But when the company went dormant in the mid-1970s, the music faded away, leaving just a treasure trove of magnetic tape lying in some dusty bank vault along with the memories that went with it. Sure, you could walk into a record store and buy most any title in the Stax catalog or pore over the vast notes in definitive volumes like Rob Bowman's Soulsville, U.S.A. and Peter Guralnick's Sweet Soul Music, then dream about the lost sounds of 926 East McLemore Avenue.
You could even catch Booker T. & the MG's in concert down at the Horseshoe Casino, hear Mavis Staples' strong vocals at the Beale Street Music Festival, or watch Carla Thomas' soulful swagger on South Main Street. You could do all that, but short of building a time machine, you couldn't really witness the love, the good times, and the give-and-take relationships that made this diverse group of musicians into a family.
When the Stax Museum of American Soul Music opens next week, there will be plenty for fans to see and do. Aside from the museum's grand opening, there are panel discussions to attend, films to watch, and even a celebrity golf tournament. But, as Rev. Jesse Jackson once said, "Stax was not just a record company. It was a sound." Accordingly, then, the sounds of Stax will anchor the weeklong event with three celebratory concerts.
For the first time in decades, nearly every living Stax musician will gather to re-create the hits that put the studio on the map. Stax hit-makers Eddie Floyd ("Knock On Wood"), Jean Knight ("Mr. Big Stuff"), and Mable John ("Able Mable") will appear alongside seminal groups like Booker T. & the MG's, the Bar-Kays, and the Temprees. Soul superstars Isaac Hayes, Wilson Pickett, and Mavis Staples will strut their stuff, while old friends (unrelated to Stax, but soulful just the same) such as Solomon Burke and Ann Peebles will lend their talents to the occasion.
To put it simply, the museum might house the artifacts, but it's the music that gives Stax life. These concerts will celebrate the very essence of Memphis soul.
"I think it's a great thing to be able to participate in," says Greenville, Mississippi, bluesman Little Milton Campbell, who signed with Stax in the early '70s. "Next week is gonna bring back a lot of memories -- all those old faces." Referring to his earlier days at Chess Records, Campbell says, "I left one family and came into another which accepted me with open arms. I was able to come in with my so-called Chicago sound and mix right in. It was a fresh marriage but it was good."
"You have to realize there's that Southern hospitality. It was like coming back home for me. The first records I ever cut were here in Memphis," Campbell recalls before adding "I was probably one of the last artists there. Others were smart enough to jump off the sinking ship." He laughs, recalling how he stayed with Stax until the label folded in 1975.
But today, Campbell's memories of Stax are all good: "David Porter, Al Jackson, Bobby Manuel; the whole crew welcomed me," he says. "I'm sure we'll do 'Walking the Back Streets and Crying' [at the Soul N' Roll concert]," Campbell concludes, naming his biggest Stax hit. "Whatever else I choose to do will be from the heart and soul."
"We feel honored playing with Little Milton and everyone else," says Big Star drummer Jody Stephens. "Deanie Parker [executive director of the Stax Museum] contacted me several months ago about this. She's a legend herself. It was very cool," Stephens enthuses.
The only rock act to perform at next week's celebration, Big Star fused the best elements of the British Invasion -- the Beatles' introspective songwriting, the Who's manic energy, and the Byrds' melodic harmonies -- into a pop hybrid that seemed destined to hit the top of the charts. But the 1970s-era band was plagued with disasters -- Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, both singers, songwriters, and guitarists for the group, constantly fought, while their first two albums (Radio City and #1 Record), recorded at Ardent Studios, were tangled up in Stax's distribution snafu and failed to reach stores.
"I'm not actually sure what the business arrangement was," Stephens admits. In fact, he says, he never even entered the Stax studio. "I was the day guy here at Ardent and I ran errands over to Stax, but I never got past the front desk," he clarifies. "I did get to see Isaac Hayes' gold Cadillac [now a centerpiece of the museum], which was sitting out in the lot," Stephens says with a laugh.
"It'll be interesting, putting these soul acts with a pop act," Stephens says of Tuesday night's Soul N' Roll concert. But it won't be the first time for such a pairing. "Back in '74, Big Star did a few dates with Ann Peebles," he recalls. "Her show was so much fun to watch. Those are gonna be tough acts to be on stage with. It makes me want to work harder and practice harder."
"I was born at 925 East McLemore, and I grew up two blocks from Stax Records," Bar-Kays bassist James Alexander says, "so this is really great for me. Now the history -- and the legacy -- will be preserved. I can't say enough about Deanie Parker, who initiated all of this. What an unbelievable task, and now it's finally coming to realization."
According to Alexander, the Bar-Kays got their strong work ethic and a sense of community from the folks at Stax. "Back in those days, everything was more of a family thing," he explains. "It wasn't about how much money you were gonna make. The music was more important than that. We could go down to Isaac Hayes' office and say, 'Man, we need some piano on this record,' and he'd do it. There was no 'show me the money' attitude," Alexander recalls. "I miss that part."
"Of course, we've played with Isaac in Europe and done occasional shows with Little Milton and other Stax stars. But this is gonna be special. A lot of us haven't been in the room together since Stax closed," Alexander says, adding that the Bar-Kays are sure to perform their signature number, the seminal dance party hit "Soul Finger."
"I might do "Walk On By" and "I Stand Accused," Isaac Hayes says, mulling over the wide range of possibilities for his set. For the Stax Comes Home concert, the iconic Shaft man will be backed by his regular band, including guitarist Michael Toles and drummer James Robertson. "A lot of my musicians are from Memphis," Hayes says. "I've got a young keyboard player with me now named Damian Savage who I found here. A good friend of mine kept telling me about this cat, and I kept saying, 'Alright, I'll get to him.' I had Lester Snell check him out, and he said, 'This kid is cool. He can play.' He's been with me ever since."
