Hello City: Celebrating the 30th Anniversary of Barenaked Ladies’ Gordon

In July of ’94, I made what would be the first of many trips to one of the truly great cities of the world, Toronto. I discovered lots of wonderful things you can’t find in Atlanta: quality public art, clothes by Roots, and Canadian music. It was here I first heard Spirit of the West, the Rheostatics, the Tragically Hip, and a band that was still a relative newcomer at the time, Barenaked Ladies.

This was the month before the band’s second album, “Maybe You Should Drive” came out, but MuchMusic was still playing tracks from their debut two years after its release, so my intro was “Be My Yoko Ono,’ watching with a friend, who shared (and I presume still does) that album’s title: “Gordon.”  

“Gordon” (album, not friend) was born from a series of indie-release cassettes spanning from 1989 to 1991. That year, “Barenaked Ladies,” aka “the Yellow Tape’, was the band’s demo for South X Southwest and became their first commercial release. The tape contained early versions of what would become some of their signature tunes, including “Brian Wilson,” “Be My Yoko Ono,” and “If I Had $1,000,000.” In a scenario akin to the Cars’ breakthrough almost 15 years before, commercial radio picked up on it, including the influential Toronto-are modern rock outlet CFNY.

Besides hawking the tapes, the band made the lowest-budget video ever – one loonie – by squeezing into the “Speaker’s Corner” public-access booth outside the MuchMusic studios in downtown Toronto and performing “Yoko Ono.” MuchMusic made good use of the freebie, putting it into heavy rotation.

The big break came when CFNY gave the band $100K to record a new album as part of its Discovery-to-Disc grant program. In 1992 BNL signed with Sire and went into the studio with Canadian uber-producer Michael-Philip Wojewoda.

It’s said of first albums that you have your whole life to write the songs and it held true here. The band had about 20 here to choose from; Wojewoda later said they were already pretty much fully shaped and it was mostly a matter of choosing what fit best to get to the final 14. “Gordon” made its debut on July 28, 1992. Thirty years later, it’s still fresh, with a wild sense of abandon and an infectious joy that’s never been duplicated.

“Gordon” sold more than 500,00 copies in Canada in its first year of release on the strength of four hit singles (“Enid,” “What A Good Boy” and re-recorded versions of “If I Had $1000000” and “Brian Wilson.”). It spent eight weeks in the Number One slot on the Canadian albums chart; was nominated for a Juno for Album of the Year and “Enid” got one for Single of the Year. By 2000, it had diamond status in Canada. In 2015, CBC Music named “Brian Wilson” one of the 50 Best Songs of the 1990s, and in 2017 “Gordon” was named one of the 25 Best Canadian Debut Albums by CBC Music. Response in the U.S. was a little slower, where the album took until 1998 to go gold.  

In 2013, LA Weekly’s Andy Hermann wrote, “Amidst the clenched-jaw rock singers of the day, “Gordon” was a breath of fresh air: a harmony-rich, mostly acoustic, wildly inventive goof of a record.” But you don’t make quirkiness in music work, let alone last, unless you can back it up – ask Was (Not Was) or Weird Al. BNL brings solid musicianship, sharp songwriting, and exquisite Kingston Trio-esque harmonies, and it was all there, fully formed, on “Gordon”.

The worst cover art in the history of pop?

Sire opted to market the “goof” factor, with cover art that proved that they were completely confused by their new signees: shots of them mugging between the letters spelling out the title. The band hated it, but the floating Pepsi logo just may be worse.

It’s true that humor has been Barenaked Ladies’ calling card from the start, and it’s all over here, from the third track, “Grade 9,” with a sonic reference to Rush’s Tom Sawyer and lyrics that perfectly capture freshman angst:

First day of school and I’m already failing….

I went out for the football team to prove that I’m a man

Guess I shouldn’t tell them that I like Duran Duran

Of course there’s the aforementioned “Yoko Ono” and the song that’s still a live staple, “If I Had $1,000,000” with its uniquely Canadian fantasy of unlimited Kraft Dinner.

But there’s a shadow side to Barenaked Ladies. Turn off the sunny street of songs like these and you’ll find the dark alleys, filled with the quiet suburbanite desperation that shows up in “What a Good Boy”:

We’ve got these chains

Hanging ’round our necks

People want to strangle us with them

Before we take our first breath

Afraid of change

Afraid of staying the same

When temptation calls

We just look away

White middle-class ennui may seem a twee luxury in the world we live in now, but it’s still very real. Eight years later, the terror morphed into weary resignation on “Pinch Me,” from the band’s 2000 album “Maroon”:

Like a dream you try to remember but it’s gone

(Pinch me) Then you try to scream but it only comes out as a yawn

Starting with “Gordon,” violence lingers in those shadows too, wrapped in those pretty harmonies on “Wrap Your Arms Around Me:”

I put my hands around your neck

You wrap your arms around me

I regret every time I raised my voice

And it wouldn’t be that bright of me to say I had no choice

I can kiss your eyes, your hair, your neck

Until we forget

The band would take this further on its third studio album, “Born on a Pirate Ship” with not one, but two songs about violent stalkers. “Straw Hat and Old Dirty Hank” was inspired by the famous Anne Murray stalking case from the 70s and borrows lyrics from Murray’s “You Needed Me” and “Snowbird.” Fortunately, Murray’s story ended better: The narrator in “Hank” shoots the object of his obsession dead in her front door. More subtle but still terrifying is “The Old Apartment,” the most upbeat song about a violent stalker ever to break the Top 40. The clincher is the fact that the narrator doesn’t seem to understand why his former relationship is over:

Why did you plaster over

The hole I punched in the door?

