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Stax marks past, future

A 50th anniversary show for the revived record label just touches on the glory of its beginnings while hinting at what might be ahead.

July 20, 2007|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

Isaac Hayes must have felt a wave of deja vu as he sat behind his Korg keyboard Wednesday at the Hollywood Bowl. The soul music sovereign was headlining a celebration of Stax Records -- something he'd also done 35 years before. Wednesday's event was a landmark, celebrating the Memphis label's 50th anniversary. But the earlier show actually made history: It was Wattstax, the Black Woodstock.

That August day in 1972, the Rev. Jesse Jackson led the mostly black crowd in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in a chant of "I am somebody"; gospel and blues music fed the feeling of community pride. Six years after the Watts riots, Wattstax was a statement of renewed pride and hope, and Hayes stood proudly at its center, Black Moses at the mountaintop.

Much has happened since those heady days of liberation. Hayes himself pioneered a synthesis that set the stage for disco and hip-hop -- which soon relegated classic soul to the oldies bins. Baby boomers became the main champions of the earthy sound Stax embodied, while the children of the Wattstax audience invented "urban" music. Today, white hipsters such as Amy Winehouse adopt the Stax vernacular while its originators hit the casino circuit and PBS telethons. The man who wrote the theme from "Shaft" almost became better known as the voice of a cartoon chef.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday July 21, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 74 words Type of Material: Correction
Stax Records: A review in Friday's Calendar section of the Stax Records concert at the Hollywood Bowl said that the Wattstax concert at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 1972 was six years after the Watts Riots. It was seven years after the riots. The review also said that on Aug. 1, PBS would air "Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story" on its "American Masters" series. The program will air on PBS' "Great Performances" series.

Onstage Wednesday, though, Hayes looked to the future. He's recently signed to the Stax imprint, which was reinstated this year. "I have a new record coming out," he murmured. "It's going to be the joint. You know this next song, though." And he offered another familiar groove to the Bowl's mostly baby boomer picnickers.

The very fact of Hayes' performance was reason to cheer: Last year, he suffered a stroke, and he is clearly still recovering. Leading a brawny band that featured two drummers, three additional keyboardists and itchy-fingered guitarist Charles "Skip" Pitts, Hayes labored to focus as his trademark lush arrangements unfolded. His baritone croon cracked on the high notes, and he needed a notebook for lyrics; yet even when stumbling, he maintained his cool.

Hayes' set was a poignant conclusion to an evening that offered a somewhat skewed view of the label's legacy, while tentatively asserting its future. With major Stax artists such as Otis Redding and Rufus Thomas deceased, and others, such as Sam Moore, apparently unavailable, the roster beyond Hayes mostly consisted of lesser-known label stalwarts.

Eddie Floyd zealously shouted out his career-topper "Knock on Wood"; William Bell, a key Stax songwriter, affably vamped through "I Forgot to Be Your Lover." Dr. Mable John -- the doctorate is in divinity -- drew on her ministerial experience to wring drama from "Your Good Thing (Is About to End)." Keyboardist and bandleader Booker T. Jones, a crucial player in the Stax story, led a revamped lineup of the MGs through a couple of tight, bright instrumentals.

These veterans, feted by enthusiastic host Randy Jackson, did their best to argue for the enduring importance of Stax. The absence of the label's biggest legends inevitably weakened the case. Tribute concerts are overdone these days, but a few upstart stars trying to fill those giant shoes might have offered support to the elder voices.

The younger artists who did appear are neo-soul veterans whose careers Stax may reboot. Angie Stone and Lalah Hathaway could be perfect for the label's revival. Each has a trend-resistant style that makes sense within its lineage.

Hathaway's steamy version of Luther Ingram's "(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don't Want to Be Right" showed serious intelligence, while Stone, making her way through Shirley Brown's "Woman to Woman," exhibited the grace and good humor that already should have made her a bigger star.

If Hathaway and Stone succeed, Stax could be the label that finally reinstates black voices within the "retro soul" trend exemplified by Winehouse. Their upcoming releases will tell; for now, rich history must suffice.

The Bowl concert wasn't the only way to get a fix of that history. A 50th anniversary boxed set was issued last March. On Aug. 1, PBS will air "Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story," part of its "American Masters" series. And this weekend, American Cinematheque's Mods & Rockers Festival brings five Stax-related films -- including Mel Stuart's mesmerizing documentary about Wattstax -- to the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. Anyone who's sung along wistfully to a Stax song should see these films, and witness the music as it was when nostalgia didn't apply.

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