Stax & Civil Rights

An interview with Prof. Brian Torff was featured on the Feb. 1 edition of Greasy Tracks which will included a wide range of music from the legendary Stax Records.

Click here to listen to an archive of the show, while a playlist is here.
SOULSTAX

Torff — a veteran bassist, composer and band leader, in addition to being music program director at Fairfield University — will preview a Feb. 9 presentation he’s making at the West Hartford Public Library: “Soul, Stax, And Civil Rights.”

The event, which is free and open to the public, focuses on the impact of soul music during the 1950s-70s, with Torff giving special attention to the legacy of Stax which was based in Memphis.

Early Stax: Stax Records, circa 1961, with the Satellite Record Shop. Founded by Jim Stewart and his elder sister, Estelle Axton, in 1958, the duo's Satellite Record label likely was named after Sputnik which was launched the year before. (Charles Okle photo)

Early Days: Stax Records, circa 1961, with the Satellite Record Shop. Founded by Jim Stewart and his elder sister, Estelle Axton, in 1958, the duo’s Satellite Record label likely was named after Sputnik which was launched the year before. (Charles Okle photo)

Torff visited Tennessee and Mississippi in 2018 and part of his presentation will include photos he took during the trip which provided him a better insight of Southern blues and soul, largely rooted in gospel music and how it all made its way to the recording studio.

During the aforementioned time period, Memphis was in its heyday as a recording mecca.

Sam Phillips, who founded Memphis Recording Service — later known as Sun Studio — in 1950, is the one who got the ball rolling and where the likes of Ike Turner, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Milton, Johnny Cash, Bobby Bland and Roy Orbison all recorded.

In the ensuing years, Sun was followed by Stax, American Sound

Siblings Go From Banking to Music: Stax co-founders Estelle Axton (left) and Jim Stewart each worked at banks before the burgeoning recording industry. In 1958, Axton took out a $2,500 second mortgage on her home when Stewart asked her to invest in what would become Satellite Records.

Siblings Go From Banking to Music: Stax co-founders Estelle Axton (left) and Jim Stewart each worked at banks before the burgeoning recording industry. In 1958, Axton took out a $2,500 second mortgage on her home when Stewart asked her to invest in what would become Satellite Records.

Studio, Royal Studio and Ardent Studios. Many studios boasted top-notch house bands: Stax had the Mar-Keys and later, the renowned Booker T & the MGs; Royal had the Hi Rhythm Section; and American The Memphis Boys.

Torff brings a unique background to the classroom as a historian, but also as a working musician who effectively got his first paying gig at the urging of the legendary bassist Milt Hinton who connected him with singer Cleo Laine who had Torff back her on a U.S. tour. Torff made his professional debut at Carnegie Hall with Laine. He would later play with pianists Mary Lou Williams and Marian McPartland, did a brief stint with violin icon Stephane Grappelli and had the honor of being part of pianist Erroll Garner’s last group.

In Muswell Hill: Brian Torff (left) and George Shearing on stage in 1979 at the Capital Radio Jazz Festival, Alexandra Palace in London. (Denis Williams photo)

In Muswell Hill: Brian Torff (left) and George Shearing on stage in 1979 at the Capital Radio Jazz Festival, Alexandra Palace in London. (Denis Williams photo)

When noted pianist George Shearing opted to play in a trio or duo instead of his traditional quintet, Torff became a trusted go-to and would work with Shearing for nearly four years. Their third album together, An Evening with George Shearing & Mel Tormé, won a Grammy.

In addition to hosting their own PBS special from the Café Carlyle in New York City, the duo appeared on The Tonight Show and Merv Griffin Show as well as performing for President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan during Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands state visit in 1982 to mark 200 years of peaceful diplomacy between the two nations.

As a composer, Torff’s work has been performed by the Boston Pops, Los Angeles Philharmonic and Pittsburgh Symphony.

Torff currently leads New Duke, an eight-piece jazz-rock band that performs his compositions as well as updated arrangements of Duke Ellington’s music.

staxtile

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