When I saw the band in 1998, it was a little surreal to see hundreds of tweens/young teens bopping happily to this song, seemingly oblivious.

And in the BNL universe, love isn’t so much passionate romance as it is an uneasy détente, made explicit on “Gordon” in “The Flag:”

He tells her he’s sorry, she tells him it’s over

He tells her he’s sorry, she says over and over

You’ve never really known that when the white flag is flown

No one, no one, no one has won the war

The ultimate example of a BNL anti-love song comes on the “Pirate Ship” album, in what may be one of the most wrenching relationship songs ever written, “Break Your Heart”:

The bravest thing I’ve ever done

Was to run away and hide.

But not this time.

Not this time.

And the weakest thing I’ve ever done

Was to stay right by your side.

Just like this time

And every time.

I couldn’t tell you I was happy you were gone,

So I lied and said that I missed you when we were apart.

I couldn’t tell you, so I had to lead you on

But I didn’t mean to break your heart.

In between the comedy and tragedy, the songs on “Gordon” explore eccentric character sketches (“King of Bedside Manor” (with its side trip through Styx’ “Mr. Roboto”), the joys of a break with reality (“Crazy”) and two tracks that skewer the downside of fame. “Box Set” is a tragically comic look at pop-star career trajectories:

I never thought that words like “product”

Could ever leave my lips

But something happened to me somewhere

That made me lose my grip

While “New Kid on the Block” looks at boy band success from the inside out:

Now I’m a new kid on the block

Well I’m twenty-three and they won’t let me grow up

And on an album packed with gems, there’s a special jewel in one of the band’s signature songs, the poignant, beautiful “Brian Wilson”:

Drove downtown in the rain

Nine-thirty on a Tuesday night

Just to check out the late-night record shop…

While some elements from “Gordon” would carry over into the band’s later work, it was probably inevitable that the freedom and eclecticism would be left behind. With their second album, “Maybe You Should Drive,” Barenaked Ladies would display more discipline and find a cohesive voice that would bring them success on a global scale. But the maturity and complex wordplay of the songwriting was all there (Hello, Songwriter’s Hall of Fame?). And the jazzy arrangements propelled by Jim Creegan’s dancing bass lines were already defined. “Gordon” checks all the boxes not just as one of the strongest debut albums ever, but one of the best of its decade and a true all-time classic.

But time goes on, things change. The band’s “bunch of buddies” image may have been overstated to begin with, and as mainstream success grew, so did the tensions. Page’s coke bust in 2008 couldn’t have been more ill-timed, coming on the heels of the release of a children’s album and a planned relationship with Disney. Page left the band in 2009, citing a need for more of a songwriting outlet but later interviews on both sides revealed deep reserves of anger. The guys’ reunion for their Canadian Music Hall of Fame induction was cordial, but it seems clear that it was a destined to be a one-off.

I haven’t been to Toronto in years, and Gord and I lost touch almost as long ago. And I drifted away from BNL for good after “Barenaked Ladies are Men/Barenaked Ladies Are Me.” But “Gordon” remains a desert island disc, forever conjuring the image of the spinning neon turntables of the Sam the Record Man sign on Yonge Street, funky Thai fusion on Queen West, and the memory of a summer when life seemed expansive, exciting, and new.

Getting Nervous: Random Thoughts on the 2022 Rock Hall Class

Well, here we are. After another way-too-long voting period, the RRHOF Class of 2022 has been named. If somehow you don’t already know, that class is: Performers: Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo, Duran Duran, Eminem, Eurythmics, Dolly Parton, Lionel Richie, and Carly Simon; Early Influences: Harry Belafonte and Elizabeth Cotton; Musical Influence: Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and Judas Priest; Irving Azoff Award for Non-Performers: Allen Grubman, Jimmy Iovine, and Sylvia Robinson.

It’s a great class. As hackneyed as the expression is, it’s literally got something for everyone: hip hop, country, pop, a singer-songwriter, and lo and behold, metal. At least in term of act totals, it’s not bad for female representation. There aren’t a lot of female-dominated bands out there, and an all-female class is a likely non-starter, so vote parity isn’t going to come from the performer ranks. And it does, albeit posthumously, finally honor a woman with the Ahmet Ertegun Award. Sylvia Robinson is a wonderful place to start; precious few industry captains can claim to have left their mark on a genre that dominates the cultural landscape the way she did.

I didn’t predict this year; I listened to too many podcasts and read too many posts from critics and writers and then couldn’t decide what the 65-year-old voters would do. Duran Duran and Eminem were locks and I didn’t think Pat would get shut out again, but I wasn’t sure if they’d look fondly on the era of Bachrach-David and honor Dionne Warwick or if Lionel Richie’s undeniably massive reach would do it. And then there was Dollygate – how many voters would honor Dolly’s wishes and how would that actually play on their ballots? You have to have sympathy for the Hall on this: They were damned either way in the whole bizarre, strangely comical scenario.

Quite a few people did predict the entire class or most of it though, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. With a ballot this stacked, things should be more competitive. There should be a positive surprise. The biggest negative surprise for me was the name I was absolutely convinced since this time last year would be there under Musical Excellence: Chaka Khan.

