Back in the before times, at the end of January, 2020, I spent 3 days in Memphis, Tennessee, hanging out at the Stax Museum (open now, with social distancing and mask guidelines) doing a Q&A with the director of the museum, Jeff Kollath, for people who bought VMP Anthology: The Story of Stax Records, my personal passion project at VMP. While I was hanging out with Jeff, looking through some of the archival documents they have near his office, he mentioned that Stax had put out about 275 albums in its time as a functioning label (the years 1960-1975, with a brief reprieve in the late ’70s), and that one of his goals when he started was to make sure one of the exhibits in the museum, a huge hall of records, had every album the label — and its various subsidiaries — had released. He had a spreadsheet with every record, and had just bought the most expensive album in the label’s catalog (Gus Cannon’s Walk Right In, which sells for upwards of $2,500, since only 500 were ever pressed).
When I was bored waiting on a layover in St. Louis on my way home, I went ahead and made a version of the spreadsheet myself, coming up with 277 albums across the label’s Stax, Volt, Enterprise, and gospel and comedy, and short-lived pop, imprints, (minus the Bill Cosby album released by Partee in the ’70s — for obvious reasons). I intended this spreadsheet as a fun thing to spend the next few years filling out; I’m a Stax obsessive — and have the logos for Stax and Volt on my wrists — and I thought it would make my trips to the record store a little more fun to be on the hunt for, like, random old gospel records released on Gospel Truth, or the Moms Mabley record released on Partee, Stax’s comedy imprint, than anything else. It would add a scavenger hunt element to my crate digging, all fun and games, and pay homage to the men, Jim Stewart, who founded Stax, Volt and Enterprise and their original gospel imprint, and Al Bell, who helped push the label into other genres when he became the label’s president in the late ’60s.
I had something like 130 of the albums when I made the list in January — primarily consisting of the catalogs of Otis Redding, Booker T. and the M.G.’s, Eddie Floyd, Johnnie Taylor, Albert King, Isaac Hayes, David Porter, Sam and Dave, and Carla Thomas — and expected it would take me until some distant date to find everything in record stores around the Twin Cities — where me and the Mrs. moved in December — and on various travels I had scheduled for work this year.
And then, March hit, and SXSW got cancelled — or as my wife calls it, “Andrew’s Annual Barbecue and Records Vacation” — and then a week later, COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the U.S. My wife has a condition that leaves her immunosuppressed, which means that, as of writing, I’m on my 141st day of social isolation. I haven’t seen my parents since Christmas, since my dad works at a hospital. My only time in public in the last 141 days has been to the grocery store — in a mask — and to pick up take out. We haven’t seen our friends, we haven’t had a day apart since. Our dog barks in panic when we leave the house without him now, because it maybe happens every two weeks and he’s confused when it does.
Which is to say: like everyone, I’ve needed to find some release valve for all the pressure that comes with never leaving your house and feeling like the world is collapsing around you, and when your social interaction is limited to debating what to watch on Netflix and voicing the inner thoughts of your dog. My release during quarantine: with the amount of money I have set aside for the entertainment I can no longer do during COVID, I have since bought all but six albums in the Stax catalog. Where I used to spend my monthly allowance (shout out having a wife who does the family budgets) on things like movies, and concerts, and drinks with friends, and boardgame and trivia nights, and karaoke, I instead now own the entirety of the Enterprise and Volt catalogs.
I became dogged in my pursuit of completion. I made offers. I built an extensive wantlist on Discogs. I trolled catalog websites to make sure I had counted all of the LPs, even the extensive collection of compilations the Stax labels put out. I’m sure my mailman thinks I’m running some sort of record store out of my garage. I started selling off parts of my collection I never thought I would (farewell, my surprisingly valuable Ghostface records!). I bought many records from the Discogs storefronts of record stores, which have been hit hard by COVID, and need your support now more than ever.
I originally intended to write this article as a funny lark toward the end of May, when I had purchased a decent amount of the Stax back catalog, and when I thought I could resume shopping in record stores to fill out my Howard Lemon Singers collection. But as the U.S. remains unable to do the bare minimum to quell the virus, my Discogs account has been, well, booming along apace.
Did you know that Stax had a psych-rock imprint, and one of the bands signed to it was Black Oak Arkansas before they were Black Oak Arkansas? Did you know that a band named the Hot Dogs recorded for Ardent, the Big Star-starring Memphis power-pop label Stax distributed? I accidentally bought their debut twice, and enjoyed it. How about that Stax once won a bidding war for the rights to distribute an album from a child star named Lena Zavaroni that has to take the crown as the worst album the Stax Organization ever put out? I’m not sure why Clarence Smith apparently demanded to be pictured for his gospel album with his shirt off, but I know that it might be the best album Gospel Truth ever released, an amazing, R&B funk album that only vaguely tips its gaze skyward. As I rounded out my selection of Gospel Truth (minus the spendy dispatch from T.L. Barrett), thankfully there was this article and a series of digital reissues to give me more context to all the albums I was buying, as opposed to when I got something like this, and was flying completely blind.
So here I sit, at 271 out of 277, with the six albums left split between “too expensive for me to purchase without selling off other parts of my record collection” and “Vinyl Me, Please will be reissuing these at some point.” I think my obsession, and subsequent vinyl purchases, are mostly down to the orderliness of my Stax spreadsheet. I essentially made a concrete universe, where the albums are either checked off or not, placed in alphabetical order in my Kallax armada, or on my Wantlist. It’s the one thing I’ve been able to control since March when COVID took away all of what felt like such trivial autonomy before. I can’t just go and eat at a restaurant anymore, but I at least can buy the weirdo psych rock album, and only solo album ever, of Stax producer/engineer/utility knife Terry Manning. I can’t hang out with my 2-year-old niece, but at least I [can track down every Obie McClinton album(https://www.discogs.com/artist/863413-Obie-McClinton) at a reasonable price. I know capitalism and the acquisition of things can’t buy you happiness, but at least it can buy me up to a 45-minute reprieve, a chance to pretend like everything is OK, and my recent record purchases were not borne out of increasingly awful and incomprehensible extenuating circumstances. At this point, it’s all I can pretty much ask.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.