. It was at Arthur’s insistence that Otis was profiled in the song along with the greats.

The Bar-Kays



Handpicked by Otis Redding as his backup band, The Bar-Kays were almost destroyed when all but two of the members died in Otis Redding’s 1967 plane crash. The surviving members, trumpeter Ben Cauley and bassist James Alexander went on to reform the group with guitarist Michael Toles, keyboardist Ronnie Gordon, saxophonist Harvey Henderson, and drummers Roy Cunningham and Willie Hall. For a few years they struggled to find their sound, but that all changed with the addition of lead vocalist Larry Dodson. With the addition of some psychedelic rock/funk elements The Bar-Kays released 1971’s.

I’m sure you all remember a little scene from Coming to America; four men, a barbershop, a time when Muhammad Ali was known as Cassius, and stubborn perceptions that rarely give way to acceptance. Forget trying to separate the past from the present or attempting to discern what something looks like from what it actually is. Save yourself the trouble and repeat after me “If a band wants to call their music Black Rock we should respect their wishes and call them black rock.” Especially when they look and sound like this!

The Bar-Kays perform “Son of Shaft” at Wattstax

Otis Redding

Otis Redding began his career as a STAX recording artist while accompanying The Pinetoppers to a session at the Memphis studios. They were there to record a follow up to their instrumental hit “Love Twist.” During some studio down time, Otis wound up recording a ballad he’d written called “These Arms of Mine.” A minor hit for Volt records (Stax’s R&B subsidiary) Otis Redding was signed to the label, and in the years to come would be their biggest selling artist. Johnny Jenkins’ own success was hampered by a severe fear of flying. Touring opportunities were limited, and he was unable to gain wider recognition.

From 1962 to 1967 Otis Redding made a name for himself touring along with other Stax artists like Booker T. and The MG’s, William Bell, Eddie Floyd, Rufus and Carla Thomas, and Atlantic artists Sam and Dave.

Otis performing “Shake” and “Respect” at the Monterey Pop Festival backed by who else, Booker T. and The MG’s.

Probably my favorite duo of the Stax family besides Sam and Dave are the combination of Otis Redding and Carla Thomas. They work wonderfully together and Otis is more than a good sport on “Tramp” as Carla ribs him mercilessly for being too country and not enough…everything

Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, and Booker T. Jones

In addition to mentoring Arthur Conley, Otis was a supporter of another Stax artist Wendy Rene.



Wendy started out Mary Frierson, singing with The Drapels. Her solo material on Stax consists of only a few singles, but her one of a kind haunting voice, has drawn artists and numerous soundtracks to cover and feature her work

Wendy Rene “I Wish I Were That Girl”

One of the few R&B performers to write their own material, Otis along with guitarist Steve Cropper crafted a song that marked a shift in his music. Recorded just three days before his death in 1967 “(Sitting On) The Dock of The Bay” was written about Otis’ life, but it seemed to mirror the black migration from the south to more urban cities in the north. Going back to songs like “Shout Bamalama and “Tramp” it’s documented on record that Otis wanted to make something of himself; but he was never ashamed of his country upbringing. It found its way into much of his music, and shaped who he would become as an artist. “Dock of The Bay” was simply the first time one of his songs had taken a straightforward, albeit personal approach to social commentary.

What made Stax so successful was the community atmosphere and creative teamwork from all involved. Whether it was writing songs, nurturing newer artists, dropping in to do some session work (even when you’ve had a hit record yourself) collaborations, covers, and an unprecedented working relationship between black and white artists that had seemed almost impossible especially in the segregated south. This inclusive community seems exemplified in Stax’s partnership with Atlantic records. Atlantic artists were able to record at Stax studios and benefit from all that the label provided. In the coming years, contracts, control of master recordings, and royalties would come into play but for a short time it was all about the music. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of the Stax sound?