Not that beauty precludes talent, but I’m starting to worry a little.

And that leads to something that Eric and Mary from Hall Watchers expressed in their reaction episode – something I’d felt but hadn’t put into words even in my thoughts. Everyone truly deserves to be there. Absolutely, no question. But as they said, this is a safe, ready-for-TV class. There’s no edge, no one who’s a misfit. The Dolls and MC5 have once again has been left out. John Sykes talks about the “music that impacts youth culture” (Lord, that’s a cringe-worthy expression — we’re talking people who debuted 25 years ago minimum. It sounds like something Ed Sullivan would say to announce Herman’s Hermits). But did Lionel Richie, as charming as he is and as tremendous as his career has been, impact “youth culture” even in his MTV heyday?

Speaking of MTV…five of the seven acts here had videos played on MTV, and four of the seven were mainstays on the channel for most of its 80s glory years. When Sykes took the helm two years ago I worried that the ballot would become a sleek parade of video stars. When Fela Kuti and Todd “Mr. Grumpy” Rundgren made the ballot last year, and Todd got in, I felt reassured. (Todd’s a video pioneer, but he didn’t get the massive airtime). But Devo is rapidly becoming sort of the exception to what I hope is not becoming a hard and fast rule of classes made up of Beautiful People. Not that beauty precludes talent, but I’m starting to worry a little.

Kuti’s inclusion this year feels doubly odd, if welcome. They had to have known he wouldn’t get in that way; it was a slot that could’ve gone to a competitive artist while Kuti went in the only way he will, as an Early Influence or Musical Excellence. If by chance they were banking on the same ecstatic reaction from voters in Nigeria and across Africa for excitement, that’s a cynical take that deserves the radio silence that greeted it.

The edginess that’s made it onto the ballot isn’t getting in. By all accounts, the Hall’s been tinkering with its voting committee for a while now, but it’s not translating into classes that include what the Nom Com so clearly wants.

And that brings us to categories. When the Hall slipped Starr in 2015 under Musical Excellence, formerly the “Sideman” category, the distinction largely went under the radar because it was unexpected. Two years later, when it was used to end our long national nightmare and induct Nile Rodgers after 11 attempts to induct Chic, the questions started to fly and it looked for all the world like a consolation prize.

Now the Hall’s been wielding the category with a vengeance, using it last year to right a long-standing wrong and make sense of hip-hop inductions going forward by finally welcoming LL Cool J, and this year finally putting more metal into the mix and inducting Judas Priest. Hear, hear to both of these inductions. Both long overdue and necessary steps. Combined with the larger classes, things are starting to move in ways we can see.

There’s a school of thought that the ends justify the means and the category meanings should be flexible. The Hall maintains that the Musical Excellence awards are true inductions, and it’s true that there’s not distinction at the ceremony in terms of performances, or speeches. It’s been said that it’s a distinction only Hall-watching types pay attention to, that to the public it’s all one big happy ballot.

When you have to spend most of Announcement Day explaining that yes, Artist X is really inducted, you have a problem.

But that’s just not true. These “side door” inductions — what the press always calls them — are very much noted by the public, fans, and no doubt the artists. The night of the announcement, I scrolled through the responses to the announcement tweet by the official Judas Priest account. Most of them were at least mildly happy, but there were quite a few that were keenly aware of the special category and were disappointed at what they felt was a second-class honor. A number were bummed that “It’s not a real induction” and Priest “Wouldn’t be able to perform; they’d just get a certificate.” This despite Rob Halford’s adorably enthusiastic spin on it being even better than just a plain old Performer induction because it meant someone had “dug deep” into the catalog. Metalsucks.net posted a poll asking “Is Judas Priest officially in the Hall of Fame?” (Almost half — 46.54 percent — flat-out said ‘No.'”)

Folks, when this kind of stuff happens, when you have to spend most of Announcement Day explaining that yes, Artist X is really, honestly, for truly and for reals inducted, you have a problem. Defining things makes my pedantic little soul happy, but more importantly, it lays the foundation of meaning for the award. Right now, it’s not clear what the awards mean, and Musical Excellence has devolved into what Garrick Groover aptly called on Twitter “Artists B.” And it may even tweak the voting for a certain extent, because when voters see an artist return to the ballot now, how many think they don’t need to vote for them and go for the shiny new first-year-eligible model instead, because that artist will likely get rolled over into a category? Not to mention that all this likely fills the category as much as it can take in a given year with the broadcast limitations and so takes a slot away from an actual side musician.

I think back in 1995 no one thought about all these subgenres, how much scrutiny everything would get, and how the voting body wouldn’t yield the results the Nom Com and other interested parties wanted, even for legit reasons. But psst, Foundation: You don’t have to devise band-aid fixes to get around the Rock Hall. You ARE the Rock Hall! You can create a system that makes sense and covers all these contingencies so that people understand the award and people don’t end up feeling insulted. It’s likely going to be a combination of defining terms and divvying up the class among factions, but it can be done. Take a stand! I’ve probably said it before, but the prestige in an award comes less from whom it’s given to than it does from the professionalism of the awarding organization.

