“Just in case you haven’t heard the Stax Show must be one of the raviest, grooviest, slickest tour packages that Britain has ever seen. And if you haven’t seen it already - pull your finger out!”
NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS, March 18, 1967
In the spring of 1967 an unusual package tour flew into Europe from America. Unlike other pop shows on the circuit at the time these artists were mainly black, they all came from Memphis, Tennessee and they all recorded for the same record label, Stax, known locally as “an R&B powerhouse”.
Stax Records was set up in 1957 in Memphis by brother and sister team Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton to develop and record the funky blues and soul music of the south. In their studio in the old Capitol cinema on East McLemore they gathered acts that were in time to become soul legends - performers like Booker T and the M.G’s, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Jo Tex and perhaps the most famous of them all - Otis Redding.
For all the talent and hard work Stax was finding it hard to compete with the equally funky but more sophisticated sounds of their most immediate rivals, the Tamla Motown label out of Detroit…
“Motown was more structured. At Stax we were sort of loose and allowed the music and the creativity to be born organically. We were raw, gritty and gutsy like a diamond in the rough. We didn’t try to polish that diamond.”
AL BELL - Stax Vice President
Aware of the growing interest in Black American music in Europe and particularly in the U.K - manifested by the 8000 people who turned up in September 1966 to see Otis Redding play at Tiles club in London’s West End and his tumultuous reception on ITV’s “Ready, Steady Go” a few days later - Stax decided to stage a promotional tour of Britain and Europe in Spring 1967. Mindful of the commercial risks they were taking Stax management knew that they had to attract large audiences and positive reviews. To this end they stacked the tour with an all-star team - Sam and Dave, Eddie Floyd, and Arthur Conley backed by the legendary Stax house band Booker T. and the MG’s “featuring the fantastic guitar of Steve Cropper”, and equally epic horn section The Mar-keys plus to top the show, the “King of Soul” Otis Redding.
The warmth and the hospitality of their reception when they arrived in England on Monday March 3rd 1967 was unexpected. As Booker T explained… “we were living in a kind of cocoon… going to the studio every day and making music. We didn’t know how the rest of the world saw Stax.” The Beatles sent limousines to pick up the entourage at the airport and the headlines and interviews in the papers were so laudatory as to be embarrassing. It was a trip that was to change the lives of the Stax squad forever. Most of the performers had never been outside of Memphis and its racial segregation. Being able to share the same hotels and restaurants as their white colleagues, being able to walk down the street without being insulted or expected to step aside was a revelation….and that friendly welcome continued to reveal itself at their performances. When the curtains opened in Britain and Europe instead of facing their usual audience of black adults the Stax Tour found itself facing an audience of mainly white teenagers screaming theirs heads off - teenagers who knew all the songs and all the words and were happy to join in the ‘call and response’ routines. Soul had arrived in Britain, alive and kicking, and the nation’s Mods were there to greet it, happy and surprised to discover that the music they loved was being dished up by integrated black and white musicians.
“When we did the Stax Tour of 1967 being able to go to England with a mixed band and have an atmosphere of total non-prejudice was amazing!”
STEVE CROPPER - guitarist and composer with Booker T and the M.G’s
For all its success the five week Stax Tour of 1967 wasn’t all hugs and kisses. There were jealousies and resentment, especially from those established Stax artists like Rufus Thomas and William Bell who weren’t invited to join the tour. There were others who felt overshadowed by Otis Redding who was beginning to ‘grandstand it’ over them. There was animosity too from those like Steve Cropper, whose fierce loyalty to what he saw as a ‘family company’, was sorely tested as Stax became bigger, more successful and more corporate.
“When we got to Europe and found out just how big we were everyone kind of got up in the air about it. That was what changed more than anything else.”
Despite any ill feeling, in hindsight the 1967 Stax tour was a musical and sociological triumph. While Memphis was still tainted by segregation and racial tension here in Europe the Stax artists were being treated liked heroes with sell out concerts and acclamation wherever they went. A new and fervent young audience was forming around them and their records were selling by the lorryload. In just five weeks the musical world had changed.
Do you like good music? Yeah yeah! That sweet soul music? Yeah yeah!
50 years on the funky butting southern soul spirit of Stax is still filling dancefloors- and it is now being celebrated at the BBC Proms on Friday 1st September.
In this Late-Night Prom Jools Holland and His Rhythm & Blues Orchestra celebrate the pioneering Stax label and the 50th anniversary of the Stax U.K Tour in 1967. The concert will feature some of the label’s greatest surviving artists like Booker T. Jones, Sam Moore. William Bell, Steve Cropper and Eddie Floyd along with Sir Tom Jones, Beverley Knight, James Morrison and Ruby Turner.
Sam and Dave singing “Hold On I’m Coming”
Supported by Booker T and the M.G’s and the Mar-Keys horn section and recorded on the Stax Tour on April 7th 1967
This is what real live soul music sounded like in the days before click tracks, autotuned vocals and sampled rhythm sections. This is powerhouse R&B!
– from Martyn Day