Music History

The Ultimate Sounds of Soul: Stax vs. Motown

October 20, 2014


There are only two names that rule the history of soul and r&b music: Motown and Stax.

While they competed within the same genres and ruled the airwaves during the same eras, the two record labels had their own unique signature sounds. Here’s a look at what made Stax and Motown such hit-making powerhouses.

Motown and Stax have many similarities, but it is their defining differences that make them so interesting. Both Motown and Stax were started by musicians during the turn of the decade of the 1960s. Berry Gordy Jr. was a 30-year-old African American piano player and pop and r&b songwriter who was teaching Smokey Robinson how to write songs when he founded Tamla Records in 1959 (incorporated as Motown Record Corporation a year later). Jim Stewart was a 31-year-old white country fiddler who had spent the previous 4 years recording country artists in his wife’s uncle’s garage under the name Satellite Records before founding Stax Records with his organ-playing, soprano-singing sister, Estelle Axton, in 1961 in Memphis, Tennessee.

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Berry Gordy, Jr. – founder of Motown Records

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Estelle Axton and Jim Stewart – founders of Stax Records

Motown was named after Berry Gordy Jr.’s hometown of Detroit, also known as “the motor city”. The Motown headquarters was located in a white frame house with a sign over the front door that Gordy had hung boldly naming the headquarters “Hitsville, U.S.A.”. It was clear from the beginning that Gordy had a clear vision of what Motown would become. His vision included the tightly-run assembly and production of nothing less than hit records by African Americans that would cross over into the pop music world. In order to achieve his vision, he maintained complete control over every aspect of his business: Gordy personally chose and developed his artists, maintained control over the label’s finances, held “quality control” meetings where he and his upper staff would approve which songs would be released, had his songwriting teams compete to work with the most successful acts, and oversaw the creation and production of smaller amounts of records in order to create as many hits as possible. Motown performers were required to wear approved clothing, learn choreography, adhere to strict codes of conduct both on and off stage, and attend PR lessons. The Motown Finishing School (run by Maxine Powell) was formed to ensure the professional behaviour of every Motown artist.

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Motown’s original headquarters in Detroit, Michigan at 2648 West Grand Boulevard

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Berry Gordy in the control room of the recording studio at Motown

Unlike the strict oversight at Motown, Stax Records thrived on the collaborations of both songwriters and musicians. Named after the first two letters in his and his sister’s last names, Jim Stewart and Ethelle Axton set the tone of partnership at Stax from the beginning. Located in an old abandoned Capitol Theater in Memphis, Stax broke down racial boundaries with its equal mix of both black and white employees and artists. In the height of the civil rights movement, this was not a normal reality in the South. But there in the middle of it, in Memphis, Tennessee, was Stax Records producing unique soul music whose roots were based on the blending of musical backgrounds and influences.

The marquee outside of the old theater building summed up the heart of Stax Records. In response to Motown’s “Hitsville, U.S.A.” sign, the marquee read “Soulsville, U.S.A.” – a distinction that implied the dedication to the art of making music organically as well as identifying themselves as a worthy competitor to the hit factory that was Motown.

The front of the Stax building housed the Satellite Record Shop (named after their original record label name) which was run by Estelle who kept the artists informed on current music trends. The shop acted as a melting pot for musicians of multiple genres and was a research and inspiration source for Stax’s recording artists. Musicians from around the area gravitated to Stax and were often soon signed to the label. Local songwriters Isaac Hayes and David Porter were signed to the label and soon became Stax’s most successful songwriters writing over 300 songs together.

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Stax Records and Satellite Record Shop at 926 East McLemore Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee

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Stax Records songwriting duo David Porter and Isaac Hayes

Although both Stax and Motown were producing songs in the genre of soul music during the same period, their sounds were far from identical. The signature sound of Motown was a polished and sophisticated, jazz-influenced soul that showcased smooth vocals in the forefront of the music. Gordy wanted to produce music by African American artists and musicians that would be popular with people of all races, social classes and regions, and was particular in how to achieve this. Musical techniques from early r&b music like twelve-bar-blues patterns and doo-wop styles were very rarely used. Instead, Motown’s sound was one based on pop structures layered with gospel and blues techniques (like call-and-response and gospel vocal stylings) for its identification with soul music. With teenagers suddenly a powerful consumer demographic, Gordy marketed the music of Motown directly to this enormous paying audience by describing Motown’s music as “the sound of young America”.