There’ll be plenty of time starting November 6 to talk about what we want to see going forward. For now, let’s appreciate the definite merits of the Class of 2022. And spare some sympathy for the showrunners, who’ve begged for less of an embarrassment of riches. They’ve got their work cut out for them. Just give us Rob riding Dolly in on his Harley.

Remembering Lady A.

“I doubt if there would have ever been a Stax Records without Estelle Axton.” – Booker T.

Robert Gordon, author of the exhaustive 2013 Stax biography “Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion,” describes the iconic soul label’s story as a Greek tragedy. That’s not quite right: It’s more like five or six. Fortunes and friendships gained and lost, family ties strained, tragic deaths…it’s all there.

My purpose here isn’t to recount that entire story. It’s been treated extensively in Gordon’s book as well as Rob Bowman’s “Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records” (1997), documentaries, numerous articles, and in physical form at the Stax Museum. My words here are to salute the woman who helped bring Stax Records into being, who nurtured it and was an equal partner – if not more – in making it more than anyone had dreamed: Estelle Axton, the woman who came to be known by artists and fans alike as “Lady A.”

Satellite: The Early Days

Stax got its start in 1957 as a country/pop label called Satellite, the brainchild of a fiddle-playing bank teller named Jim Stewart from Middleton, TN who wanted to get into the business as a producer in the mold of Sam Phillips.  In need of a better tape recorder, Stewart approached his older sister Estelle to mortgage her family home. Estelle could sell sawdust to a lumber mill (Stewart would later call her the “damndest salesman he ever saw”), and somehow, she convinced her husband Everett go along. She put up an initial investment of $2500, a significant sum in those days, and in January 1959 bought out Stewart’s partners.

Mrs. Axton had long loved music. She’d sung soprano in the family gospel group and played the church organ back in Middleton. Later, she’d find an outlet for it that harnessed her entrepreneurial spirit: She had a side hustle at her teller job at Union Planters Bank, picking up records at local shops for co-workers and charging a small markup. She had an ear, not just for music, but for records and what made them work or not work. From the beginning, she could give Stewart feedback on the production aspect of his recordings.

Around 1959, encouraged by producer Chips Moman, Satellite recorded “Fool in Love” by an R&B group called the Veltones at its studio – an old garage in Brunswick, TN. Stewart started listening to the Black stations, hoping to hear “Fool in Love” and along the way heard Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.” It was a revelation. To Stewart and his sister, it was simple: Everyone was equal in the sight of God. Mrs. Axton remarked later that they didn’t see color, only talent. That may have been an optimistic take, but they always, from start to finish, walked the walk.

The Damndest Salesman

Shortly after this, Mrs. Axton refinanced again for another $4000 to help the business move to a racially mixed neighborhood in Memphis proper, into the former Capitol movie theater on McLemore Avenue. Mrs. Axton and her kids helped Stewart turn the auditorium into a studio, laying carpet, sewing sound-baffling drapes. Then she set her own plan in motion, opening a record shop, located in the old concession stand.

That record shop has become a centerpiece of the Stax legend. In the early days, it kept the tiny label afloat. And Mrs. Axton had the marketing savvy to boost that income. She hung speakers outside the shop to attract passerby and crafted a low-tech but effective loyalty program: She offered a free record for every 10 purchased and kept cards on file to track sales. She could check the cards when people came in and play songs she knew they’d like.

And it wasn’t just money coming in: the sales records were an invaluable source of marketing intelligence. “The shop was a workshop for Stax Records,” Mrs. Axton said later. “When a record would hit on another label, we would discuss what made it sell.” In the words of Deanie Parker, Mrs. Axton’s assistant and later director of publicity for the label, it was the “R&D division for Stax Records.”

“While the men were grandstanding and smiling, she was working, studying, and juggling all her responsibilities.”

Deanie Parker

As output grew, the store was a source of immediate feedback. When test pressings went to radio, they’d know the response at the cash register. And as Mrs. Axton said, “If I had one that several customers said, ‘Give me one of those too,’ I could tell them in the back, ‘Go ahead and press that one; it’ll sell.’ That’s why we were successful with nearly everything we put out for a few years – we tested them at home before we let them go.” The store went on to draw DJs, artists, promo men, and label reps who knew they could count on Mrs. Axton’s always honest and well-reasoned critiques of their product.

Booker T. would later say, “Most all our musical ideas and influences came out of that little record shop in the first couple of years. I can’t see Stax being what it was without the Satellite Record Shop and Estelle Axton saying, ‘Why don’t you guys try something like this?’“

In those days, Jim Stewart loved the record shop too and thought more record company execs would benefit from having access to one. “I used to spend Friday nights, Saturdays, Saturday nights in the record shop if we weren’t cutting. It was a great experience for me and one of the happiest times in my life, working behind the counter. I would spend as much time as I could in there.”

Why Don’t You Guys Try Something Like This?

In 1961, the company changed its name to STAX (STewart/AXton) in response to a copyright challenge, and Estelle Axton quit her job to run the record shop full time. In that first decade, STAX was a “family” company, but it racked up the hits, buoyed by a distribution deal with Atlantic Records,  launching the careers of Rufus and Carla Thomas, Booker T. & the MGs, Sam and Dave, Johnnie Taylor, and Otis Redding. In 1966, the label branched into the blues with Albert King – he’d met Mrs. Axton in the record shop; she convinced Stewart to sign him and suggested the song “Laundromat Blues” for him.

