Stax looking to find a new groove

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Tess Vigeland: If you're in the mood for a soul version of the classic "Happy Birthday," head to the Orpheum Theater on Beale Street in Memphis tomorrow. Some of the most famous soul artists of the 60s and 70s will gather onstage to celebrate 50 years of the Stax record label.

Stax was home to some of the biggest soul and R&B talent in the country. It boasted such legends as Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes and Booker T and the MGs before going bankrupt in the mid-70s. Now, two buyouts and half a century later, Trey Kay reports the label's about to get another spin.


Trey Kay: Even if you've never bought a soul record or listened much to 60s music, chances are you've heard something from the Stax label. Back in the 60s and 70s, Stax was home to some of the most famous names in soul and R&B.

[Music:"Soul Man" by Sam and Dave]

The golden days at Stax lasted about 20 years. But in 1975, the company ran out of money and went belly-up. In 2004, the Concord Music Group brought the entire Stax catalog and the rights to use the Stax brand.

Robert Smith is marketing executive for Concord. He says the Stax catalog is valuable, because it appeals to Baby Boomers and younger generations.

Robert Smith: The Stax catalog and Stax Records is part of the rich heritage of soul music in America. It has some of the greatest pop music ever recorded. The music cuts across all kinds of boundaries. You know, Kanye West and Jay Z sample Stax records. It's used constantly in movies and television, and kids today hear a lot of Stax.

Concord's plan for Stax isn't just about pedaling oldies. Starting this summer, Concord will bring the Stax label out of mothballs.

Geoff Mayfield is the director of charts for Billboard Magazine. He says the Stax label will be a home for all sorts of soul acts. It'll include new musicians as well as established acts. They're even releasing a new album by Stax veteran Isaac Hayes, whose single, the theme from "Shaft," is still a hit today.

[Music: The theme from "Shaft"]

Geoff Mayfield: I would say that considering the track record of the Concord folks, they're making an astute move here.

Mayfield says that record sales fell 16 percent in 2006. The only music genre to show any kind of growth was R&B and soul. Mayfield says there's a gap in the R&B market that Concord could fill with music from a new Stax label.

The new Stax won't just win Concord more record sales. Mayfield says it'll give the company an edge with musicians as well.

Mayfield: Stax gives Concord a logo that has heritage. It could mean a little bit more to the consumer, and you know, it could even mean something to certain artists as well. You know, sometimes record companies keep relationships with heritage artists just because that might help them sign the next cool guy. "Oh, I want to be with the label that has Bob Dylan," or "I want to be with the label that has Tom Petty."

It might work, but there are plenty of other labels out there. And the golden age of Stax ended more than 30 years ago.

Still, Concord's Robert Smith says the mystique of the Stax label will still be a powerful lure for soul musicians.

Smith: You can't recreate the past. But what you can do is carry forward the tradition and the approach, and the heritage that that music represented. The relaunch of Stax Records is creating a great home for soul music.

Concord will roll out the first Stax albums by new artists in late July. The company's even dusting off the old Stax logo — the image of two fingers snapping. It hopes it'll be a beacon to soul music mavens all over the world.

[Music:"I'll Take You There" by the Staple Singers]

In New York, I'm Trey Kay for Marketplace.

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