'Stax: Soulsville, U.S.A.' Is More Than Just a Music History Lesson

Directed by Jamila Wignot

Photo courtesy of Bell Media

BY Rachel HoPublished May 21, 2024


The history of American music cannot be told without Memphis, TN. The likes of B.B. King, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley could all be found walking down the famed Beale Street in the 1950s where the sounds of soul, R&B and blues collided. In 1952 Sam Phillips opened the Memphis Record Service (which would become known as Sun Records) on Union Avenue, where Elvis, Perkins, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and others would begin their careers; just a five-minute drive south, Stax Records made its home at 926 East McLemore Avenue in 1959.

Beginning as Satellite Records two years prior, Stax emerged from the partnership between siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton. The recording studio and label produced some of the most prolific artists of the '60s and ushered in a brand of soul music that would shape modern music as we know it today. Across four one-hour episodes, director Jamila Wignot takes audiences behind the rise and fall of Stax, highlighting its importance to the fabric of American music and culture.

Stax: Soulsville, U.S.A. recalls the rise of Stax with their first hit "Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes)" by Carla Thomas in 1961, officially marking the label's move from country to R&B. The song also marked the beginning of Stax's ill-fated partnership with Atlantic Records that would eventually deal a blow to the company in 1968 that they would never quite recover from.

However, in those intervening years, Stax cultivated iconic artists like Isaac Hayes, Booker T. & the M.G.'s and Otis Redding — with Redding receiving a fair share of airtime in the docuseries given his success, impact and tragic death in 1967.

Through archival clips and interviews with those directly involved, including Jim Stewart, Carla Thomas and Booker T. Jones, Wignot presents an oral history of Stax that not only revels in the hits and music stylings, but also reflects on the racial tension prevalent within the studio halls. It's Wignot's handling of the latter, in particular, that elevates the series from a lesson in music history into a vivid testimony of a shifting culture. Whether it's Stewart and Thomas's recollection of using a service elevator because Thomas, as a Black woman, wasn't allowed in the hotel's lobby, or Jones coming to the realization that the close connection enjoyed with his white bandmates extended only as far as the Stax doorway, Soulsville eloquently examines the rise of Black artists against their lived realities in a country still segregated by race.

To that end, Soulsville gives the time and space necessary to understand the impact of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination on the artists of Stax as members of Memphis's Black community. Coincidentally, King's death came only four months after the plane crash that took Otis Redding's life, and also was in the same year that saw the beginning of the end for Stax — a rather painful congruence of timelines that punctuates the emotional impact of Stax's journey.

Soulsville encapsulates the turbulent ride of one of America's groundbreaking musical hubs in a manner befitting those who lent their talents to the label. It's a thrilling story that ends on a bittersweet note: Stax fell at the hands of a dirty deal, but the music and influence continues to sing loudly today, a fact that Wignot celebrates with grace and pride.


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