Mrs. Axton’s instinctive feel for songwriting and for what made a hit helped her take on the role of a sort of den mother to the label’s writers. Many was the record, such as Steve Cropper’s and Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood” and the Mar-Keys “Last Night” that Stewart didn’t see the potential of but became hits after Mrs. Axton used her persuasive skills to get them released. She believed in David Porter when no one else did, playing him records by Bachrach-David and Holland-Dozier-Holland and coaching him into the co-writer of “Soul Man” and “Hold On, I’m Comin.” Today, he’s in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame and on Rolling Stone’s list of the top 100 Songwriters of All Time. He said later, “Were it not for her, there’s no way Stax could have become what it became.”

She had a flair for promotion, too. She built relationships with DJs and worked with the top R&B jock in L.A., Magnificent Montague, to put together a tour of the label’s top acts in that city to helped break Stax into the West Coast market.  

It was probably inevitable that there would be tension between Stewart and Axton. They were brother and sister, but Estelle was 12 years Jim’s senior and had in fact been his elementary school teacher. There were other family issues at play (mostly surrounding the role of her troubled son, Packy, saxophonist for the Mar-Keys, for whom she had a blind spot) but no matter how many times she’d offer good advice, it was met with resistance. Said Deanie Parker, “(Jim) would be a typical little brother. ‘Oh, Estelle, you don’t know, how can you know what you’re talking about?“ He would write off her talent as being limited to novelty records: “My sister has a lot of ideas. She’s got a great ear for certain kinds of records, especially a left-field record.” It seems odd, given that he was so progressive with respect to hiring women for key roles in the company. But with the friction as a day-to-day fact, the story’s ending may have been written at the start.

The End of the Good Old Days

Whatever the dynamic between the siblings, the label they’d built was thriving as a regional player. But in 1967, a plane crash claimed the life of Otis Redding. Atlantic was bought by Warner Brothers, and it turned out that the fine print on that distribution deal gave Atlantic sole ownership of the STAX masters. (Atlantic head Jerry Wexler insisted to his grave that he didn’t know about the clause.) Sam and Dave’s contract also reverted to Atlantic. The assassination of MLK tore the city apart and corroded the racial harmony that had reigned at the label. STAX had to start over again, almost from scratch.

It was Al Bell’s moment. A former DJ and promoter from Arkansas, Bell had been brought on board back in 1965 as director of promotions. The move had been championed by Mrs. Axton, who knew the label needed to take this aspect of the business seriously to get to the next level. Or as Stewart put it, “My sister kept screaming that we needed somebody to promote our product.” Bell had big plans, and it didn’t take long before his influence eclipsed not only hers, but also Stewart’s. As Randle Catron, a staff songwriter, put it, “…everybody was coming to Al and they would just say that Jim was not the man.”

Worn out from the small return on his sweat equity, Stewart had Bell broker a deal selling Stax to Paramount, a division of Gulf & Western. At the time of the sale, Stewart wanted to give Bell 20 percent of the stock, but Mrs. Axton made sure Steve Cropper was taken care of, knowing he’d started working for her at the store and had been there longer than Bell. She knew the value not just of money, but of service and relationships.

So Stax went corporate. Now, people were brought in instead of up.

Bell wanted more. More everything. More space. More offices for all the new people. His eye fell on the record store. “We kept the record shop open until it became a nuisance factor,” said Stewart. Mrs. Axton moved the store across the street and then sold it for Packy to run. It quickly went out of business. There’s some debate over whether its former space actually became offices or a fountain.

“She was the heart and soul of that whole place. No doubt about it. She had more ideas and she had more pulse on her finger on what was going on in the community.”

Steve Cropper

Given that everything had been an uphill battle for her, her stay at the company was probably doomed from the start. Bell’s cousin was brought in as head of Stax’s Department of Statistics and Market Analysis.

As Gordon describes it, “Estelle had become something as radical as the racial activists: a female wielding power in a world not perceived as her own. She did not have the same authority as her brother but she exerted the same influence. She got records released, she made decisions about cash flow and salaries and affected the course of business…her achievements were now considered quaint.”

Always astute, Mrs. Axton saw the writing on the wall. As Bell remembered it, things were “having a really profound effect on Miz Axton’s attitude and her spirit.” She said later, “I approached them to sell my part and get out of it. If I can’t have a hand in the decision making, I don’t want no part of it.” Faced with a choice between Bell and his sister, Stewart chose Bell.

In July, 1969, the two parties holed up with their lawyers in separate rooms in a suite at Memphis’ Holiday Inn Rivermont. When they walked out, Stewart and Bell were co-owners of Stax, and Estelle Axton received $490,000 plus $25,000 per year for four years. (The payments continued after that time, for reasons she never knew for sure). She remains the only former owner of Stax to have made money on the venture. She invested in an apartment complex that generated income for her for some time afterward.

Interestingly, the deal also contained a non-compete clause. The quaint lady with only an ear for novelty records was locked out of the business for five years.

The Cracks Appear

After her exit, Stax marched on under its new corporate banner. Sessions continued in shifts to produce the album output needed to storm the charts again. Disgruntled veterans could the hear the decline in quality, records like “Theme from ‘Shaft’” notwithstanding. But it paid for Stewart to install a wood-paneled office with a leopard-print bar, and for Bell, Stewart, and Cropper to buy homes (Stewart’s sat on 50 acres and had four pools, a tennis court, and a party house). A former bank teller, Stewart had always played it safe with company money (he’d notoriously passed on buying the contract of an up-and-coming singer named Aretha Franklin) but now Stax borrowed left and right to fuel expansion. Booker T. and Cropper – the label’s soul — left in 1969 and 1970, respectively.

