Volume 91, Issue 90

Thursday, March 19, 1998

Howe 'bout it


The long train to Soulsville

By Carey Weinberg
Gazette Staff

The sound of Stax Records is perhaps the most influential touchstone in early American music and its story is one of the most in depth and fascinating looks at the music industry. After 12 years of research, over 200 interviews, residing in Memphis and breathing air consisting mostly of Stax music, Rob Bowman, needless to say, knows all there is to know about the record company that gave birth to the likes of Issac Hayes, Booker T. and the MG's and Otis Redding.

Rob Bowman is an ethnomusicologist teaching at York University who pioneered York's popular music course. His book, Soulsville, chronicles the events, players and stories of Stax Records. Bowman says the Stax sound came out of the gospel church, which epitomizes the sound of southern soul music. "When one talks about southern soul, one's really talking about a style of music that was at least codified, if not originated, at Stax Records in Memphis, Tennesee."

Soulsville is a thorough examination of a company which broke both racial boundaries and record sales. He will discuss Stax from a musicological point of view (dummied down so non-musicians can understand) and will explore the sociologically interesting aspects of the Stax story.

"In some ways, Stax is the embodiment of everything Dr. Martin Luther King stood for," he says. How this glorious enterprise crashes to a halt is in Bowman's words "an unbelievable series of events that a fiction writer couldn't have created if he or she wanted to.

"When I started writing this book, I thought I was working on a book about a lot of records that I truly loved, but I quite quickly realized that the story was much larger and much richer than just the story about some great records. It is a story of incredible sociological and industrial significance.

"The adventures that took me from crack houses in some cities to mansions in others to do these interviews and uncover this stuff was just wild and fascinating."

Issac Hayes is one of the best highlights from Bowman's Soulsville odyssey. After pursuing an interview with Hayes for over a year, Bowman was given a hour slot which turned into a seven-hour interview and had Hayes introducing Bowman as a "walking mother-fucking dictionary. The back of the book says 'walking dictionary' because they wouldn't print it, but it was 'walking mother-fucking dictionary'," laughs Bowman.

The process of writing the book changed his life significantly. "I've been working at Stax for 25 per cent of my life. I've become a part of the Stax family. Al Bell (record producer and former head of Stax) refers to me as the 'custodian of the legacy of Stax'." Bowman's work has been a catalyst in getting musicians paid, back together and inspired. "I've had an inordinate effect in a lot of people's lives because of this work which gives me a tremendously emotionally-rewarding feeling," Bowman reflects.

Bowman, who won a Grammy in 1996 for best liner notes, likens the experience of writing to playing music. "There's a weird feeling when you're playing in a band – you're playing until two in the morning, you come off the stage and you're really high because of the excitement of playing and you're also just incredibly drained – you had no idea how tired you were because you were in that moment and flying with that moment you don't even notice it.

"I call it 'riding the eye of the hurricane' just like in the moment of writing. Enthralled and possessed by it, I had no idea how tired I was."

At noon today in the McKellar Room, Bowman will give a lecture based on his extensive knowledge of a record company that left an indelible mark on the music industry.

To Contact The Arts and Entertainment Department: gazent@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright The Gazette 1998