Very few people can say they’ve sat with legendary Stax Records founder Jim Stewart at his kitchen table. Let alone listened to the 89-year-old recount stories about the venerable Memphis label and its iconic roster of creatives and executives, including Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, The Staple Singers, William Bell, songwriter David Porter (Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man”), longtime director of publicity/former Soulsville Foundation CEO Deanie Parker and the label’s former co-owner Al Bell. But Michele Smith can — and on multiple occasions.
“Every time I go to Memphis, I’m blessed to sit with Mr. Stewart and his daughter Lori for several hours and ask questions,” Smith says. “And when you get him and Ms. Parker together… They talk about people like Bettye Crutcher. She was a single mom of two sons and one of the few black female songwriters in the ’60s. So imagine writing a song like Johnnie Taylor‘s ‘Who’s Making Love,’ a taboo subject back then. That’s why it’s such a privilege to hear the stories between the lines of history.”
Smith’s front-row seat has come over 13 years at Concord, currently vp estate and legacy brand management for the company’s Craft Recordings catalog division — including the estates of Billie Holiday and Tammy Wynette — and Stax Records. Among other projects that Smith is working on is The Stax Musical. She works alongside Grammy-nominated producer and Craft senior vp A&R Mason Williams, with both reporting to Craft president Sig Sigworth.
“What we consider history are these artists’ lives,” Smith notes of her post, which Concord created 18 months ago. “And that’s what I love about my job: the preservation and protection of legacies. But it’s also about finding creative ways to expose this music to younger generations while keeping original fans intrigued.”
Smith’s game plan keeps time with the company’s slogan: “Crafting the future from the past.” The most current campaign is a tribute to Stax imprint Gospel Truth Records. Launched March 13 and running through Aug. 28, the weekly rollout marks the first-ever digital release of 25 albums from the venerable label’s catalog. These include projects by The Rance Allen Group, Maceo Woods and the Christian Tabernacle Choir, Louise McCord and Rev. Jesse Jackson’s People’s Choir of Operation PUSH. Then on Sept. 4, in celebration of Gospel Heritage Month, Craft will release a Gospel Truth compilation available in vinyl, CD and digital versions.
The Staples Singers’ Come Go With Me: The Stax Collection preceded the Gospel Truth tribute in February. The seven-LP box set spans the group’s six studio releases issued between 1968-1974 and encompasses hits such as “I’ll Take You There,” “Respect Yourself” and “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me).” The package’s seventh album features the Staples’ memorable performance at the 1972 Wattstax festival. Last November, in partnership with Memphis Tourism and Memphis Record Pressing, Craft kicked off another deep dive — The Memphis Masters. The multi-part YouTube video series celebrated various albums in the Stax catalog complemented by interviews with label legends like Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper as well as contemporary Stax fans including Metallica‘s Robert Trujillo, Grace Potter and Walshy Fire.
“We’re in a digital world where the consumption of content is so voracious that you’re continually feeding the beast,” Smith says. “So in addition to seeking new ways to create content, we’re also looking for different voices and eyes to tell these stories from other angles.”
Billie, an in-depth documentary about iconic jazz vocalist Billie Holiday, was originally slated for a June 12 theatrical release. Owing to the coronavirus pandemic, Billie will now be released in theaters nationwide later this year. Directed by James Erskine, the project features never-before-heard interviews with Tony Bennett and Count Basie, among others, and premiered last fall at the Telluride Film Festival. Smith says Craft is also pursuing various theatrical, film, television and licensing opportunities for both the Holiday and Wynette estates.
The daughter of West Indian parents, Smith arrived at her post by way of a Virgin Records internship in Los Angeles while completing her college degree in communications and marketing. After her first formal gig working in rock A&R at Charisma Records, Smith segued into marketing at Perspective Records then back to Virgin. During a six-year stint there, she advanced from associate director of marketing to senior director in that department. Subsequent posts at MCA as director of video and broadcast promotion and Hidden Beach Records as director of marketing culminated in her joining Concord Records in 2007 as a project manager for frontline releases. Also serving as brand manager for Stax, Smith was promoted to senior director of project management several years later.
Smith is currently in the midst of reviewing new designs for merchandise sold through Craft’s online store, while serving as Concord’s representative on the Soulsville Foundation board that oversees operation of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, The Stax Music Academy and The Soulsville Charter School.
“I’ve learned a lot in the past 18 months,” says Smith. “But it’s also fun because this isn’t just a traditional record company job. It’s looking at the big picture over time; seeing the vision when others perhaps don’t. And it’s not only about selling music. It’s about preservation and respect for the artists that are under our care.”
I am learning something new every day. Whether it’s in regard to my job or about myself as a person. I love how I get to use my frontline marketing/project management experience, skills and expertise in this role while stepping outside of what’s considered traditional marketing. It allows me to discover new business avenues or opportunities that a traditional marketing person may not have access to. I get to work on dynamic digital and physical catalog campaigns; work with teams to develop online and social media content to continuously engage or reach new fans; seek licensing and merchandise opportunities to find new ways to expose our legacies and work on theatrical musical, TV and film projects based on the amazing artists I oversee.
What’s tough is that we’re still having the same conversations about racial and gender inequality, injustice and the lack of tolerance in today’s society. Billie Holiday, Tammy Wynette and the artists at Stax Records lived through and dealt with situations that treated them as less than. I know that they’d hoped that what they faced would have ended during their lifetimes and that future generations wouldn’t have to deal with the same issues. But in 2020, so much has changed while nothing has really changed.
It’s good to have mentors or grounded people in your life who believe in your talent, skills and dreams. But they’re also willing to be truly honest with you and sharpen you to be a better executive. My mentors come from various facets of life. I’m grateful for the time, energy, truth and trust that they have poured into me.
My big break occurred when I moved from my home in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada to intern for Virgin Records. I arrived five days before the Los Angeles riots and I never looked back. I worked about 50 hours a week in two departments (A&R and publicity). After 30 days of interning, I was offered two positions (one in each department). I couldn’t accept either one as I was on a student visa. But after finishing the four-month internship and earning my university degree, I got my first job working in rock A&R at Charisma Records in L.A. That’s why I like speaking to our interns at Concord because you never know where an internship can lead you.
I knew I was committed to music when as a student at Simon Fraser University, I’d drive four hours round trip from Vancouver, British Columbia to Seattle to buy cassettes. At that time, it took a while to get new music in Canada, especially R&B/soul music. I often didn’t know anything about the artists that I was choosing so I would ask the cashier behind the counter if he could recommend some new music. Or frequently I’d pick an album based on the album cover. I knew I wanted a career in the music industry and to be at the center of where it all happens. I wanted to spearhead digital and physical marketing campaigns and projects that would impact global markets and appeal to fans who knew nothing about the music or artists that they were buying.
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