In search of the roots of rock and roll, Clash embarked on a pilgrimage across America and discovered the musical foundations the country was built on.
Read an interview with John Gary Williams & Larry Dodson (The Mad Lads & The Bar-Kays) at the Stax Studios museum in Memphis.
So, what used to be Stax studios is now a museum. How is the layout now to what you remember?
JGW: It’s kind of confusing now, because they’ve done such a beautiful job of rearranging it, but the studio is intact with all the machines as usual, as it was then, and they did a wonderful job of putting it back together. I think this would have been one of the offices on the left side of the building. Coming into the building from the front, you had offices on the left and a hallway running down this way with offices on this side. Then it was Studio A in the centre, Studio B off to the right, and Studio C on the very end. I can talk to you about it, but talking about is not like seeing it.
Do you get to visit Stax much these days?
JGW: Yeah. They used to every Monday have a different artist come in, and I try to make those whenever they have them.
Have you lived in Memphis all your life?
JGW: No. I was born in Memphis and I’ve been here most of my life, but I lived in Los Angeles for a few years, I lived in Iowa for a few years, and I lived in Florida for a year, so I’ve been moving around quite a bit.
What are your earliest memories of music from growing up in Memphis?
JGW: Well, on TV it was Perry Como and Andy Williams – I dug those cats – but music was live, Beale Street was live. It’s just a tourist trap now, but it was live then. They had the Palace Theater, where we would go and have talent shows. I started down there when I was about ten-years-old, singing with a group called The Turks, older cats. There were a lot of places that you could hone your skills.
Do you remember seeing anyone live that we might know of?
JGW: I saw The Temptations at The Paradise, and just about every act that was out. And then the blues singers like B.B. [King] and Albert [King] we’d hear often, and Johnnie Taylor. But that wasn’t when I was young – when I was young it was just local cats that hadn’t made it yet, like The Temprees, The Bar-Kays… We were all honing our skills at that time. We were not professionals – we would run into each other at different places, different clubs, and then Stax came along and changed it for a lot of us.
When did you first come to Stax?
JGW: I think it was 1964. I was a junior in high school.
And how were you introduced into the fold?
JGW: Every week at the high school I went to, the mighty Booker T. Washington High School, we had talent shows. Guys like Jay Blackfoot, myself, William Brown, Robert Phillips, Julius Green, we all competed against each other, and at the end of the year, the best talent from each high school got together down at what is now the Cook Convention Center, what used to be Ellis Auditorium, and all the best groups and best singers would get together to do a ballet at the Auditorium. We happened to win the competition, and from there we got the interview with Stax. We got the opportunity and we took advantage of the opportunity and we recorded. The rest is history.
It’s such a richly musical city. The majority of artists from Stax came from Memphis. Why were there so many talented people in this one place?
JGW: There wasn’t much else to do! Growing up, everybody sung. On street corners – it’s no myth that it happened; we’d get on the street corners, drink wine, and sing. And basketball, we didn’t have too many gyms or community centers, so mostly cats just sang.
We’ve really been looking forward to getting to Memphis, and especially seeing Stax…
JGW: Well, that’s one of the good things about Stax: it brings people from all over the world and gives them the opportunity to see what we’ve accomplished, and the talent that has come through these doors and went on to be very successful in the industry. And it brings about a better understanding of different peoples. It brings a lot of people from all over the world right here.
Was there a friendly atmosphere between the artists in Stax?
JGW: Oh yeah, it was like family. To me, it was a breeding ground to get to know other types of people, because during that time there was segregation and all that crap going on, and we just got to meet people. We’d see white guys and black guys getting along well, and learning that people are just people. There were good people and bad people, and that was it: no colours. And at Stax, that’s how it was, just family. And that guy right there [points to exhibit], the great Willie Mitchell, he did so much for this city it’s just unbelievable. Have you guys been to Hi Studios yet? You gotta go by Hi Studio and check on Papa Willie and his studio and his legacy. Papa was the heart and soul – along with Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton and Al Bell: these guys made this town of music what it is, and we’ll all be indebted to them for the rest of our lives.
I’m glad to see that the glory of Stax has been restored, as it was in a state of disrepair for some time, wasn’t it?
JGW: Yes it was, and that was a shame. It should never have happened. Stax never should have left, it never should have failed. Memphis didn’t realise what it had, and I don’t think it does to this day, because you have to leave here now to get on someplace. It’s the same story over and over again: you have to leave home. They don’t appreciate the artists from home. All kinds of people come here for Memphis In May: when they got a budget they bring in big name acts, but when they want something done free, they call in the local acts, and I got a bone with that. But it’s gonna get better for the next generation, hopefully.
There are plenty of opportunities for live music in Memphis still.
JGW: Yeah, and there’s a lot of talent here, still. A lot of guys that was at Stax when I came are still around doing music – some of ’em are starving to death, some of ’em are working – but a lot of them are still around and starving. Like Lou Bond, for instance – a great album here at Stax, but he can’t find work, you know what I mean? And that’s a sin.
