The record executive grasped the steel fence, keeping his hands where the law enforcement agencies could see them.

He made no sudden moves, refused to put his hand into his briefcase.

Al Bell was young and gifted. He was also black. It was Memphis 1975 and Bell knew that men of colour who were perceived to owe millions of dollars were hopelessly vulnerable. He rightly feared that his death would solve problems for many businessmen, the most powerful of them being white.

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Bell survived. Stax, the company he led, did not, crumbling in tears after unsatisfying liaisons with a bank, Union Planters, and a record company, Columbia, both of which can be described in the racial language of the day as "white" businesses.

Respect Yourself is a story that almost demands a song to be written about it, a lament to good intentions and bad medicine. For now, Robert Gordon's history will have to suffice. It may lack a constant lyricism but it is a fine, intriguing achievement. Gordon has ambition but he also has purpose.

This is not just a story of an extraordinary record company and its roster of brilliant artists, it is also an insight into the backrooms of a sometimes nefarious business and, most compelling, a record of how the making of music could rise above and seek to change the racist reality of Memphis and beyond.

Stax was created by two whites, the brother and sister team of Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, the initial letters of their surnames giving the label its name. From 1960-75, Stax released 800 singles and 300 albums. It recorded Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, the Staple Singers, Albert King, Carla Thomas, Booker T and the MG's and Isaac Hayes. Its output covered funk, soul, gospel, blues and any other label one wants to put on popular music. As Gordon pithily observes, the sound of Stax was the sound of hits.

One must bow before what went right before grieving over what went wrong. Stax created an integrated racial mix in a time and place where blacks faced not only dispiriting and dreadful discrimination but the threat of fatal violence.

It is chilling to read that when Jerry Wexler of Atlantic came to talk with Carla Thomas in 1960 in the Claridge Hotel, Memphis, he made his way to the conference room through the reception. Carla and her mother went up on the service lift as the Jim Crow laws demanded of blacks.

This racial discrimination has, of course, been outlawed but its stink seeps down the ages and still clings to the fabric of modern America. Gordon makes an earnest, persuasive case for Stax being revolutionary in having the races work creatively together. Jim Stewart was joined at the helm by Al Bell, who eventually took over the running of the company. Steve Cropper, a white Southern guitarist, was essential to the creative process of so many outstanding black artists.

Stax was special. It was also indefinable. The music owed much to the street but more to the freed genius of its artists. This book should be read with the double CD Stax 50: A 50th Anniversary Celebration as soundtrack. It conveys, as words never can, the sublime, eclectic sound that emerged from a converted cinema in Memphis.

So what went wrong?

There is a case for suggesting that Stax was mugged by white interests. Certainly, the banks and the record companies that posed as allies slowly were revealed to be assassins. But Stax and its employees were hardly blameless. They bought in heavily to the payola culture of the time, whereby DJs were paid to play company records. They employed muscle in the shape of the forbidding Johnny Baylor, who spoke softly but carried a gun that silenced dissenters.

Hayes, Redding and Mavis Staples supplied the enduring, often innovative art. Baylor relied on more traditional methods of persuasion by force. He was once found at an airport with $2.5m of Stax money in a briefcase. Its purpose was unknown, his services imprecisely described.

Stax, therefore, was poorly managed, though Bell was cleared on criminal charges. He survived that day of clinging to a fence and went on to Motown. The music, too, endures and gloriously so.

Gordon, in a beautifully rendered epilogue, argues that Stax united black and white and built the foundations of a revolution that continues to this day. But the change that was heralded by its brave, insistent ethos has been slow and incomplete, despite the election of Barack Obama.

There is a wonderful scene in Respect Yourself where the white Cropper and the black Eddie Floyd exchange riffs and lyrics and come up with the singular, brilliant Knock On Wood. This was created in 1966 in the Lorraine Motel, Memphis. It was a rollicking, joyous anthem to the good that can be created by two men. Two years later in the same motel, Martin Luther King Jr took some air on a second-floor balcony. A rifle shot smashed through his cheek, inflicting fatal damage.

It is wonderful and right to celebrate the contribution of Stax to art and integration. It is also necessary to grieve at the work still to be done on the latter while rejoicing in the superlative achievements of former.