STAX AND MEMPHIS: THE CENTER OF SOUL MUSIC
Updated: Jun 9, 2019
Memphis is one of the most culturally rich destinations in America, and today’s touristy Beale Street is the least of the reasons why.
My favorite place to visit in Memphis is undoubtedly the Stax Museum of American Soul. Housed in a rebuilt version of the old theater, record shop and adjacent buildings that became home to Stax Records in the 1960s and 1970s, the museum takes guests through soul music’s heyday and shows the cultural significance of popular music during those fascinating years in the nation’s history.
The most obvious things to love about the Stax museum include: video clips of great soul artists of the 1960s and 70s; Isaac Hayes’ gold-highlighted, shag-carpeted Cadillac; and a replica of the original Stax studio where Booker T. Jones’ organ from “Green Onions” and Al Jackson Jr.’s drum kit from many Stax recordings (and those at neighboring Royal Studios where Al Green, O.V. Wright and many others recorded). Hearing recordings of actual sessions of Otis Reddings’ demo of ‘Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay’ while you’re strolling around the studio made me swallow hard and tear up. Sacred ground. (See photo gallery below.)
But there are many hidden gems at the Stax museum, something new to discover each time I visit. A few nuggets from my May 2019 visit:
A signed contract by unheralded soul great O.V. Wright agreeing to play at Sunbeam Mitchell’s Club Paradise in Memphis in 1968. (See video below to hear O.V. Wright's "Ace of Spades.")
A fascinating quote from former Stax owner Al Bell: “I think (white Stax co-founder) Jim Stewart is probably the finest producer of authentic African-American music that has ever lived, for he felt it in its authenticity. He felt the guts of it and was able to work with musicians until it was pure in nature. It was uncompromising, it was raw. I thank Jim Stewart for that, for he made a tremendous contribution to black culture.” (For more on the Stax story, see Robert Gordon's magisterial history, Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion. For more of the label's incredible array of music, the new incarnation of Stax Records offers extensive playlists.)
A concert handbill from Stax diva Carla Thomas’ performance at the Bohemian Caverns jazz club on U Street in Washington, D.C. The live recording of this performance was only released years afterward, and features interesting emceeing by Ms. Thomas’ father, original Sun and Stax records artist Rufus Thomas (whose “Walking the Dog” was promptly covered by the Rolling Stones). And someone, Al Bell I think, mentions that Otis Redding would be arriving shortly.
A concert poster promoting Redding's concert with the Bar-Kays scheduled for Dec. 10, 1967, at the Factory nightclub in Madison, Wisc. Of course, the show never happened, because Redding and four bandmates were killed when their plane crashed in Lake Monona. Only trumpet player Ben Cauley survived, and went on to lead the Bar-Kays for decades, first as a black-funk outfit on Stax and later as a mainstream R&B-funk act. The Wisconsin show’s opening act was to be The Grim Reapers, who later became Cheap Trick.
More quotes, from Jim Stewart: “We were sitting in the middle of a highly segregated city, a highly hypocritical city, and we were in another world when we walked into that studio.” And from Al Bell: “The thing that was most unique about Stax was that you had an interracial company in Memphis, Tenn., on the banks of the Mississippi Rover, just a stone’s throw from the state of Mississippi at a time when we still had an overt and rampant problem with segregation in the South.”
A quote from the great Mavis Staples on The Staple Singers' involvement in the Civil Rights Movement: “When we saw Dr. King preach, Pops (Staples, her father) said, ‘Now, if he can preach this, we can sing it. That could be our way of helping towards the movement. So we started writing protest songs such as ‘Freedom Highway.’ Pops would tell the Stax songwriters to just read the headlines and whatever they saw in the morning paper that needed to be heard, write us a song from that.”
On another musical note, we visited Sun Studio, Sam Phillips’ recording mecca that was home to the first recordings of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, The Prisonaires, and bluesmen Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, and Ike Turner. The studio still displays the drum kit used on several tunes from U2’s Rattle and Hum, including the Irish band’s classic, rockin’ duet with B.B. King, “When Love Comes to Town.” (See video below.)
Beyond the musical wonders of Memphis, the National Civil Rights Museum is a memorable and poignant Smithsonian-style, interactive treasure situated in the shell of the old Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The museum exterior looks much like it did in 1968 and is a solemn memorial to King, who gave his final sermon in Memphis before his death on April 4 of that year. A fresh wreath is kept on the second-story balcony where he was shot and died. Visitors are able to tour King’s faithfully re-created hotel room.
Incredibly, as my friend John Gehring and I toured the museum, a small tour group approached from behind us--with Paul McCartney! We weren't allowed to take photos, but he had played a show in New Orleans the night before and was headed for my hometown of Greenville, S.C. What an incredible moment for us.
We stayed in a cottage in Midtown Memphis, and enjoyed dropping in to bars and eateries at nearby Overton Square, also hitting two of the country’s best record stores: Goner Records in the Cooper-Young area of Midtown and Shangri-La Records. We also hit the independent bookstore, novel. (sic).
And the food in Memphis. Lordy.
My friend John and I sat in Elvis’ old booth at The Arcade Restaurant on Main Street downtown (try the sweet potato pancakes, first introduced to me by my Memphis friends Sandy and Larry Turner; get well, Poppa Larry!). We ate maybe the best ribs we’d ever had (dry rub preferred) at Corky’s in East Memphis. And of course, we devoured perhaps the best fried chicken on the planet at Gus’s (we hit Gus's second-ever location, in East Memphis, but try the tiny original location downtown if you’ve never been).
(Check out our travelogue from the Mississippi Delta during the same trip, with stops at Memphis Minnie's gravesite, a trip to a juke point, and more.)
Gallery below: 1. Outside the Stax Museum in Memphis. 2. Booker T. Jones' organ, at the museum. 3. Inside the replica of the original Stax studio. 4. Poster from Otis Redding's concert that never was. 5. O.V. Wright in the Stax Museum. 6. Inside MLK's room at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel. 7. The hearse outside Gus's Fried Chicken. 8. Art on the sidewalk near the gates of Graceland. 9. The breathtaking view of the Mississippi River from atop the old Pyramid arena, now the world's largest Bass Pro Shop sporting goods store (yes, really). Photos by Alan Richard.