Wilson Pickett

When words, singing, or shouting simply aren’t enough Wilson “Wicked” Pickett gets the job done. Starting his career in Detroit, Wilson sang with gospel group the Violinaires and doo wop with The Falcons. Also in the group was Stax’s own Eddie Floyd. His first few singles with Atlantic records went nowhere, but soon with hits like “In the Midnight Hour” and “634-5789” Wilson Pickett came into his own during his work with Steve Cropper and Al Jackson at Stax studios.

“Funky Broadway”

(At 3:40) Like I said, when words aren’t enough

A true rocker even in this smoothed out funk version of “I’m In Love” Wilson plays it cool until about 1:56 when that guitar solo comes in. You see his whole stance change, and you get the first true Pickett scream. Then he’s off, to somewhere I don’t think the band or dancers were ready to follow. Back to his early days, “Land of a 1,000 Dances” I don’t know but I’m watching it again.

Sam and Dave

Known as Double Dynamite, these two men are the duo The Blues Brothers fashioned themselves after.

Par the course for about every soul and r&b artist at the time, Sam Moore and Dave Prater first met through Miami’s gospel scene in the early 60’s. They both got their start around the same time with two different groups. Following their idols Jackie Wilson, and Sam Cooke both men decided to move into secular music. On amateur night at Miami’s King of Hearts club in 1961 Dave attempted to cover Jackie Wilson’s “Doggin’ Around;” when he forgot the words Sam stepped in to trade some lines, saving his fellow musician. This would wind up being a trademark of their electrifying stage act as the now duo Sam and Dave. From their gospel roots of call and response, and one chance encounter in 1961, to one of the most successful soul acts of all time. Perfectly in sync during their live shows, you would never know that Sam and Dave could barely stand each other off stage. Their animosity coupled with the usual story of drugs, record label strife, and money issues, led to their official breakup in 1982.

But right now let’s go back to their days as honorary STAX artists. Taken under the wing of songwriters Isaac Hayes and David Porter the duo created some legendary material that sounds even better live than it does on record.

From the Stax Volt Tour in 1967 watch Sam and Dave backed up by the MG’s.

“You Don’t Know Like I Know”

Sam and Dave threw every dance move and influence from Sam Cooke to James Brown into their performances. I guess if you want to be legends you better go full out and nonstop.

1967 proved to be a banner year for the STAX label and its artists. After performing alongside Otis Retting, Eddie Floyd, Arthur Conley, and Booker T. and The MG’s on The STAX Volt revue, Sam and Dave embarked on their own European tour.

Wattstax and Soul to Soul



The social commentary of Otis Redding’s hit song “Sitting on the Dock of The Bay” seemed to be coming full circle with Stax artists participating in concerts designed to celebrate and empower the black community. By the early 70’s, Stax had branched beyond music artists to record entertainers Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson.

The wide range of material allowed for an interesting line up for the Wattstax concert held in 1972.

A year before Wattstax, Wilson Pickett and The Staple Singers performed at the Soul to Soul concert, celebrating the 14th anniversay of Ghana’s independence as a country. Wilson Pickett was a hit, and was only second to James Brown in audience popularity.

With this Wilson Pickett performance we’re that much closer to a mosh pit and some stage diving. Probably because the cops were too busy joining in on the fun.

By 1975 Stax records was on a fast decline, but not until 2009 did many of us know there was a missing link in Stax history.

The members of Death were signed with Greensville Productions by Stax producer Don Davis. It seemed that everything the Stax label had been building upon had finally come to fruition when Death merged their r&b/soul/funk roots with some hard driving punk politics. Perhaps if the Stax label of old had been in working order, this band would have had an earlier impact on listeners. Musicians who did find success with this model are bands like The Gories, Bad Brains, The BellRays, The White Stripes, The Detroit Cobras, and pretty much every band on the AP roster.

Despite unforeseen tragedy, and hardships, the legacy of Stax Records remains the community of artists that it yielded. Drawing inspiration from each other’s musicianship, they formed the kind of cross section of sound, energy, and performance that placed the artists in an extraordinary category all their own. Blues, soul, r&b, and funk are not enough to describe the groundbreaking music that came out of Stax.

So from now on we can simply call it Afro-Punk.