What was it that caused the failing of Stax?
JGW: I don’t know. I think Memphis being part of the Bible belt and afraid of change, I think that was the basic reasons… We could get into the little particulars like payola and different stuff like that, but I think the basic reason was they were afraid of change. The old establishment, they didn’t want change. They see these black men coming out shaking and screaming and hollering, and blacks and whites getting together, I think it scared the shit out of them! Do you guys know anything about Old Man Crump? The Crump machine. He was like part of that Bible belt situation. One of the city’s founders, in a sense. Do some research on Old Man Crump. [Moves to other exhibit] LeMoyne-Owen College played a big part in the restoration of Stax. I think they merged together…
That’s the music academy next door?
JGW: Yes. And it’s doing very well, and every year the grades are going up. And that’s a good thing; that’s something that cannot be taken. It’s given a lot of kids an opportunity to travel and to get a quality education and to meet people of all races, creeds and colours – give them a better opportunity to what we had.
Do you think it’s promoting hope in a new generation?
JGW: Of course, yes. I think it’s gonna be a little bit more than hope. With the foundation that the museum has given these kids, I think they’re gonna have a little bit more than hope: they have the tools to work with, the education, something to fight back with. And if that’s the only legacy of the Stax artists, I think that’s enough. Along with the music.
[Enter Larry Dodson.]
Hey Larry, we’ve just been talking about Stax and Memphis… Do you guys find it surprising that the likes of us will travel all the way from London to visit Stax and want to talk about it?
Larry: No man. Long after John and I are gone, they’ll be doing this. There’s just so much history, man. Inside these walls some of the greatest music in the world was created, by some of the greatest entertainers, and those kind of legacies will live on long, long after we are gone. So no, I’m not surprised. I’m just glad it’s here for you guys to come to. John and I go way back! When I was with The Temprees, John Gary and The Mad Lads were like the premier doo-wop group, so all the other little local guys wanted to be like The Mad Lads. I remember, they used to sit on one side of the bridge and just have all these perfect harmonies, and we’d be on the other side, trying to just get as close as we could! (Laughs) But we go back. Praise the Lord, we’re part of the living guys, the guys that are still around to talk about all this great stuff.
JGW: It’s guys like Larry that kept it going. A lot of us faltered along the way; these guys have been consistent. They’ve had tragedy, they overcame the tragedy, and I think the music was the basic reason that they were able to overcome in the manner that they did.
Larry: Absolutely. James Alexander, my partner, his tenacity in just keeping the group together – we’re working on our thirtieth album. We’re just blessed. Our new single – we just re-recorded ‘Return Of The Mack’ by Mark Morrison – is number thirty-six in the nation. So, we still putting music out. We still touring. We still hanging out and having a great time. We run our own label now, JEA Right Now Records, and we have such guys as J. Blackfoot, The Soul Children, Archie Love… These guys are still putting great music out together. We’re just lucky that we love it. If we didn’t like it, we’d have to get out of it. John can tell you; as long as you still have a desire to do your best and keep making people happy and feeling them songs – because the songs don’t die, we do! ‘Shop Around’ will be here long after we’ve gone.
JGW: That’s right. The music is here forever. It’s a good thing to see you guys come over. It’s a pleasant surprise, and it’s a pleasure, to know that our music has the power to draw people from across oceans to listen to our music, to see where we came from, and to want to know how we got along as people during the times of turmoil and civil rights. It’s an honour and a blessing for you guys to be here, yeah.
It’s a pleasure for us as well. Seeing the museum’s introductory video sent chills through us, knowing such magic was made here.
Larry: The first time I came here – I came here early one morning before it opened – I just planned to walk through it, and stayed five hours. It was the first time I seen it. It floored me. It took me back to such great times. Back then when we didn’t care how much money we was making – it was more about just being able to be in front of an audience of people… Because we weren’t making that much money, trust me! (Laughs)
When was the first time you actually came to Stax?
Larry: I joined the band in 1970. Prior to that I was in The Temprees, which is a vocal group – they went on to make a lot of good records. But I’ve been the only singer The Bar-Kays has had since 1970, so that’s quite a while.
You must look after your voice then!
Larry: What’s left of it! You know what? I have. Not always, cos, you know, there were periods in our career when we beat up on ourselves pretty bad – the body took a licking…
JGW: That was part of it.
Larry: Absolutely. But praise God, we got through all of that, and James and I still have a great band and we still do a lot of touring. Like I said, we’ve got a great record out now and are working on our thirtieth album, and we’re still loving it.
Are there any plans to play overseas?
Larry: You know, we’re playing a tour right now. The one we had last year I had to cancel at the last minute because I had dates with The Blues Brothers and some other things, and they fell out at the last minute. So out of the fourteen days that I had, I only retained seven, and financially it wasn’t gonna be feasible for me to go, so I had to postpone them. But we just got back from Iraq! We played four days in Iraq and one day in Kuwait for the troops – 135 degrees there in the day, out in the desert, but it was good. We went over there two years ago for the same thing, and we were asked to come back again. It was a great honour. The biggest audience you have is probably three hundred people, but they love it, and they love the idea that you’ve taken the time to do that. But we’re getting ready to come to the UK in January.
