Hunter: "Memphis and Stax were just like the nucleus of everything."
In our new series, "Speak, Arkansas," everyday Arkansans tell their life story in their own words. We begin with Gaylord Hunter, a Little Rock native with a front-row seat to music history.
I attended Central High from '65 to '68. Our class was the first big class of black students. There were nine or 10 blacks in each class above us; there were more than 80 of us in our class. When I came over there I didn't play that, name-calling and all that. They was spitting on black folks. I would fight. So I got accepted. They didn't spit on me. I didn't turn my back. I got to know everybody and everybody got to be my friend.
I got into the hippie movement. After high school, I had mostly white friends. I went to the Atlanta Pop Festival and saw Jimi Hendrix. I saw Mothers of Invention, the Grateful Dead. I was free — it was a free movement. They called it a drug movement but it was a free movement.
I kind of moved all around Little Rock. I could go from the black folks to the white folks, all the way from the ghetto to Pulaski Heights. I was accepted and had friends on both ends of town.
I started helping out a radical underground paper called the Different Drummer. That was before the Arkansas Times. I was the only black, and I used to go around and help get the Different Drummer writers in with the black movement because they wouldn't hardly accept no white folks in their meetings.
In 1972 I left Little Rock to join my cousin Al Bell at Stax Records in Memphis. We were a very close-knit family, and I had always looked up to him and wanted to be a part of that. I got in to the music business with Stax and started promoting and marketing. I got an apartment in Memphis, a company car, oh I was big shit, you couldn't tell me nothing. Isaac Hayes had just done his big thing. Johnnie Taylor, Little Milton, all of that. Since I had been exposed to rock music, I started going around promoting a lot of the white groups that we had that not a lot of people knew about. Then I started working on the R&B side. I would get stuff played on the radio stations — white and black — make sure the record stores across the country had our products.
There was so much energy and it was mixed because Stax was a mixed-race company. You had white and black musicians, producers, artists. All of them mingled together back then. Booker T. and the M.G.s, the Bar-Kays, Albert King. It was just a cohesiveness of talent, it was a nonstop thing. Everybody would go into the studio and they would work with each other. Then at night Elvis Presley would rent out the studio. His background singers, the Sweet Inspirations, were signed to Stax. They would come in around midnight and leave at 4 or 5 in the morning. Memphis and Stax were just like the nucleus of everything.
I was traveling across the country promoting and I would run into different artists wanting to come to Stax. I met Lionel Richie down in Tuskegee, Ala. He was performing at a Holiday Inn, which is where I would stay when I came through there, and we would hang out together. He ended up going to Motown. I told him I thought he could become a star. And he did.
After the demise of Stax, Al and I eventually came back to Little Rock in the late '70s. We were still doing the record thing, but we got involved in political work. Because at that point, we were marketing experts. We worked with Charles Bussey, Cliff Hoofman, Patrick Hays.
Then in the early '90s, I went and joined Al in L.A. after he started Bellmark Records. We set up on Hollywood Boulevard and that's when we struck gold again. We hit with "Whoomp There It Is." We hit with "Dazzey Duks." We hit with Prince's "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" after Warner Brothers told him that song wasn't radio friendly. At first there were six of us and then all of a sudden we had 60 employees. This was all 15 years after Stax had been destroyed, after they had almost destroyed Al. I was young then and I was a fighter. Coming out of Little Rock with my experience, that made me a fighter. I'm living on the Boulevard and we hitting it good. I'm back in the Stax days.
But if we repeated the success of Stax, we repeated the other side, too. Just like Stax, people were working against us and the company went bankrupt in 1997. We went through all this money real fast. We were back, but now we done lost again.
Eventually, I came back home. I was having a battle with alcohol at that time and I was down. I came into [lawyer and state representative] John Walker's office and John put me back up. I started working campaigns for the school board, worked for Joyce Elliot. They utilized my talent. God gave me the gift of marketing. Ever since I was a kid ... when I was at St. Augustine in North Little Rock, the sisters would have me sell raffle tickets. I was a real dark little boy, nappy hair, and they would put me on the bus and send me in front of Franke's Cafeteria. I would hold those tickets out and tell people how we were raffling off 10 beautiful prizes. If they called me "nigger" and told me to get out of their face, I would just say, "God bless you." Usually then they would say, "OK, come on back here." Every year, I won the contest to sell the most tickets.
Even when I was a kid, I ain't never had no problem talking to nobody. Black people, white people. It doesn't faze me. Same with working politics today. Now I'm working for Regina Hampton, who's running for state auditor. People are astonished how I'm able to get on the phone, call people and just automatically talk to them. But I've been doing it all my life.
I'm doing the politics, still dabbling in the music business, and I've started doing upholstery work again too — that's a trade my daddy taught me when I was growing up. Doing whatever I need to do: That's where I am today. I'm 66 years old. I'm a survivor.
— As told to David Ramsey