The iconic Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis, Tn.
In the Soulsville neighborhood of Memphis, Tennessee, there sits a building that has the appearance of an old movie theater from my childhood, however, this building is so much more, and does it ever have a story to tell.
The building I speak of is the Stax Museum of American Soul music history, and the museum is very rich with Soul music history and traditions from Stax’s humble beginnings as Satellite Records in 1957 all the way to Wattstax in 1973.
In the 15 minute movie that precedes the tour, there were the inevitable comparisons to Motown, which was broken down (I believe) by Isaac Hayes who noted that Motown’s artists had more of a sound of charm school, whereas Stax artists had a more gritty and not as clean sound which Hayes said illustrated the blood, sweat and tears of their work.
During the movie, everyone in the group I was with was dancing in their seats as the movie was playing. Songs such as Green Onions by Booker T. and the M.G.’s, Try a Little Tenderness by Otis Redding, I’ll Take You There by the Staple Singers, and of course the Theme from Shaft by Isaac Hayes were all recorded in that building.
Along with these hit records, one of the most legendary artists in the music business, Aretha Franklin was also born in the Soulsville neighborhood. By virtue of being signed to Atlantic Records, she also had dealings with Stax records, because of the distribution deal they had with Atlantic.
Upon entering the museum exhibits. The very first few exhibits concentrate on the beginnings of Soul music, as well as Gospel, as the two are very heavily intertwined.
As I continued on through, I started to see exhibits from acts, that I would call old school, such as Ray Charles, Sam and Dave to name a few.
The exhibits did an excellent job of bringing the movie to life. The movie, for example, pointed out how the popularity of Stax was an accident, and most of their musicians were people from the Soulsville neighborhood, and how early on, Stax was less like a business and more of a family atmosphere. The many pictures from the recording sessions back this statement up.
As I continued my tour, there was everything from vinyl records by the walls full, to outfits the artists wore on stage to instruments that were played during their shows. They also had a mock setup of their actual recording studio, both the booth and the lounge, and the autographed instruments that Booker T and the M.G.’s used. Then there was the customized Cadillac that Isaac Hayes drove, and a video of their performance from Wattstax which was performed at a Los Angeles area festival set up to commemorate the Watts riots in 1965. That show was performed before a packed house at the L.A. Coliseum, and the record sold 500,000 copies within a week.
My favorite exhibit by far was a tribute to Soul Train, the Saturday morning answer to American Bandstand which allowed many Stax artists their first real television exposure. The exhibit played Soul Train performances of Stax artists including the Staple Singers and Rufus Thomas.
Another one of Stax’s high points in pictures was Otis Redding and the Stax Revue performing in Europe. Despite all of the racial tension here, the Europeans embraced Stax in the same manner that America embraced the Beatles. All of their European shows were sold out in 1967.
The iconic Stax Museum movie theater entrance
Isaac Hayes’ customized Cadillac Eldorado.
The Staple Singers Gold single “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)
The Soul Train exhibit featuring the Staple Singers.
Upon preparing to leave the Museum, there are several pictures of Dr. Martin Luther King, taken the day before he was murdered in Memphis. The Stax artists spoke on how his assassination was the beginning of the end for Stax. The musicians at Stax were various nationalities, but their concerns was the music, and the family atmosphere despite the racial tension in Memphis at the time. Once Dr. King was killed, they were no longer able to be colorblind, which in turn affected their musical output.
Ultimately Stax went from being a family oriented atmosphere to a rigid business atmosphere, and as a result they ended up going under in 1974.
Renewed interest in Soul music caused a renewed interest in Soul music. Concord Records purchased the Stax catalog and made it available once again in 2000. Shortly afterwards, in 2003 the Stax Museum opened in the same spot it was located in during their heyday.
Along with the Museum, Stax is major players in the education of the Soulsville community with the Stax Music Academy and the Soulsville Charter School which both operated to provide opportunities for at risk youth in Memphis.
There are too many exhibits to fit in one story, however, if you’re ever in the Memphis area, I suggest you find your way to the Stax Museum. If you like Soul music, I can tell you, you won’t want to leave. If you would just like to learn more about them, check out their website.