It was a great L.A. night -- clear skies, that breeze with a faint hint of sea water, the "X" of the searchlights overhead, many bottles of wine uncorked -- undoubtedly pricey meritages and spritely chardonnays -- in the box seats. On our bench six rows behind the ritzy section and crammed together with a bunch of other oldies, we were happy, too, with our very drinkable pinot noir in plastic cups, as Eddie Floyd in his classic tuxedo kicked things off with "Knock on Wood." Then followed Lalah Hathaway (Donny's daughter), William Bell ("I forgot to be your lover"), the remarkable Mable John belting"Your Good Thing (is About to End)" Angie Stone, and the guy Ted and I most wanted to see and hear, Booker T. Jones ("Green Onions," of course).
Booker T and the MG's Then
The second half was devoted to Isaac Hayes, whose slow, unsteady gait during the long walk to his keyboard prompted shocked gasps from the crowd. On the big screens, it was painfully apparent that even sitting down, settling down at that keyboard was difficult for the colorfully-robed legend. That entrance built drama -- the blast of his lush, urbane hits with a terrific back-up band was immensely reassuring and a relief. In one pause he sighed, "I'm glad to be here." He announced he's coming out with a new album. From the back, someone shouted, "We'll buy it, Isaac!"
This was part of the Stax Records 50th anniversary tour -- a celebration of the Soul/R&B label hatched by Jim Stewart and his older sister,, Estelle Axton in Memphis in 1957, originally as Satellite Records, probably because Sputnik had just been launched. Estelle, married and with a couple of kids, took out a second mortgage on her house to do it. Eventually, Stewart and Axton combined letters from their last names and made it Stax. Estelle kept her job at a bank until 1961.
And of course, from that old theater in Memphis, they eventually recorded songs and artists that my generation avidly danced to at all our high school proms and made out to in our fathers' cars on summer nights a lot like last night. It's impossible to hear these songs without feeling a bit melancholy. Our youth is gone.
And, well, the artists themselves are so...old. Well, it has been 50 years. But... I found myself worrying that somebody would fall or lose the beat or miss the note. I turned to my friend Dr.Teddy about halfway through and said, "It's like they dug these people out of a museum." The oldest of the lot is Mable John, who's 77. She clearly wobbled in her R&B shoes but momma, she managed to deliver the message. Eddie Floyd, formerly of the Falcons which included Wilson Pickett for a time, moved carefully but stylishly. William Bell is 68 and Booker T, who we thought looked best but didn't have to sing or move around onstage, is 62.
Booker T Today
Even the youngsters brought on board for variety, new Stax acquisition Stone and Hathaway, are 46 and 39 respectively.
Isaac Hayes, who's hardly the oldest among them at 64, was hardest to watch. I mean, this guy was the rumble-voiced sex god of my twenties: how can he be walking like an old man? A 2006 stroke may be the reason for his halting movement, though I note on Wikipedia he and his fourth wife just had a baby last year, his 12th child. Okay, something still works. Not that any of us should be making 12 replacements of ourselves, but...forgive me, one craves signs of vigor.
Everybody came back onstage for the final performance, a somewhat pensive rendition of "Dock of the Bay." It was a nostalgic tribute to the era, to Stax Records, and to Otis Redding, who died in a plane crash in 1967. I think I'm relieved, though, that he died young. At least we didn't have to see him stagger across the stage. Maybe it's better to listen to the music at home, with all the trappings of denial in place and, especially, no dancing in front of mirrors.
Not a hero
4 years ago