Hear the Memphis Sound at Stax
I like music. And moving to it. So when I visited the Stax Museum of American Soul Music for the first time, I knew I was into something good – soul standards blared from speakers in the parking lot, and I danced my way inside.
When I returned to Stax this weekend, the standards sounded from a stage at the back of the parking lot. People were everywhere (an estimated 9,000 attendees by day’s end). It was Saturday afternoon, and the second annual Stax to the Max festival was on. This was a community festival at its best, with 50-cent sno-cones; free face painting and bounce houses for the kids; and anything from barbecue meals to t-shirts and pickled zucchini for sale. Admission to the festival was free; admission to the Stax Museum was just $1 all afternoon. But music was the star, presenting hours of entertainment including Memphis Jones, the Stax Music Academy, and the Bo-Keys (featuring William Bell).
Whether you catch next year’s Stax to the Max or tour the museum during regular hours – Tuesdays from 1-5 p.m. are free with proof of Shelby County residence, by the way – the place has a way of moving you. (Literally: If the music in the parking lot doesn’t get you, good luck crossing the dance floor without busting into a strut. Yeah, this museum has a dance floor. It’s plunked down between exhibits and surrounded by looping footage of Soul Train.) But beyond a physical reaction to the rhythm, expect an emotional reaction to the Stax story.
Since its founding in the 1960s, Stax was the kind of place where music and people came together. Race didn’t seem to matter much inside the studio – exhibits show how operations were integrated from the administrators to the artists, but I like how Steve Cropper puts it in the museum’s introductory film: “…Color never, ever walked through the door.”
And so, Stax and its community became “Soulsville,” where Sam & Dave perfected their exchange on “Soul Man.” Where Isaac Hayes shifted from writer to performer, and became the first African-American Academy Award-winner for music. Where Otis Redding, working as a driver, begged for a chance to sing (he wrote and recorded “Respect” here, though you’re probably more familiar with Aretha’s version. Her birthplace sits about a mile from the museum).
But Otis’ plane went down. The city writhed following Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. The studio wrestled over rights and finances. By 1976, Stax was shuttered.
Fast-forward to the ’90s and the establishment of the Soulsville Foundation. Channeling the same fusion of music and community that built Stax in the 1960s, the foundation began rebuilding – reviving the neighborhood by creating Soulsville Charter School, Stax Music Academy (a program for high schoolers incorporating music education, mentoring and performance opportunities), and the Stax Museum – all on the site of the former studio. The museum opened to the public in 2003 and remains the only soul music museum in the world – the only place where you can:
- View Stax’s re-created “Studio A” and the original instruments Booker T. & the MGs used to record “Green Onions”
- Walk the Hall of Records, decorated with more than 1,000 singles and full-length albums
- Behold Isaac Hayes’ 1972 Cadillac El Dorado in all of its gold-trimmed, fur-lined glory (it rotates on a platform, y’all)
For younger generations, visiting Stax imparts an essential music education – that there’s more to Isaac Hayes than South Park, for one, and that this is the birthplace of the “Memphis Sound.” If you enter the museum without an ear for it, you’ll know it by the time you leave – I hear it in the punch of Andrew Love and Wayne Jackson’s horns; in guitars that speak in the hands of Skip Pitts and Steve Cropper; in Booker T. Jones’ organ – an instrument that never knew groovy ’til he played it.
In the last month, both Andrew Love and Skip Pitts have passed away. But like Stax, the Memphis Sound lives on. Bookmark this events calendar to catch a performance by the Stax Music Academy. Get tickets now to see the Bar-Kays in concert during Memphis in May’s Sunset Symphony. Before you visit the museum, let this roster of Stax recording artists inform your playlist. Leave me a comment below sharing which artist or single gets you dancing. Here’s mine.