The musicians behind Motown’s signature sound was the house band known as The Funk Brothers. The Funk Brothers were formed in Motown’s founding year of 1959 and were made up of musicians from Detroit’s live music scene that Gordy recruited. These musicians were always on call and were under strictly exclusive contracts to secure the signature sound of Motown remained loyal to the label. The Funk Brothers were crucial in the success of Motown and created its unique sound that was consistent among all of Motown’s releases from 1959 until Gordy abandoned the band by moving the label to L.A. in 1972.

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The Funk Brothers

While Motown’s sound focused on precision and refinement, the signature sound of Stax was filled with emotional grit and raw musicianship. The sound of Stax Records was a stripped-down soul that emphasized the lower end instrumentation of bass and drums and the explosive energy of its horn section. Horn ensembles were key to the Stax sound and would often replace backup vocals and guitar solos. As much as Gordy was scrupulous with control over recordings, Stewart let his musicians create with freedom. Singers were encouraged to make use of spontaneous gospel techniques such as melismatic singing (one syllable sung over many musical notes) and shout-outs during songs (Otis Redding is a prime example of this). The unstructured lead vocals were mixed with the rest of the instrumentation creating a more genuine recording. The recording studio in Stax was located in the old theater room which was large and had sloped floors. This space gave the recordings a distinct deep sound with a sense of the extensive space they were recorded in.

The house band that created the signature Stax sound was Booker T. and the M.G.’s. Starting in 1962, they remained the Stax house band for 8 years. Unlike The Funk Brothers who were rarely even credited on the hundreds of hits they helped create, Booker T. and the M.G.’s were regarded as artists in their own right at Stax and released their own music while also working as the house band. Instead of demanding perfection, Stewart allowed the Stax house band to improvise and record live instead of on separate takes. The freedom to create the music themselves instead of having an arranger give them orders of what and how to play, was crucial to the genuinely improvisational and loose signature sound of Stax Records.

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Booker T. and the MGs

These house bands backed some of the most successful artists of the ’60s and ’70s. Stax Records was home to a diverse family of artists including soul singers Otis Redding, The Staple Singers, Wilson Pickett and Isaac Hayes, blues legend Albert King, blues/soul artists Booker T. and the M.G.’s, and country/soul artists Delaney & Bonnie.

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Otis Redding 

Motown boasted some of the most iconic artists of the era including Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson Five, The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Commodores, Rick James, The Isley Brothers, and Lionel Richie.

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Marvin Gaye

After the scandal of payola in radio, (payment given to radio DJs by record company executives in exchange for extra airplay) many radio stations would only play one single by each record label at a time in order to ensure their objectivity. In order to solidify the success of their labels, both Motown and Stax created subsidiary labels which had their own rosters of artists. Motown’s sister labels included Tamla, Gordy and Soul while Stax’s subsidiary labels included Volt, Enterprise, Chalice, and Hip.

With their enormous success and signature sounds, Motown and Stax proved that not only could musicians and singers achieve success based on their sounds and styles, but that both producers and labels themselves were able to create signature sounds that would become legendary.

Stax Records produced 167 hit songs on the Top 100 pop charts and 243 hits on the Top 100 R&B charts over the span of 15 years. The Stax Records building is now home to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music as well as the Stax Music Academy. Current artists signed to Stax Records include Ben Harper, Charlie Musselwhite, Angie Stone, and Booker T. Jones.

In 1970 alone, Motown Records had 16 records in the Top 10 and 7 #1 hit records of the year’s total of 21. Motown’s more recent artists include Erykah Badu, Babyface, Stevie Wonder, Ne-Yo, India.Arie, Boyz II Men, Brian McKnight and Michael Jackson.

Both Berry Gordy Jr. and Jim Stewart have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Gordy in 1988 and Stewart in 2002) and have become legends in music history.

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