It’s all so predictable. Bell bought out a disillusioned Stewart in 1972, the company made a bad deal with CBS, and the creditors started knocking. In an odd replay of history, Stewart mortgaged his home in an effort to buy back in and help, but Stax went into Chapter 11 in 1975. Stewart lost everything. You need a scorecard to keep track of all the buyouts and maneuverings since then, but Stax currently exists on metaphorical paper as a reissue label. The theater-turned-studio was sold for $10. It fell into neglect and was torn down in 1989. (A recreated studio now stands on the spot as the Stax Records Museum of American Soul Music.)

One Last Spin of the Wheel

While all this was playing out, Estelle Axton quietly waited out her non-compete clause and then re-entered the music business. With another female veteran of the Memphis record label scene, Cordell Jackson, she co-founded the Memphis Music Association, and in 1973 founded the Memphis Songwriters Association.

Meanwhile, she had created another record label, Fretone (named for her daughter Doris FREderick and son Packy AxTON). In 1976, she proved that she did indeed have an ear for an offbeat hit when she released a novelty song by a Memphis DJ named Rick Dees called “Disco Duck.” She cut a distribution deal with Robert Stigwood’s RSO label and watched the record sell two million copies in a matter of months. Say what you want about it, it was a hit. You can argue that it takes an even sharper pair of ears, and a gambler’s soul, to take a chance on a record like that. For Mrs. Axton, it was vindication: “I got back into the business,” she said, “because I had to prove to myself that I knew a little bit more about music than I’d ever been given credit for.”

It was her last big record. She’d spent a lot to get it, and when the funds came in, she sold the apartment complex and lived for herself, spending lavishly on luxury items: furniture, furs. Maybe her business sense deserted her, maybe she deserted it. Her husband had passed away in 1984, and she spent her last years working as a cafeteria hostess, doting on her customers. She passed away at age 85 on February 25, 2004.

Lady A.’s Legacy

To this day, there is boundless love on her name, both in Memphis and among music writers celebrating her spirit and contributions. The industry to which she gave so much has belatedly shown her some too: In 2007, as an individual, she received the Grammy Trustees Award, “presented by vote of the Recording Academy’s National Trustees to individuals who, during their careers in music, have made significant contributions, other than performance, to the field of recording.” In 2012, she was inducted, along with her brother, into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame.

In 2002, Jim Stewart received the Ahmet Ertegun Award, inducting him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His page on the Hall’s website shows him with Bell; the text opens with “Jim Stewart built Stax Records with the explosively talented ensemble of Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes and more.” It closes with “As producer, engineer, businessman and mentor, Jim Stewart was at the center of it all.” In between, it does say that he “…convinced his sister Estelle Axton to take out a second mortgage on her home to finance a label.”

Stewart’s granddaughter Jennifer accepted, reading a letter from him on his behalf. It mentioned neither his sister nor Al Bell. (Like Mrs. Axton, Al Bell has not received induction, one of very few awards he hasn’t received). The speeches were by Steve Cropper and Sam Moore. Cropper mentioned Mrs. Axton only as a co-founder of the label. In contrast, Moore spoke only of his abiding affection for her, and how no one should forget her.

The Right Thing to Do

Every day, fans express their view that something the Rock Hall has done or not done is “wrong.” It’s wrong that X,Y,or Z isn’t inducted and wrong that rap acts are in before any number of guitar/drum/bass bands. In some cases – many cases – you can make that argument. But rarely can you point to something in the Hall’s history that by any measure, is so clearly, egregiously wrong.

But it can be fixed. Not in time for Estelle Axton to see it, but maybe her daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren would be pleased. It’s easily done, too: Create a four- or five-minute package using footage of Stax acts, audio from her interviews, and run it. Steve Cropper and Sam Moore are getting up there, but as of now they’re still with us; maybe they’d say a few words. Don’t worry about how it affects the show, just do it. Because it’s the right thing to do. Now.

And That’s a Wrap: Random Thoughts on the 2021 Rock Hall Induction Ceremony

Hello, it’s me. Good to be back – when the class was announced in May I logged on to record some thoughts on the whole “Early Influences” naming thing and was overcome with exhaustion before I even started. But with the induction ceremony (finally) bringing a close to the Class of 2021, it seems like a good time to check in with some random thoughts. You can get good recaps from Hall Watchers and Who Cares About the Rock Hall? so I won’t do one. Baby steps!

And for what it’s worth, I’m not a fan of this scattershot “reimagining” of the meaning of Early Influences. It’s confusing and once again, the Hall manages to besmirch their own award so it looks like a “side door” consolation prize despite insisting to the contrary and make it obvious that the system is broken. It’s not “rock’s biggest honor” because you say it is and because of who you give it to; you have to conduct the process to make it so. But too late now.

It looks like in this year’s program, at least, they called it “Musical Influences” which isn’t exciting, but better. I like Nick Bambach’s idea of calling it “Pioneers” to distinguish it chronologically, but what can you do?

