‘They sounded entirely different’: Personal touch is what made Stax Records special

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For Stax Records executive Al Bell, the label’s focus on personalized arrangements was what made its stable of stars into timeless figures. Unlike some of their competitors, he says no two of their records sounded exactly alike.

“The arrangement was done in such a fashion to where it was influenced by the performer,” Bell says in this Crossroad to Freedom clip. “So, it embellished and enhanced the artist’s performance.”

Bell began at Stax in 1965 as director promotions for owners Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton. By 1969, he had taken over as a co-owner of the label himself. In between, he shepherded the early careers of Isaac Hayes and the Staple Singers. Later, Bell oversaw the enormous Wattstax festival.

Throughout, he says, the label’s attention to detail made their artists stand out in a crowded market place of music.

“You could listen to Booker T. and the MGs, for an example, and hear them on Rufus Thomas and they’d sound one way — then you’d hear them on Carla Thomas, and they sounded entirely different,” Bell says. “You know it was Booker T. and the MGs, but it wasn’t the same sound. That’s what made us unique, and that’s what made us different.”

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