A chat with a music legend + new exhibits at Stax
What are you doing Saturday afternoon?
Want to dance with me over to Memphis’ Stax Museum of American Soul Music?
(Yes, that’s the museum I told you about that blasts sweet soul music from the moment you step out of your car. The museum – the ONLY museum – that lays down a Soul Train dance floor in the middle of its exhibits.)
This Saturday (Oct. 19) from 2 to 5 p.m., author Ericka Blount Danois will visit Stax to sign copies of her new book, Love, Peace, and Soul: Behind the Scenes of America’s Favorite Dance Show Soul Train: Classic Moments. The book examines Soul Train creator Don Cornelius (Ericka describes him as a “model for diversity,” explaining, “He opened doors not just in terms of black and white, but mid-tier artists to superstars – everybody had a chance to be on the show. It was about talent.”). But a good chunk of the book shines a light on Stax, Ericka revealed, before sharing this example: “Al Bell [former Stax Records owner] said that he used to travel to these towns and see kids doing these dances. He’d go back and create a song to go with the dance.” (If you ever did the push and pull with Rufus Thomas, you know what she means.)
Speaking of Al Bell, he wrote the book’s foreword and will be present Saturday, too. After spending an hour that I wished would never end on the phone with him this week, I’m urging you to go meet him. Thank him for his role in making the Memphis music story richer, and for continuing to advocate for musicians and their craft. (Read about his work as Chairman of the Board of the Memphis Music Foundation here, and as a board member of David Porter’s Consortium MMT here.)
If the name doesn’t immediately ring a you-know-what, here’s a very brief bio: Bell started at Stax in promotions. Rose to studio owner. Along the way, signed The Staple Singers and wrote “I’ll Take You There;” and worked with Isaac Hayes on Hot Buttered Soul and beyond. Later, headed Motown Records Group. Founded Bellmark Records. Released “Whoomp! (There It Is) and Prince’s “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” Accepted the GRAMMY® Trustees Award (2011).
All of this despite his admission: “I can’t sing; I can’t dance.”
But his father played harmonica. A distant cousin fronted Louis Jordan and His Timpani Five.
Above all, Bell offers, “I can hear – I can feel. And I can tell when a singer is singing from the very essence versus reading from the lyric.”
Credit his teenage extra-curriculars. As student council president at his Little Rock, Arkansas, high school, Bell was tasked with coordinating Friday night socials. The principal put him in charge of the record player, but gave him nothing to play. Bell began collecting records from his peers, asking them what music they liked and why. (He eventually put a mic on stage and began dee-jaying the events.) Next, he organized a talent show against a rival school and recruited community judges, including the manager from local radio station KOKY. Bell was invited to begin work at the station that weekend, a job he kept through college. And though the manager hired him for his “uncanny gift to gab,” Bell never stopped listening. “I’d go to where the jukeboxes were and listened to what people were paying to play,” he remembers.
Now in his 70s, Bell says he’s “always looking for that rare artist.” If you’re wondering if he’s present at a venue, eye for a man standing at the back of the room (“so I can see the artist and how people are reacting to the artist,” he says).
I have to ask, of course, what keeps Bell going. “I’m pushed more now than ever before because I deal with music as art,” he begins, continuing, “I believe in authenticity, and our industry has gotten to the point where it’s a mass-merchandized machine. It’s not about the art. Now there’s this creativity amongst the people, but no way to access it. I’m on a mission to fill that void so we can develop careers of rare performing artists. ‘You’re an artist and should be authentic.’ I’m driven – obsessed, really – to get that understanding in as many minds as I can before I transcend.”
Next up at Stax:
- New permanent exhibits will be unveiled around the week of Oct. 21. Anticipate FOR THE RECORD, a soul trivia game that awards high scorers with a souvenir from the museum gift shop, and SOUL CONNECTIONS, an interactive look at modern artists’ musical roots – here’s looking at you, JT and Beyonce.
- Don’t forget to tour the museum’s newest temporary exhibit, And the GRAMMY® Goes to Memphis, opening Oct. 26.
- Nov. 16, from 5 to 8 p.m., Robert Gordon will read from and sign copies of his book, Respect Yourself: Stax Records and The Soul Explosion. The event is free and open to the public, and as it includes a live performance by the Stax Music Academy Rhythm Section, I’d say it’s the best free ticket in town that evening.
See you Saturday under that marquee, I hope. I’ll be the one spontaneously breaking into dance. That makes me curious – what’s your favorite Tennessee song to dance to? Tell me in the comments section below.