Was there much competition between artists at Stax?
Larry: Good competition. You know who were the recipient of all that? The audience. You’re talking about Sam And Dave, Otis Redding, The Mad Lads, The Bar-Kays…everybody was good!
JGW: We wanted everybody to be successful. We had competition among ourselves, but we wanted everybody to be successful, and we made each other better, I think.
I read that on the 1967 Stax Revue tour of the UK there was fighting as to the order of the show, because no-one wanted to follow the other person, as each show had to take the fervour up a notch…
Larry: But if you notice though, the guys on the tour were very compassionate. Booker would come out, then the horns would come out, then Arthur Conley…not in that order all the time, but it was like a camaraderie with those guys – you could tell they were doing their thing, but they were all together, man.
We were in Nashville yesterday, which is known as being the centre of country music. Memphis, meanwhile, is renowned for its soul. The cities are just a few hours away – how can two places so close have such radically different heritages?
JGW: I don’t know. I guess you go back to the old days when it was hillbillies in the hills, and the black blues singers. I think it came up from there.
Larry: Yeah, geographically the blues originated in this area, but a lot of it was Mississippi-influenced. Further on up the road, in Nashville you get into more mountainous area, and you got people who were there who listened to a different kinda music. It’s kinda like, if you plant an orange tree here, it ain’t gonna grow in Nashville. The roots come up where the tree is planted.
What was the competition like between Stax and Motown?
JGW: Different. The name says it all: Hitsville USA / Soulsville USA.
Larry: There you go. Right there.
JGW: It was soul. You can take a table and polish it up and shine it up and the wood don’t mean shit. Then, you can have another table – it ain’t polished or nothing, but it’s strong and it’ll last longer.
Larry: Absolutely. Motown was the glitz and the glamour, and Stax was the collared greens, the neck bones, the corn bread, and the stuff that sticks to your belly.
JGW: The Mad Lads were kinda caught in between. We weren’t bluesy. We were…
Larry: The Mad Lads were sophisticated: very polished, very clean, very sharp.
JGW: A different act than Stax had at the time. Then, along came The Temprees. Oh man, they would knock you out.
Do you both have favourite artists from that time?
JGW: I got so many favourites. Otis [Redding], William Bell, The Bar-Kays, The Temprees – Jabbo stood out for me. Jabbo is the lead singer of The Temprees. His sister and I have a son – my oldest son, Marvin – and his voice was just phenomenal.
Larry: One of a kind.
JGW: Everything that I wanted to do, he could do. And everything that I did, he did!
How did the tragedy of losing Otis Redding affect Stax?
Larry: It was incredible. Probably the two most tragic things that happened was losing Otis and The Bar-Kays. Because at that time, see, there was a lot of turmoil going on. There was a lot of race riots – everything was in turmoil. Not just that: Stax was in a little bit of trouble financially – it was terrible. It took a lot of strength, and I tip my hat to my partner James Alexander, because he immediately went and reformed the group. Just before the dust could settle, because he felt that’s what the group would want. And it was tough. It was devastating. Otis was a different guy. He was on his way to being blessed far beyond our wildest dreams.
JGW: He was a role model. He was a role model to me as a person.
Larry: Twenty-six years old.
When he played Monterey Festival in 1967 and floored the crowd there, it bridged the gap between soul and pop audiences. That would have been the bridge to make Stax hugely successful.
Larry: Absolutely. Some tragic deaths. I mean, there were many, but Otis, Janis Joplin, Hendrix, those were just great losses to music, because they were different. All of them were tragic, but those were different.
JGW: I’d like to plug the album again – they’re re-releasing the ‘John Gary Williams’ album on Light In The Attic, and at the same time we’re releasing a book – a brother by the name of John Hubble and myself are writing an autobiography. It’s called Patch My Heart. And possibly a movie. So look out for it.
Your album is a very rare record that originally came out years ago, right?
JGW: Yeah. It’s on the Stax label, it’s entitled ‘John Gary Williams’. It was originally recorded in 1972 and it’s being re-released on Light In The Attic.
Before we go, we love hearing the old stories from Stax. What are your favourites?
Larry: Here’s something you probably would never know. Albert King didn’t read or write, and he was a little funny about that. There were times when he would be on the floor playing and I would be in the control room, and I would say the lines [to him] just before he would sing them. It was really interesting that he was able to just catch a line and could grasp it that quick, and then was playing at the same time!
JGW: I had an opportunity to watch that.
Larry: It is incredible, isn’t it?
JGW: Yeah, it’s incredible. When y’all did that song, ‘I Play The Blues For You’.
JGW: I watched it. I was in the studio at the time.
Larry: He was funny about it; he didn’t want people to know that he couldn’t do all of that. I wouldn’t even try to do something like that. I mean, it’s one thing to sing it, but singing and playing at the same time and recording it? And mean it? That’s what the real pros could do.