5 Star Stories: Stax Museum — celebrating Black musicians during Black Music Month

Published: Jun. 6, 2023 at 10:39 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Memphis was made on music, and since 1979 each June, the country celebrates our city’s contributions during Black Music Month.

Many of the most well-known Black musicians, singers, songwriters, and composers got their start in Soulsville with Stax Records. And in this 5 Star Story, we celebrate the past, present, and future of a sound as unique as the neighborhood that created it.

Since 2003, it has sat in the heart of Soulsville USA, at the corner of McLemore and College — the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.

Stax Museum
Stax Museum(Action News 5)

And according to executive director Jeff Kollath, “The Stax Records story, the way we describe it, it could only happen in Memphis.”

The foundation for that story was laid in the Mississippi Delta, in churches built by former slaves and sharecroppers.

”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.

There’s the story of 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 then-segregated Black neighborhood in the South.

“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,” described Kollath.

Rufus Thomas
Rufus Thomas(Action News 5)

Stax Records became an integral part of the neighborhood and the city, providing opportunities where they were rare.

“And to have people like Rufus Thomas, who was such a well-known Dee Jay and, you know, had had some hit records before Stax. You know, being the first person through the door with his daughter, Carla Thomas, because he heard about it from his mailman,” said Kollath.

“You know, David Porter worked in the grocery store across the street, James Alexandar was born in the hospital here on McLemore Avenue, the Bar-Kays 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,” recounted Kollath.

Many of those artists went on to greatness, like Isaac Hayes, the first Black man to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song with “Theme From Shaft,” whose 1972 custom Cadillac El Dorado is one of the museum’s biggest draws.

1972 Academy Award given to Isaac Hayes for Best Original Song for 1971's "Theme from Shaft" on...
1972 Academy Award given to Isaac Hayes for Best Original Song for 1971's "Theme from Shaft" on Stax Records' Enterprise label.(Action News 5)

There’s also the story of Al Bell, who came to Memphis, became the majority owner of Stax, and turned it into one of the most successful Black-owned businesses in the country.

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

The museum recounts how Bell enticed the Staple Singers to come 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,” Kollath regaled.

(Second from right) Booker T. Jones
(Second from right) Booker T. Jones(Action News 5)

The museum’s Hall of Records showcases Stax’s prolific recording catalog, from Blues to R&B, folk & country, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll.

“We’ve got about 920 or so of the 930-940 singles that Stax released, produced or distributed between 1957 and 1975,” explained Kollath.

And there’s the tale of those behind the music.

“... On down through the engineers in the control room, the songwriters, but also, you know, the studio musicians and the session musicians, too. And so many of those men and women are still in Memphis... 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,” Kollath explained.

On Saturday, June 10, Stax Museum celebrates Family Day with free admission from 1 to 4 in the afternoon.

Legendary radio personalities Stan Bell and Bev Johnson from WDIA will broadcast LIVE, alongside food trucks, bouncy houses, balloon artists, and more!

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