5 Star Stories: Stax Museum of American Soul Music

Published: Feb. 8, 2022 at 9:34 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - In our continuing efforts to celebrate Black History Month this year, we’re shining a light on the heart of Soulsville USA, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.

The museum is one of only two locations in Memphis on the Civil Rights Trail with stories of Black excellence that may never have happened without Stax Records, or as museum executive director, Jeff Kollath, put it, “The Stax Records story, the way we describe it, it could only happen in Memphis.”

The museum has been sitting at the corner of McLemore and College since 2003 in the very same spot as the former Stax Records building. Inside, after watching an introductory film, you’ll walk out to see and hear an entire church from the Mississippi Delta built by formers slaves and sharecroppers. It’s a representation of the foundation for much of Stax’s music.

“Soul music and frankly, American pop music as we know it, is rooted in the Black church and in the Black experience in the United States,” explained Kollath.

You’ll also learn the story of Stax Records’ beginnings, how white banker and fiddle player, Jim Stewart and his sister, Estelle Axton, turned an old movie theater into Stax Recording Studio and Satellite Records in a Black neighborhood in a then-segregated South.

Kollath described the significance of what happened inside Stax Records.

“You have this coming together of two disparate populations, coming together in a space where Black and white were both welcomed, and which was obviously a rarity in Memphis, Tennessee in 1960 when this space first opened,” he explained.

Stax Records became an integral part of the neighborhood and the city, providing opportunities where they were then rare. According to Stax Museum’s director of education, Kimberly Hooper-Taylor, “They were able to come here because they had a talent. They were able to make something of themselves. Think of the many artists who didn’t even have a high school diploma. You think of the ones who treated the studio as their sanctuary to get away.”

Kollath shared how Stax was able to take advantage of the people who simply walked in from the neighborhood.

“And to have people like Rufus Thomas who was such a well-known DJ, and had some hit records before Stax, being the first person through the door with his daughter, Carla Thomas, because he heard about it from his mailman. David Porter worked in the grocery store across the street. James Alexandar was born in the hospital here on McLemore Avenue. The Barclays grew up in the neighborhood. Booker T. Jones grew up in this neighborhood. You could walk here, come in the front door, see Ms. Axton in the record store, you know, listen to music, talk to her. She finds out maybe you can sing a little bit, maybe you can play a little bit. You had a chance to do that here,” recalled Kollath.

Many of the people who came in the door went on to greatness, like Isaac Hayes, the first Black man to win an Academy Award for best original song with “Theme from Shaft.” Today, Hayes’ 1972 custom Cadillac El Dorado is one of the museum’s biggest draws.

There’s the story of Al Bell, who moved back to Memphis after a successful stint as a disc jockey in Washington, D.C, and becoming a songwriter and producer before eventually becoming majority owner of Stax. He then turned it into one of the most successful Black-owned businesses in the country.

As Kollath put it, “We talk about grit and grind. We talk about hustle here in Memphis, but there’s also serendipity and there’s luck, too. And I think it’s one of the things that makes this such a unique story. At nearly every instance, Stax was able to capitalize on who came through the front door.”

The museum also recounts how Bell enticed the Staple Singers to Memphis to record music that later became a soundtrack for the Civil Rights Movement.

“They had captured people’s hearts and minds with their great gospel work that they’d done in Chicago, but to come to Stax to take that gospel impulse, to add some secular messages to it, and to create their greatest work ever here, and how it sustained a community and sustained a message in a movement, you know, throughout the late ‘60s and early ‘70s emphasized Kollath.

The Hall of Records showcases Stax’s prolific recording catalog from Blues to R&B, Folk and Country, Jazz, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Kollath said the museum has most of the recording studio’s entire catalog/

“So, we’ve got about 920 or so of the 930 to 940 singles that Stax released, produced, or distributed between 1957 and 1975,” he said.

There are also the tales of those behind the music, from the engineers in the control room, the songwriters, as well as the studio and session musicians.

“And so, many of those men and women are still in Memphis,” added Kollath. “So, I think it’s always very important to highlight the folks that are still with us that are still in the community, that are still making music.”

There are also likely stories yet to be told, coming from what Taylor-Hooper indicated is a Community Museum.

“Kids today are still looking for outlets,” she said. “Kids are still looking for opportunity and so we talk about this story, but we also talk about and kind of share opportunities that exist today. Even if we’re just sharing that the Stax Music Academy has a DJ camp coming up, we’re sharing opportunities for them to cultivate their talents but also to kind of realize their potential in the city, ensuring there are more stories that could only happen in Memphis.”

This year, the Stax Museum and Music Academy are offering free virtual programming during for Black History Month, as well as several free in-person events throughout the month of February. For more details on that click, here.

The Stax Museum of American Soul Music will soon celebrate two decades of sharing the Stax Records story and, barring any future COVID surges, plans to hold a 20th-anniversary celebration worthy of its history.

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