Going to the River

Stax Records Story Official


By Mark Curnutte
Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio

EVANSTON – When Martin Shore, a musician-turned-filmmaker, sees racial tension explode into violence as it did in contemporary Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, his thoughts most often turn to his art.

“We as artists and musicians around the world can be responsible for social, political and economic change,” he said. “What we give is unique in its ability to bring people together so they can start to communicate.”

Communication, Shore added, most often leads to collaboration and creation of real and lasting community.

That idealistic social thread runs through Shore’s directorial debut, “Take Me to the River,” a 2014 release that tells the story of the color- and gender-blind Memphis music scene and legendary Stax Records label.

Shore, Stax vocalist William Bell and rapper Al Kapone will participate Tuesday, Nov. 3, in Xavier University’s “Touching History” series, “The Stax Records Story 1961-1977.” The award-winning “Take Me to the River” will be shown, followed by a question-and-answer session. A live musical performance that includes members of the Grammy Award-winning Hi Rhythm Section — original members and brothers Charles (organ) and Leroy Hodges (bass) — and Stax Music Academy will cap the evening.

The film documents the cultural significance of Memphis-based Stax in the 1960s and its relationship to key events in the Civil Rights movement, most notably the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968 in Memphis.

Shore, who helped write and directed the film, tells a parallel narrative that shows legendary Memphis artists – Bobby “Blue” Bland, Mavis Staples, Booker T. Jones and Bell among them – recording the film’s multi-generational soundtrack album with a roster of rap stars that includes Snoop Dogg, Yo Gotti and Kapone.


Sponsored by Xavier’s Center for Interfaith Community Engagement, the event will begin at 7 p.m. in the Cintas Banquet Center and is free and open to the public. Donna Jones Baker, President and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio, is a member of the Xavier University board of directors.

Last year, Xavier’s Touching History Series featured the story of Sir Nicholas Winton, who saved the lives of 669 Jewish children from the Holocaust in 1939 in Czechoslovakia.


A generation later, in 1957 – the dawn of another pivotal period in history – Stax Records was founded in Memphis, Tennessee, as Satellite Records before changing its name in 1961. The Stax label, instrumental in the creation and distribution of Memphis and Southern soul music, stood tall as an integrated enterprise against forces of segregation.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson refers to Stax in the film as “a piece of culture. It was a movement of conscience and an experience of mankind at the right time.”

The film and soundtrack are promoted as a re-imagining of “the utopia of racial, gender and generational collaboration of Memphis in its heyday.”

Bell, 76, best known for writing or singing such hits as “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” “Born Under a Bad Sign,” “Private Number” and I Forgot to Be Your Lover” – the latter he performs on the soundtrack with Snoop Dogg and Stax Music Academy musicians – remembers the racial tension.

“We just didn’t see color,” Bell says in the film. “Stax was a musical oasis in the ghetto desert. The minute we walked out the door (of Stax studio) it hit us in the face.”

The film arcs from a tribute to one of the best known Stax artists, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Isaac Hayes, to the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike and the aftermath of King’s assassination.

“They couldn’t feed their families,” Jones, leader of Booker T. & the M.G.’s, says in the film. “Once they stood up, everything started to change.”

The M.G.’s, Stax house band and 1992 Rock Hall inductee, was integrated. Jones recalls in the film that its mixed lineup prevented it from playing both white and black clubs.

But inside the Stax studio, color was not an issue.

“One of the important parts of the film,” director Shore said in an interview, “is that when you walked through the door, it was about what you had to offer – not what you were.”

The inter-racial Stax story remains relevant today.

Rabbi Abie Ingber, director Interfaith Engagement at Xavier and Touching History program organizer, referenced Heinrich Heine, the 19th century German poet and essayist, to explain what could happen Tuesday night.

“Heine writes, `Where words leave off, music begins.’ Words and music will come together at the Cintas Center to soothe us in these troubled times. In Touching History, we reach across the generations to be inspired and to heal.”

How troubled? African-Americans praying in a South Carolina church were gunned down in June by an avowed white supremacist. A string of incidents in which unarmed black men died in police custody shook communities across the country. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported dramatic increases in the number of anti-black hate groups and anti-government “Patriot” and paramilitary “militia” organizations nationally in the wake of the election of President Barack Obama in 2008.

Cincinnati, which experienced racial violence in spring 2001 after the police shooting death of unarmed black man Timothy Thomas by a white Cincinnati Police officer, teetered again on the same brink this past summer. Unarmed black motorist Samuel DuBose was shot and killed July 19 in Mount Auburn after being stopped for a missing front license plate, an incident captured on the officer’s body camera. Ray Tensing, formerly of the University of Cincinnati police department, awaits trial on a murder charge.

Music, of course, cannot solve such complex problems as those inherent to police-community relations or the stunning economic and social disparities revealed in the Urban League report The State of Black Cincinnati 2015: Two Cities.


Yet, Shore said, music provides a model, a humble and most basic one: communication. Even once-disparate stakeholders in Cincinnati came together to do the hard work of forging police reforms in the groundbreaking 2002 Collaborative Agreement, still considered a national model.

If viewers get any message from “Take Me to the River,” Shore hopes it is “the power of communication and cooperation that leads to collaboration and community. It is something that should seep into all of our lives. Step No. 1 is communication.”

These Companies are Transformational Supporters of the Urban League’s Corporate Heritage Annual Giving Program.