Saturday, February 10, 2007

STAX Records 27 Album Release Party

In May of 1969, Stax Records hosted a gala event at the Rivermont Hotel located on the mighty Mississip’ overlooking the concrete and steel structure of the Memphis-Arkansas bridge. The purpose of this grand presentation was to unveil an unprecedented amount of new album releases to the general public. Perhaps as a show of recovery from its previous struggles, Stax proudly wined and dined their distributors and key retailers from all over the country while announcing the release of Twenty-seven new albums. In attendance were key radio personnel from Chicago and Detroit and other major cities along with writers from publications; The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Jet, Downbeat and Time Magazine. The featured speaker of the showcase was Georgia State Representative Julian Bond in addition to highlighted performances by Johnnie Taylor, Eddie Floyd, The Knowbody Else and Isaac Hayes. The event was held in the Grand Ballroom of the hotel with attendees waiting in long lines extending out into the adjacent parking lot. An enormous spotlight filled the evening sky with its bright beam shining for observers to view from miles away. Local politicians and Stax artist intermingled through the crowds while shaking hands and signing autographs with what appeared to be an army of rented tuxedos. Once inside the elegant ballroom, there was the ambiance of distinguished royalty blended with the pungent smell of cigar smoke and dime store perfume. Make no mistake though; this was a grand event surpassing any of Stax’s previous release parties. As a working function, it was required for me to arrive early to assemble media prep and fortunately I claimed a table in the center of the room. Unfortunately, I didn’t know any of the uninvited guests who squatted at my table. The ‘Reserved’ sign on the table apparently had no meaning. Those circumstances generally required good table manners, proper etiquette and lots of red wine. As the lights went down commencing the show was about to begin, one could sense the perfect alignment of the planetary stars were supporting this festive occasion. It was about that time that Isaac Hayes took the stage and sat down at the keyboards and began to tickle the ivories. His new album was titled “Hot Buttered Soul” and the music within contained just that. Hayes leaned over into the microphone and graced the audience with a deep velvety growl as women throughout the ballroom swooned with loud appreciation for this handsome newcomer. Despite the stylish trend of displaying a large Afro-hairstyle, Hayes daringly shaved his head bald while draping himself in an exquisite long-tailed white tuxedo. The music began softly as he began raping in sexy bedroom voice. Hayes first song was his rendering of Hal David and Burt Bacharach’s composition of “Walk On By” which simply melted the audience. Suddenly at my table, a woman leaned backwards and slid down her chair appearing to have fainted from Hayes’ performance. Coming to her assistance were several people who repeatedly fanned her with linen napkins only to have her wig fall off during her decent to the floor. I looked around the room to witness women holding their hearts with one hand while waving their handkerchiefs with the other. Remarkably, Hayes music struck a nerve with his female audience while sending several rushing towards the stage. The music was heightened by a soulful Caucasian guitarist named Bobby Manuel who gracefully stroked his instrument with perfection while blending with the accompaniment of a grand orchestra. I glanced around and noticed above me an enormous ballroom chandler that began to sway back and forth from the reverberation of sound while the crystal light figurines glimmered with the beat of the song. Something very captivating was happening from this sweltering performance as there seemed to be a seductive mood being choreographed. Man, I sniffed my wine glass and wondered if somebody had spiked my drink? I don’t know what it was about Hayes’ magical performance that night but it’s a sure bet that later in the evening there was a lot of consenting couples engaging in romantic activities.

The Stax release party was deemed as a very successful social event and received national media recognition that praised the great performances by their showcase artists. The occasion also made a public statement vowing the apparent recovery of a Black record company and its profound effect on the economy of the local community. But there were questions lurking within the hierarchy of the record industry about the unnecessary hoopla of this normal business function. It appeared that some key executives respresenting several affluent record companies, who hadn’t encountered the recent speed bumps that Stax had experienced, viewed this release party with great skepticism. Industry critics questioned the intention of releasing such a massive amount of albums and summoned for an explanation of a business plan behind this unconventional tactic. Stax executives responded with a wait-and-see posture thus claiming it was an innovative approach to building an instant catalog. But that only brought forth a second wave of unfavorable response from observers suggesting it was merely a show of extravagance coming from a hubristic executive V.P. at Stax. It appeared that the sheer mechanics of deploying such a large number of albums had its staunch critics and rightly so. As a general rule in the business, a new album required a hands-on maintenance program upon its release. An album represents a campaign to which demands essential promotion and marketing attention for its survival or eventually it would get lost. Each particular album needs a specific effort by a team of professionals devoted towards producing its individual success and Stax wasn’t equipped to provide this support. The real issue here was Stax had not experienced a large degree of success with album product up to this point suggesting the learning curve had yet to arrive. Furthermore they lacked an experienced tactician who could guide this marketing obesity. Besides being a very costly investment, the preparation of twenty-seven albums is more that a days work. These albums represented months or years in the production stages. But that brings us back to the question of answering the critics of what about a viable marketing plan? This ‘throw them out there and see what happens’ routine was commonly referred to as the ‘shotgun approach’ thus being a sure way for a album to loose it’s momentum and end-up being returned to the manufacturer for credit. Record company’s detested being flooded with returns which led to serious profit-loss margins. Industry leaders thought that releasing this many albums at one time entailed too much manpower and time consumption in order to be effective for the workload. Some even suggested that this endeavor shouldn’t be called an album release whereas referring to it as more of a product dump. Several Stax artists whose albums were included in the release appeared grateful for the opportunity to have product released but were reluctant to differ with a headstrong management regarding marketing tactics. Those under achieving participants were whispering behind closed doors that their projects were merely filling a quota. Further arguments still were how could a Stax salesman approach a record shop and demand them to stock all twenty-seven albums and tapes in their inventory? The buyer would say, “Are your crazy? Where am I going to put them?” Retail shelve space is a very valuable commodity and there is only so much available for new releases. And how about radio? Forget it because there is even less availability on the airwaves. The truth of the matter is, most record companies don’t release that many albums in year’s period let alone a one-time release. It appeared to many observers monitoring this release schedule that Stax was flooding the market.

