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TV THIS WEEK | THE BIG THING

With soul to spare

July 29, 2007|Robert Hilburn

PBS' "Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story" is superb as merely a nostalgic look at one of the most soulful chapters in American pop history, but it is even more valuable as a sobering snapshot of race relations in the 1960s. Remarkably, Stax started off as a modest country music label but, thanks to good luck and good karma, it moved to a gritty R&B sound highlighted by the work of such artists as Otis Redding, Booker T. & the MG's and Sam & Dave.

The luck was due to co-founders Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton building their Memphis, Tenn., studio in an African American neighborhood, where many of their future stars happened to live. The karma was that Stewart and Axton, both white, welcomed those young musicians into their studio where they interacted freely with white musicians who were also R&B fans -- all this in a city so segregated that the musicians couldn't dine together in most local restaurants.

But the spirit of brotherhood at Stax was shattered in 1968 when civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated a few miles from the studio. Though Stax continued to turn out hits, including Isaac Hayes' celebrated "Theme From Shaft," business and legal problems caused the label to shut down in the mid-'70s and the studio was eventually razed. Yet Stax has staged a comeback. A stylish soul music museum operates on the original site and the label has been relaunched. Part of the "Great Performances" series, "Respect Yourself" explains why the studio's legacy matters. It is both a celebration and a cautionary tale.

-- Robert Hilburn

(KCET, Wed., 9 p.m.)

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