Stax Records, Museum
Capture the Soul of Memphis

        Posted 7/14/07 - Courtesy
Jeffrey Lee Puckett, The Courier-Journal

Memphis will forever be entwined with Elvis Presley and rock 'n' roll, with a generous side order of the blues. That's understandable. Presley is among a handful of legitimate American icons, and B.B. King came of age on Beale Street.
        But for some music lovers, Memphis means one thing: Soul music, with a dirty groove that's been dragged through back alleys and a tender heart abandoned at the dark end of the street.
        It's passion above polish. It's honest, American music fashioned out of rhythm & blues, gospel and Hank Williams -- the classic intersection where Saturday night meets Sunday morning. And soul means Stax Records, which made history at another classic intersection in Memphis, McLemore Avenue and College Street. That's where the Stax label and studio recorded Otis Redding, Booker T. & the MGs, Isaac Hayes, Sam and Dave, Carla Thomas, Eddie Floyd, The Staple Singers -- artists who literally define soul music.
        This summer, Memphis is honoring its place in history with "Memphis Celebrates 50 Years of Soul," which is tied to the 50th birthday of Stax Records.
        Stax began as Satellite Records in 1957, about a year before Berry Gordy founded Stax's primary rival, Motown.
        Stax Records, which was recently revived by new owner Concord Records, had its big birthday party June 22 with a concert featuring Hayes, Booker T. & the MGs, Floyd, Mavis Staple and several others, but Memphis will celebrate throughout the summer -- and the city is always worth a visit.
        "There are tons of tourists come through here every day, and I couldn't begin to say how many don't see much of the real Memphis. Too many," said Jared McStay, a native.
        Your essential stop is the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, at McLemore and College in what's known as Soulsville, USA. This is where Jim Stewart and his sister, Estelle Axton, converted an old movie theater into the home of Stax Records and its robust subsidiary, Volt, then proceeded to release some of the most essential American music -- ever.
        Stax was also important beyond its music. Booker T. and the MGs, the label's primary house band, was happily integrated well before the civil-rights movement, and whites and blacks worked together daily at a time when segregation was the norm.
        "We knew no color," said Mable John, whose 1966 hit, "Your Good Thing Is About to End," is a Stax highlight. "We knew no segregation of ideas, either. We all contributed to whatever was going on."
        In a horrific display of historical negligence, the original Stax was torn down in 1989. In 2003, an exact replica was built and opened as the 17,000-square-foot museum, with the Stax Music Academy next door. The academy is a fitting addition, as young Memphis musicians are following in the footsteps of music greats to learn their trade.
        Deanie Parker, the museum's president, said that Stax has helped restore Memphis' reputation for soul. Two generations of locals that grew up without Stax have been reintroduced, she said, while fans from around the world are finally satisfied.
        "Internationally, the impact of the museum has to do more with erasing the stain that was on Memphis for so many years because visitors to the community would ask, 'Where's Stax?' and they'd venture over to the neighborhood to find absolutely nothing," Parker said. "There were some unkind things said about the community."
        The museum can be overwhelming, so take your time. A 100-year-old church, moved from the Mississippi Delta, begins the tour to show the roots of soul, and a similar attention to context and detail is common throughout.
        More than 2,000 items are archived, including rarely seen performance footage and Hayes' blue-and-gold Cadillac.
        "For the couple of generations who didn't grow up with Stax, the museum offers something tangible for them," said Parker, who was the label's publicist in the 1960s and '70s. "They couldn't relate "but now they do."
        Memphis soul doesn't stop at McLemore and College, and if Stax doesn't fully satisfy you, check out the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum, 191 Beale St. You'll find some overlap with the Stax museum, but far more rock 'n' roll and blues.
        The program was developed by the Smithsonian Institution and the National Museum of American History, and it starts with field hollers and works through the blues, rock 'n' roll, soul and rhythm & blues. Or take the less academic approach by combing the city for live music. The obvious choice is Beale Street, a tourist-intensive destination with more than 20 clubs and an atmosphere that combines 4th Street Live with New Orleans' Bourbon Street.
        Locals will tell you to head for Wild Bill's, an old-school juke joint filled with blues, soul and soul food.
        Wild Bill's is an example of what Parker refers to as the "authentic" Memphis. It's the Memphis she has worked to preserve at the Stax Museum even as chain restaurants encroach on the rib and chicken shacks and blues cover bands take over Beale Street.
        Parker said that the authentic Memphis, the soulful Memphis, has so far been served well by "Memphis Celebrates 50 Years of Soul."
        "It's just been phenomenal," Parker said. "It's a validation of what we've been saying all along, that Memphis is the crossroads of all music." Reporter Jeffrey Lee Puckett can be reached at (502) 582-4160.

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