Before the dust had settled on this murky issue, I had the eventful task of providing the lifeline for those newborn releases; Media exposure. Of course there was staunch resistance at pop radio, plus the newspapers complained about their limited review space but the workload had been dictated leaving me with no choice but to sweep all criticism aside and approach the challenge with a good attitude. After all, I was a part of the inner-structure representing the designated marketing machinery. My job was to produce airplay, provide market visibility and I wasn’t about to fold under pressure.

But the winds of change were blowing in the air. After all, this was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. As it appeared, wrong was right, bad was good and resistance got the upper hand. By now, it had become glaringly apparent to the radio media and industry observers that there was something unorthodox going-on over at Stax. They seemed to dance to the beat of their own drummer and disregarded the conventional rules set by others. The record company apparently was on the verge of universal appeal by making tremendous strides in artistic and cultural fronts. Stax Records was now considered a vital part of the economic lifeline of the independent distributors and with each release the company carried more weight and influence. Stax had struggled long and hard to get over the hump and had seemingly survived. However, now self-destructive blunders driven by a pompous vice president continued undermine its success. Plus, to further contribute to its contentious direction, now there were rumors filtering out into the community of several employees who were carrying handguns. It seemed that these Stax insiders were wearing concealed weapons and entering into the business offices and distributors without hesitation. When word reached the radio stations of these activities, it began to have a negative affect. These ill-fated stories were not an asset to Stax’s reputation within the mainstream media whereas I had to field all of the incriminating questions poised by those news hungry power brokers. Being cornered by curious broadcasters asking suspicious questions about your employer reflected your integral position on these matters. My character was challenged on more than one occasion by this association. I was now being asked if I was a representative of either The Mafia or The Black Panthers? Better still, my media friends jokingly asked if I had graduated from either Penn State… or from State Penn? Sometimes being red-faced with controversy can work to your advantage so with humor as my calling card-I forged on.

On the home front, WMC FM-100 radio played a monumental role in supporting the music from that legendary Stax release despite only a few albums had mainstream pop music appeal. Within those twenty-seven Stax releases were several good albums such as “With a little Help from my Friends” by Steve Cropper and also “Jammed Together” by Albert King, Pops Staple and Cropper. But when the tantalizing stories of Isaac Hayes saucy stage performance from the Stax release party spilled-over into pop radio, Program Director Mike Powell was convinced he had to program a selection from “Hot Buttered Soul”. His next decision as to what to play would have an enormous impact on the community. Penned by famed songwriter Jimmy Webb and originally performed by artist Glenn Campbell, Hayes version of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” was a very unlikely selection to be played over the pop airwaves but none-the-less an immediate phone response song. No pop music radio stations had even considered playing Isaac Hayes until that moment because of the extended length of each song. The entire album of “Hot Buttered Soul” contained only four songs and that discouraged most potential airplay. After all, who else had the programming flexibility to play a song that was eighteen-minutes long? Combined with orchestral arraignments and Isaac’s long raps, this album was far-removed from anything sounding similar to the patented Stax sound. It would be misleading to say that anyone, including Las Vegas odds makers, would have speculated that the success of this album would have reached the heights that it accomplished. By all accounts everything suggested that this album was a programming dud yet nothing was far more that the truth. This splendidly produced album sent chills to a generation of fire-side listeners whose musical appetites craved Hayes’ romantic sounds. Silky smooth orchestral arraignments topped off with deep vocal passions were a completely new frontier to be explored and Isaac Hayes was the lone pioneer. Anointed the title of “Black Moses” for his lead in this movement, Isaac Hayes musical style would be copied for generations to come. This album appropriately titled “Hot Buttered Soul” rescued Stax Records from a tailspin of controversy and a potentially disastrous release schedule burdened by overload. It should be further noted that the enormous profit from this legendary album had such a great impact on Stax that it made up for the losses of the entire release schedule.

STAX Records Benard Roberson congratulates Jim Crudgington and Phillip Rauls after receiving the gold record award on Isaac Hayes million selling "Hot Buttered Soul" album.