So here we go:

Carole King

Not sure why they went with a downtempo pre-Tapestry song, but Taylor Swift was great, and her admiration of King is obvious. King’s graciousness and pleasure at being there were palpable – all the feels right from the start.

LL Cool J

Just…damn. That’s how you answer everyone who didn’t vote for you.

Possibly an unpopular opinion, but most of the time, I’d rather hear how an artist has impacted other musicians, not that they have famous fans. Definite exceptions: Speech aside, Bassett made unique sense for Tina, and no one but David Letterman should do the honors when Warren Zevon goes in.

The Go-Go’s

Having said that, this was the highlight of the night, and it was partly due to Drew Barrymore, who was just perfect. She was just over the moon and watching Kathy Valentine bounce on her toes during the speech, you knew we were in for an electric moment. They looked fantastic, and despite the sound problems, rocked it. It was just pure joy to see this group of women who’ve been through so much get their due and enjoy it as friends. Moments like this are what make the Rock Hall mean something.

Tina Turner

It’s finally real.

This segment was OK, but not the transcendent one I’d hoped for.

It got off to a rocky start with Angela Bassett making a speech that was all about…Angela Bassett making a speech. Overwrought and self-conscious, it was like a bad poetry slam.

After that intro, the rest of it seemed a little pedestrian. Of course we had Xtina…well, that could’ve been worse. During the H.E.R. and Keith Urban performance, my partner made an excellent observation when he said, “We haven’t seen a she’s capable of yet. One of these days she’s going to break the industry in the best possible way.” Likewise, Mickey Guyton was excellent, but she never truly stamped herself on her performance. Admittedly, it’s hard to balance paying tribute and still asserting yourself the way Brittany Howard did with her tribute to Sister Rosetta or Lauryn Hill and Andra Day did in their homage to Nina Simone in 2018.

Tina’s appearance, with all the class and graciousness of a true queen, was likely the last she’ll make, making it the night’s most poignant moment. She’s leaving us behind, but she goes with everything well in her world. Rarely is it this perfect.

Todd Rundgren:

Todd, Todd, Todd. I’ve looked forward to this for a long time, and it was…disappointing. Shouldn’t blame you. I know you think Halls of Fame are for athletes and dead people. How you feel shouldn’t affect me. And you were just responding honestly to all those inevitable interview questions.

But “Who Cares About the Rock Hall” has it right: You benefit from this way more than the Hall does. Karen Glauber went to bat for you three years in a row and the Hall put you in because enough people wanted to honor you. Speaking pragmatically, even if you couldn’t enjoy being celebrated, playing along might have been good for business. But it all went from “principled curmudgeon” to “dickly” pretty quick, and people who may have discovered you just tuned out. I think that’s the real reason I’ve got this taste in my mouth: I hoped people would discover how good you really are away from the console, and instead they made for the restroom during your video package. You spelled it wrong, so I’ll say it: Thank you, Rock Hall.

In Memoriam

Nothing else to say: Brandi Carlile was just sublime. Interesting to see that they included KT Oslin and Nanci Griffith in the clip, and that they re-cut it to include Graeme Edge and Ronnie Wilson. Jim Steinman was included alongside Herbie Herbert and Walter Yetnikoff, which got me to thinking: Steinman credited John Sykes with being a big early supporter of Meat Loaf and “Bat Out of Hell” in Sykes’ days as the college rep for CBS Music, and I understand that he’s still friendly with Meat Loaf. Makes you wonder if Meat Loaf couldn’t be a surprise nominee at some point, and if that happens, could Steinman go in under the Musical Excellence banner? You can make a case.

Gil Scott-Heron

So glad this moment came — kudos to the Rock Hall’s production team for the subtle statement in showing footage of Black Lives Matter; showing Branson and Bezos to go with “Whitey on the Moon” was both LOL-inducing and a sweet stealth political statement.

Jay-Z

Not a fan nor an expert, but I liked how his speech was honest about his highs and lows and talked about finding your power when you’re authentically yourself.

One of the most potentially impactful moments of the night came offstage, when John Sykes revealed that the Hall is looking at adding L.A. to the mix of host cities. Because, of course, that city has no other awards shows. They need this! It won’t get lost in the shuffle at all! Seriously, Rock Hall, you like to tout your commitment to Cleveland and your impact on its economy, but clearly you’re not at ease with your decision. Why do you want to hold the ceremony away from your museum and the exhibit? Why do you want to spend all that money to be a small fish in a big pond? If you move to a three-city rotation, you’d better keep your word and keep Cleveland on its current every-other-year footing. The Hall is exactly where it needs to be, and I will stan for Cleveland every damn day.

So here we are. It’s been an exciting, if long, season. Everyone ready to do it all again?

“Ditto”: Predictions for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2021

Well, it’s a wrap for voting for the 2021 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2021. We’re just days away from the announcement. I have to admit that there’s a tiny feeling of disappointment that goes with it. And that’s actually a good thing — with a ballot this deep, leaving almost anyone off is going to bring a sense of regret. Good problem to have.

