Most of Stax Records’ multi-culturally created hits were recorded and released during a period of America’s greatest racial unrest — beginning with the Mar-Keys’ “Last Night,” which arrived even as the 1961 Freedom Riders trips got underway.
The music provided consistent glimmers of hope during a period that saw the Birmingham church bombing of 1964, the Selma march and Watts riots of 1965, the Newark and Detroit riots of 1967 and the Martin Luther King assassination of 1968, among others. Blacks and whites regularly shared the Stax Studios, and the Memphis label’s house band — Booker T. the MGs — had been integrated from the first.
People like guitarist, songwriter and producer Steve Cropper (a member of both the Mar-Keys and the MGs) served as groundbreakers and racial pioneers — whether they’d originally set out to or not. Fast forward a few decades, and the simple action of working together as sidemen seems like its own kind of protest.
“We always get asked that, from a Civil Rights standpoint,” Cropper tells Carolyn Jones. “The definitive answer is real simple: There was absolutely no color at Stax — period. It did not exist. So, if any of that was going on, it went on outside.”