Sunday, December 21, 2008

Gee Whiz, Carla Thomas (1961)

You begin to hear ordinary people, but ordinary people stepping forward with more will, desire, vehemence, self-presentation, confidence. - Greil Marcus essay in The Stax Story CD box set

Read or hear any recounting of the improbable origins of Stax Records and you'll come away with the sense that the whole thing was an alchemical combination of lucky breaks and people who worked really, really hard to convert the talent they had into gold.

Talent at running businesses, at recognizing and nourishing talent, at singing, at playing instruments, at composing, at working together in racial harmony ... the stars were all aligned when Stax incubated in a Memphis neighborhood that was rapidly shifting from white to black.

But before Stax became a soul mainstay, there was this little record label named Satellite. Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton co-owned Satellite, which started out as a producer of white pop and country music in a different part of town. With success eluding them, they moved to an abandoned movie house in a changing neighborhood of Memphis where prices could be kept low. The former candy concession was converted to a record store run by Axton, whose clientele began to reflect the demographic shifts. The Satellite Record Shop became a hub of activity for the neighborhood and, as history would show, the crucible in which the unmistakeable Stax sound developed.

Local radio station WDIA, where one of the popular DJs was Rufus Thomas, sponsored a singing group called the Teen Town Singers, featuring his teenage daughter Carla (Isaac Hayes also did a stint in this group). Word spread that the Satellite Record Shop's back door led to a recording studio, which prompted Rufus to stop around with some tape of their father-daughter duet 'Cause I Love You. As whites in a highly segregated city, Stewart and Axton knew next to nothing about black music, but figured they had nothing to lose by changing their marketing strategy. The song had respectable regional success.

This didn't escape the notice of Atlantic Records, which decided to distribute Satellite's product in the south. Next up: Carla Thomas' love poem Gee Whiz (it was actually a poem that she wrote when she was 15). The slow-dance-love-song arrangement together with Carla's crystal clear voice also did well regionally, and Atlantic put national distribution on the table for discussion.

With another company having claimed the Satellite name first, Stewart and Axton combined the first two letters of their last names and Stax was born. A re-release of Gee Whiz made it Stax' first hit under the Atlantic tent and infused the company with the resources needed to transform it into the powerhouse it was for 15 years.

1 comment:

karmaSartre said...

This music blog has been a great gift. Many thanks. Happy holidays