This is also a good time to stop and think on how the process has played out thus far. Listening to the last couple of episodes of “Who Cares About the Rock Hall?” have been especially instructive for this. A few random thoughts:

  • The voting period still, to paraphrase Ric Ocasek, drags on forever.
  • With the spate of British nominees over the past few years and that of Fela Kuti this year, it seems the Nominating Committee is interested in broadening the Hall’s reach beyond the U.S. Admittedly a small sample, but a couple of the voters Joe and Kristen spoke to brought up – one repeatedly – the success of particular acts in North America as a yardstick. The U.S. doesn’t have a monopoly on rock fandom or knowledge; adding some more international voters would be a positive development. Does anyone from the U.K. vote, let alone Canada, Australia, or the rest of Europe?
  • Again, a small sample, but while most of the voters on the podcast were extremely thoughtful about their ballots, a couple were extremely casual, and one couldn’t remember who he voted for. This isn’t brain surgery; no one’s life depends on it. But it is artists’ legacies. There are some considerable economic benefits at play too. You’re given a ballot in view of your knowledge of the topic. If you can’t even remember who you voted for, how important is it to you? Should you be voting?

So on to the voting: There’s overwhelming consensus for Tina Turner, Carole King, The Go-Go’s, Jay-Z, and Foo Fighters. I agree. For Tina and the Go-Go’s both, this is, quite simply, their moment.

Carole King isn’t quite a lock, but most voters will remember Tapestry, while many may not realize she’s in as a songwriter and get the distinction. It’s hard to say how that fact will play for her; you see people bring the fact up as a knock against both her and Tina. What seems to be OK for many male inductees, like oh, say, Eric Clapton, seem to be a negative when brought up in relation to women nominees. (One thing you’ll see brought up against the Go-go’s is that “they had one great album.” Like oh, say, Guns n Roses?) It may clip a few votes for Tina as well, but her career — and the fact that she’s linked in induction with her abuser — are undeniable.

I’m not the first to say any of this, but when the Foos are arguably the weakest link on a ballot, it’s a damn good ballot. Yes, they’re good, and the standard bearers for rock, and Dave Grohl is a mensch, but no, they don’t really deserve to march in in their first year of eligibility. And yes, it smacks more than a little of cronyism. They can wait. But they won’t. It won’t be the worst thing in the world.

Would be great to see LL Cool J, but sadly I think he’ll be lost in the shuffle again.

I didn’t decide on this next spot until a few days ago, but the “Who Cares…? episodes gave me a feeling that the New York Dolls may just sneak on in. They’re critical darlings, especially with the Boomer set, but some younger voters were high on them as well.

Rumors are rife that the Hall will go with seven slots this year, so I’ll do likewise. This was a hard one, but let’s go with Devo. It’s a Cleveland year, they did well with MTV, and they have appeal for punk and classic rock crowds.

So there’s my class: Tina Turner, The Go-Go’s, Carole King, Foo Fighters, Jay-Z, New York Dolls, Devo.

Who would I pick? Tina, The Go-Go’s, Todd Rundgren, LL Cool J, Dionne Warwick, Kate Bush, and Iron Maiden. New York Dolls edged out by a hair.

What about the rest? Kate Bush just doesn’t have that name recognition here (that U.S.-centrism at work); maybe adding women voters will move the needle but it’s going to a process. This is a tough ballot for Mary J. Blige to make her debut on, but she will be back, and she will get in. Dionne Warwick has a lot of respect with voters – I wouldn’t be beyond shocked to see her slip in there past Devo – but some voters may get hung up on her as a “pop” artist and feel that that box was checked last year with Whitney. I hate to say it, but Chaka Khan always seems to play bridesmaid to a another high-profile female name — Janet, Whitney — and this year shows no signs of being different.

With so much going on with this ballot, I think metal will lose out again. One day it’ll happen, but not this year. Much the same could be said for Rage Against the Machine – the buzz on them this year has been nil.

Todd Rundgren hasn’t gotten traction on less competitive ballots, and he hasn’t exactly worked to make friends either in the industry or the Rock Hall. (Since the passing of Jim Steinman, I’ve been reading up on the history of “Bat Out of Hell.” His stories about Todd’s behavior are pretty cringe-worthy. Apparently Meat Loaf didn’t take to it well, although Steinman just seemed amused and never lost his respect and admiration. If he was with us still and had a ballot, Todd would have his vote, but…uff da).

And what of Fela Kuti? It’s hard to say just how much name recognition he has with the voting body. It’s entirely possible that the Hall will do what they did for Sister Rosetta in 2018 and use the Musical Excellence category (something mentioned as a possibility for Rundgren as well), but I hope not: it makes that category into a consolation prize. But his nomination is a tremendous move by the Hall in itself. If there’s an Early Influence, here’s hoping for Big Mama Thornton.

So nothing left to do but wait for Wednesday. Here’s to possibility!

An Elpee’s Worth of Tunes: A Todd Rundgren Performance Sampler

For the third straight year, the third straight that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ballot includes that well-known wizard and true star, Todd Rundgren. Not that he’s been too happy about it – the self-monikered individualist has always had a contrarian streak that runs to the curmudgeonly, and this year has seen him double down on professing his apathy for the whole endeavor. Attitude aside though, the guy deserves the honor, and you could argue he should’ve been in before now.

Todd’s bio for the 2021 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ballot.

Most conversations about him in relation to the Hall revolve around his production skills. Not without merit: His production credits include fellow 2021 nominees the New York Dolls, Cheap Trick, Hall and Oates (look for Daryl Hall to do the honors whenever Todd does get in), XTC, Grand Funk Railroad, Badfinger, Shaun Cassidy, and more. Chances are good that when he does go in, it’ll be under the Musical Excellence umbrella.