Stax Makes a Comeback 

Late last month, Concord Music Group kicked off a "50 Years of Soul" celebration at B.B. King's Blues Club in New York City. Now, says Robert Smith, Concord's senior vice president of strategic marketing, the company's relaunch of Stax Records has begun in earnest.

"It went very well," Smith says of the event, co-produced by the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau, which drew many Memphis-based Stax veterans to the Big Apple, including Steve Cropper, songwriting partners Isaac Hayes and David Porter, and Big Star drummer Jody Stephens.

Although Concord has primarily marketed itself to a jazz audience, its 2004 acquisition of the Fantasy catalog -- which included Stax -- was a calculated move.

"The purchase was really part of a strategy to become a viable independent music company," Smith says. "The Fantasy catalog represented one of the last great treasuries of music. Besides Stax and the phenomenally important jazz labels [Prestige and Riverside], Fantasy includes Credence Clearwater Revivals' work and the R&B output on Specialty Records. It was a fully informed and brilliant move."

According to Smith, the Stax relaunch is giving Concord "an opportunity to create a really great contemporary soul label. We want to carry this legacy into the future.

"We're very focused on the adult market and alternative channels, and we're real believers in real artists," he adds, noting that Hayes and contemporary neo-soul singer Angie Stone have already been signed on as artists for this new era of Stax Records.

This March, Concord will release a Stax two-disc compilation that runs the gamut from Carla Thomas' "Gee Whiz" to Shirley Brown's "Woman to Woman," with several new best-of collections and a three-disc WattStax box set to follow. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music's Deanie Parker, Soulsville USA: The Story of Stax Records author Rob Bowman, former Fantasy owner Bill Belmont, and the crew at Rhino Records, which owns the Atlantic-era Stax catalog, are working in tandem on projects, while Memphian Robert Gordon and Los Angeles filmmaker Morgan Neville are co-directing and producing a period documentary called Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story, scheduled to air on PBS' Great Performances in July.

Also on the books: an all-star showcase at Austin's South by Southwest Music Festival in March and a show at The Orpheum this summer.

Members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences are also getting on the Stax bandwagon, awarding the studio's house band, Booker T & the MGs, a Lifetime Achievement Award and giving a posthumous Trustee Award to label co-founder Estelle Axton.

"Estelle was a mother to so many musicians, and she fostered a lot of the young people at Stax, encouraging them and giving them a chance," says Katherine Sage, senior project manager of the Memphis chapter of the Recording Academy.

While both awards will be presented on the eve of the 49th Annual Grammys, slated to air on Sunday, February 11th, Sage says that both Axton and the MGs will receive televised recognition.

For just $25, you can attend a Grammy viewing party at the Hard Rock Café on Beale Street, along with local nominees, Recording Academy members, and a slew of VIPs. The show starts at 7 p.m., and food and drinks are on the house. For more information, go to www.Grammy.com.

Taking a cue from Axton, Sage has launched a project with Midtown rockers Giant Bear.

"I saw them perform at Otherlands, and I was amazed at their musicianship," she recalls. "I was also impressed that they played all original music and that four out of five band members sing lead."

After buying their album, Sage presented an offer to the group: "I felt that I could help them create a better recording, so I pulled together various producers to work with them to develop their songs. They were doing so great on their own that it didn't take much help, so I put a team together for a recording session."

In January, Giant Bear spent 10 days at Young Avenue Sound with producers Bill Ellis, Louis Myers, and Jimmy Davis and engineer Kevin Houston. When they emerged, they had 12 songs, including four that Sage produced herself. The album should be released April 1st; in the meantime, you can catch Giant Bear live at the Young Avenue Deli on Saturday, February 10th.

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