Stax Museum Is The Only Museum Dedicated To Telling The Story of American Soul Music
During the recent televised Grammy Award broadcast on February 12, 2017 I found myself smiling when the collaboration between Gary Clark Jr. and Stax Records artist, William Bell, was announced. The main reason for my smile was that William Bell is a fellow Tennessean. The second reason was because the collaboration shows that the work put in at Stax Records in the 1960s and 70s continues to live on today. Then my smile faded as I began to wonder how many of the viewers actually knew about Stax Records, or the music label’s contribution to the music world.
Stax and Motown
Stax Records began in 1960, the same year that Motown Records was incorporated. Everyone who considers themselves a music fan knows the history of Motown and its legendary status in the music world. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Stax Records. The reasons for that is a mystery. It could be just simply the sign of the times with Stax being located in the South during the end of the Jim Crow era. It could be that the Stax sound was the direct opposite of the Motown sound, which had more of a crossover appeal. The Motown sound was full of soft and sweet ballads while Stax had more grit. Regardless of the reasons, one thing cannot be taken from Stax, and that is that it was undeniably one of the key forces that put the “soul” in soul music. Motown had Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. Stax had Otis Redding, Johnnie Taylor and Isaac Hayes. Two different record labels with two different sounds, yet both created legendary music.
Stax Museum of American Soul Music
Unlike Motown, Stax Records did not survive the times unscathed. After a series of unfortunate events, that included the death of Otis Redding in 1967, as well as the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis the following year, the label was not able to regain its previous momentum. In the 1980s, the long time vacant Stax Records studio lot was demolished after the company went bankrupt. With ownership of the Stax Records catalog changing hands over time, the label never recovered to its previous level of success.
In 2003, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis, Tennessee became the only museum dedicated to telling the story of American Soul music. The museum was opened by the Soulsville Foundation which is comprised of community leaders, former Stax employees and philanthropists in the 1990s. Visitors are not only taken on the journey of Stax Records, but are also provided with a history lesson rooted in the sound of Southern soul.
The musical ride starts by taking visitors to the beginning, where it all started, which is within the walls of the Black church. Decade after decade, the evolution of soul music and its presence are showcased up until present day. One example that comes to mind immediately for obvious reasons, is the 2011 hit “Otis” by Jay Z and Kanye West featuring Stax artist, Otis Redding. Another Stax artist, Isaac Hayes has had his music sampled by Ice Cube, The Notorious B.I.G., Wu-Tang Clan and several others. The self-guided tour allows each visitor to take their time at discovering the history of Stax and how it is woven into the fabric of American music. One of the largest and most popular exhibits are in the Isaac Hayes section. There on full display is the 1972 Academy Award he received for the theme song from Shaft. Hayes is the first African-American in history to win an Oscar for music. In addition to the Oscar, visitors get a 360 degree view of a Hayes’ customized light blue Cadillac Eldorado with 24-carat gold trim as it turns around slowly so not even the white fur is missed on the floorboards by the onlookers.
When the city of Memphis, Tennessee is mentioned many of the first thoughts an individual may have are centered on the Blues, Elvis, Memphis style barbeque or the place where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Unfortunately, few people think of Stax Records or even know about Stax Records. Without Stax we may not have ever had songs like “Dock of the Bay”, “Try a Little Tenderness” or the Shaft movie soundtrack. Without Stax Records there may not be a Mavis Staples, the Bar-Kays or the Dramatics. In my personal opinion, that alone would be a travesty.
Thanks to the Soulsville Foundation the influence of Stax Records will continue to live on in the next generation via the Stax Music Academy and Soulsville Charter School, both located in Memphis, Tennessee.
Stax Museum of American Soul Music
926 E. McLemore Ave.
Memphis, TN. 38106
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