by Andria Lisle
According to the folks at 926 McLemore Avenue, Stax is back. Fifteen months after breaking ground for The Stax Museum of American Soul Music, things are looking good. An event on June 29th that celebrated the lighting of the Stax marquee and the Soulsville U.S.A. sign was attended by hundreds of well-wishers from the surrounding community, while the museum's projected opening on November 15th promises to be a landmark event.
But The Stax Music Academy is perhaps the most important ingredient in the Soulsville enterprise. A training center for budding musicians, the academy fulfills part of the Stax legacy. The record company's original run was driven by neighborhood talent, and it seemed that anybody could become somebody at Stax -- something the academy is determined to make a reality once again for the Soulsville community.
"We believe that music helps build character through hard work, discipline, and team effort," says Deanie Parker, executive director of Soulsville U.S.A., the nonprofit corporation behind the project. "Why not use music as a creative way to change the lives of thousands of children?"
The academy occupies 27,000 square feet of the Stax complex. Practice rooms and classrooms take up the majority of the space, which is augmented by a sizable choir room, a band room, and a multimedia lecture hall. A library that also houses a collection of Stax-related archives, music books, scores, and periodicals anchors the building.
For the last two years, the academy has operated as the Snap! Summer Music Camp, a six-week day camp held at LeMoyne-Owen College. More than 750 children, many from the Soulsville neighborhood, have attended Snap! lectures and workshops while honing their musical skills. Snap! admits children in the fifth through eighth grade, while other programs like the Stax Rhythm Section and the SMA Percussion Ensemble offer more specialized lessons to older kids. Two vocal programs, a gospel ensemble called the Spirit of Soulsville Singers and Street Corner Harmonies, which targets at-risk youth, round out the academy's services.
Many teachers at the academy see their jobs as a way to pay tribute to their benefactors in the local music scene. Stax session men Nokie Taylor and Errol Thomas are both on the staff, as is Memphis jazz and blues veteran Calvin Newborn, a lecturer at the academy. "I've been to the mountaintop, and I've seen the promised land," Newborn jokes in reference to his venerable New York jazz career. "Now, I'm coming down to earth in good ol' Soulsville U.S.A."
According to Taylor, "Seeing these kids learn is incredible. I'm able to share things that I've learned from all the professional musicians I've worked with -- music lessons and life lessons. It's interesting to see them go back into the community and teach what they've learned from me."
For Scott Bomar, another instructor at the academy, the benefits of his job are twofold. "I'm on both sides of it, working with guys like Nokie and Errol and Skip Pitts, three musicians I've always looked up to," he explains, mentioning erstwhile producer and academy co-worker Jonah Ellis as another mentor. "I feel like I'm learning and teaching at the same time."
The Stax Music Academy's Grand Opening ceremony is on Wednesday, July 24th, at 10 a.m. On Thursday, July 25th, Soul Classics 103.5 FM will be broadcasting live from the academy, while tours of the facility will run from 6 a.m. until 3 p.m. On Friday, July 26th, the academy's Grand Finale will take place at The Orpheum theater at 7 p.m. Ticket prices range from $5 for general admission to $25, which includes a VIP reception. More than 225 kids will take the stage for the show, with all proceeds going straight back into the academy.
Former Memphian Rosco Gordon was found dead in his New York home on July 11th. Born and raised in Memphis, Gordon got his musical start as a teenager after winning an amateur contest at the old Palace Theater on Beale Street. In the late '40s, he was a member of the famed Beale Streeters, agroup that included such talents as Johnny Ace, B.B. King, and Bobby "Blue" Bland.
At Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Service, Gordon cut a handful of songs featuring his signature piano beat, including the seminal blues hit "No More Doggin'." Gordon accented the offbeat on the number, creating the shuffle sound that became the foundation of Jamaican ska music. Though that single was released on Vee-Jay, he also recorded for the Chess, Duke, and Sun labels.
After taking early retirement in the '60s, Gordon returned to the stage in the '80s. Recent appearances included the 2002 Handy Awards, where he reunited with fellow Sun alumni B.B. King, Ike Turner, and Little Milton for a scorching version of King's "Three O'Clock Blues."He also headlined a show at the Young Avenue Deli three nights later. Despite his passing, it's certain that Gordon's musical legacy will continue to endure.
Andria Lisle will cover local music news and notes each week in Local Beat. You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.