Happy Stax Museum Day!
This has been a BIG week for Memphis’ Stax Museum of American Soul Music. It began Sunday with a rain-delayed Stax to the Max. I attended with my family and couldn’t wait to tell you about it. Then my friend and fellow Stax enthusiast, Tim Sampson, hinted that I should hold off until today, Stax Museum Day, when a “VERY VERY special guest!!!” (yes; that’s two verys and three exclamation points) would be appearing at the museum for a press event.
So I’ve been sitting on a great story to bring you this:
It was absolutely worth the wait.
Today doesn’t merely mark the museum’s 10th anniversary. It marks Jim Stewart‘s first public appearance ever at the museum. You perhaps understand why this is so, considering that he rode this label he founded – one of the most influential music labels in the world – from the bottom to the top and down again, beginning in 1957 when he started Satellite Records in his wife’s uncle’s garage and ending in 1975 when he sacrificed his personal fortune in a failed attempt to save the label. Since that time, Stewart has retreated into privacy. Yet, he will always be the man who put the “ST” in Stax; the serendipitous force who turned an abandoned movie theater, too big and too cockeyed to make any acoustic sense, into music legend. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. He did not personally attend the ceremony.
This morning, however, he was flanked by niece Doris Fredrick (daughter of Estelle Axton, who put the “AX” in Stax), Curtis Johnson of the Astors and Deanie Parker, first CEO of the Soulsville Foundation and head of publicity for Stax Records until it closed in 1975, as the Street Corner Harmonies, a group of students enrolled in Soulsville Charter School and Stax Music Academy, performed this:
If that made you tear up, you’re not alone.
Following the performance, the students had the chance to meet Stewart and pose for pictures like this one, including Doris Fredrick and Deanie Parker:
So happy Stax Museum Day, y’all. Here’s that story I’ve been telling you about:
You know the fairytale: Character slogs through under-appreciated existence; character discovers he/she is royalty?
Cast the characters as Memphis-based Stax recording artists in the mid-1960s: recording all day; gigging all night; missing widespread acceptance in the U.S.
In the book, Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records, ethnomusicologist Rob Bowman quotes Steve Cropper as reflecting on the tour: “…We were just in Memphis cutting records; we didn’t know. Then we got over there, there were hordes of people waiting at the airport, autograph hounds and all that sort of stuff…They treated us like we were the Beatles or something.”
How do you explain the incongruity?
I asked Carmel Lonergan, a BBC radio producer and director of the 2006 Stax-focused documentary, Soulsville. Carmel, born (and today based) in Manchester, England, began, “We had the Beatles. We had Windrush [an influx of calypso, reggae and ska].” “We had ‘white rock’ covered [Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Robert Plant],” added Carmel’s husband, Rich. Carmel concluded: “The U.K. was hungry for lively, different music.”
The answer sounded forth in an unlikely harmony of progression and tradition: “’60s youth culture was forming – they wanted something new,” Carmel explained. Yet, she underscored, “The U.K. has [always] looked to American music – big band, jazz.” Stax soul music, all-American, but with unheard-of frenetic tempos and fat sounds, was the answer.
U.S. acceptance of soul eventually broadened when Redding and Booker T. and the MG’s ignited California’s Monterey International Pop Music Festival upon returning from Europe. But to say that Stax was, and is, “big overseas” is an understatement. Europe’s “massive soul following,” as Carmel classifies it, remains feverish to this day. “Everybody knows the logo,” Carmel and Rich told me, snapping in unison. In the north of England, the couple reports that soul nights “were big in the ‘70s and [are] still going…there’s a new generation coming up” – a generation that’s discovering the music all over again.
In the course of creating Soulsville, Carmel was serenaded by Eddie Floyd and moved by the relationship between Isaac Hayes and David Porter. Porter helped Hayes, who had suffered a stroke, communicate during their interview with Carmel. “It was like a dance,” Carmel remembered, of the way the pair related. No wonder, then, that Carmel considers creating Soulsville the highlight of her 22-year career with the BBC.
Carmel and Rich were in town as part of a junket including several high-caliber European journalists to experience Stax to the Max, the annual street festival that unfolds in Memphis’ Soulsville neighborhood around the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Though rain delayed the festival by a day, the line-up didn’t quit from Sunday afternoon into evening, climaxing with a Stax Revue featuring William Bell, Toni Green and Kirk Whalum with special appearances by the Temprees, the Mad Lads and the Astors, and closing with a performance by Stax Music Academy. I’ve included some photos of the event below to hold you over until you make the trip for yourself. In the meantime, take a listen to some sweet soul music and tell me – who’s your favorite Memphis soul artist?