"There's always been so much raw talent in this town," Hayes continues. "That's why the museum and the Stax Music Academy are so important. It gives kids access to the tools they need for a career in the music business. Whether they're producing, writing, arranging, or performing."
"I really promote music education for kids," he adds. "We've got to get these kids educated, learning how to play musical instruments. That's the only way the art will continue. We didn't have that when I was growing up . They've got it much easier than we did," Hayes says with a laugh. "But it's what -- 2003? It's time to move into the future."
Stax Museum of American Soul Music: Soul Comes Home concert schedule
Soul N Roll
With Big Star, Little Milton, The Bar-Kays, Mable John, and Linda Lyndell.
Tuesday, April 29th
Soul Comes Home Stax Concert
With Rance Allen, Eddie Floyd, William Bell, Jean Knight, Isaac Hayes, Booker T. & the MGs, The Mar-Keys, Mavis Staples, Ann Peebles, Luther Vandross, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, and others.
Wednesday, April 30th
WattStax Premiere and Stax Concert
with The Temprees, Floyd Taylor (tribute to dad Johnnie Taylor), The Dramatics, and others.
8 p.m. (film screening, concert to follow)
Thursday, May 1st
By Chris Davis
On a recent visit to the site, after shrugging off a trinity of panhandlers who were so honest they came right out and admitted, "Hey man, I just want to get a bottle of something," a green Ford Taurus with temporary tags pulls up to the curb. A middle-aged couple in the front seat ask for gas money to get to Southaven, though the needle on the fuel gauge is far from the "E" mark. Then they ask for cigarettes, and when none are forthcoming, a much younger woman in the back seat asks, "Well, then can I have you?" The implication is, of course, that this would be a "business transaction." After explaining for the umpteenth time that I didn't have any cash, the young woman, seeming more than a little peeved, asks what I'm doing hanging out on McLemore. When I say that I'm doing a story on the new Stax museum, the couple in the front seat launch into an angry tirade.
"They never should have tore Stax down in the first place," the man says, and both women furiously agree. He launches into a litany of Stax recording artists: "Johnnie Taylor, Otis Redding, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes, the Staples Singers." And as we discuss the absurdity of demolishing Stax -- one of Memphis' most important musical landmarks -- our relationship changes. Suddenly, I'm no longer a mark but a compatriot. It's just another example of how the hot buttered soul that once flowed from Stax records can still bring very different people, with very different backgrounds and agendas, close together in no time flat.
The lobby of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which officially opens with a morning ceremony Friday, May 2nd, contains a photo montage that recounts the history of the building, from its days as the Capitol theater to its conversion to one of the most influential recording studios in the history of American music to its ultimate destruction and phoenix-like rebirth as a museum. And while the montage may seem perfunctory to the average visitor, for the musicians and engineers who worked at Stax it must rank among the greatest stories ever told.
The tour begins with a short film about the studio's history. The ultra-mod and multicolored Herman Miller-style chairs in the theater hint at the museum's period-perfect funkiness, a physical preface to all the space-age design to follow -- all the afros, platform shoes, sequins, fringe, and fur-lined fabulousness. The actual film, however, begins in a way that lovers of Stax's raw and gritty soul sound might not expect.
"It all begins with country and gospel," the voiceover insists, as Rufus Thomas and Ray Charles take turns testifying about the Grand Old Opry and how much the broadcasts from Nashville's WSM had meant to them.
Of course, it is impossible to tell the history of Stax in 20 minutes, but the film does capture the spirit of a fully integrated organization (a rarity in the mid-'60s) that began recording country singles at a converted garage in Memphis but would later rock a 100,000-plus, overwhelmingly African-American crowd in Watts. There is a strange implication in the film that the Stax era came crashing to an end with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, which seems to negate a full seven years of great music, since the tunes didn't stop till the doors were locked in 1975. Interviews with non-Stax recording artists like Gladys Knight are never explained, and the commentary is never as good as what you get from Stax veterans like Steve Cropper, David Porter, and Rufus Thomas, whose vibrant commentary is, as Thomas might say, "funkier than 19 dollars worth of chitlins."
After viewing the film, visitors enter into a reconstructed country church from the Mississippi Delta. The rotten boards, rough, handmade pews, potbellied stove, and a baptismal font that is actually a rusty old shaving basin hint at a hardscrabble life and bespeak a tangible need to somehow bring a little heavenly joy down to Earth. That joy comes in the form of howling gospel music by the likes of Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
The exhibits are numerous, and the collection exhaustive. Booker T. Jones' Hammond organ -- the one he recorded "Green Onions" on -- is on display. So are Al Jackson's drums, Steve Cropper's Fender Telecaster, Albert King's Flying Y -- and the list goes on. Each exhibit is accompanied by video commentary from Stax stars and performance clips. There is a circular dance floor in front of a wall-sized video loop from Soul Train, just in case you need to stop and get down for a while. How cool is that?
Of course, the most impressive exhibit is the near-exact re-creation of Studio A. The room, which had once been the Capitol theater's auditorium, is cavernous by recording-studio standards. The size of the space and the sloping floor have often been credited for the inimitably raw "Stax sound." This is where Sam and Dave recorded "Hold On! I'm Comin'" and where the Bar-Kays recorded "Soul Finger." Elvis cut tracks here, and the Beatles would have if John Lennon hadn't made that snippy crack about being bigger than Jesus. The studio may be a re-creation but it has the air of authenticity, and musically speaking, the ground is still hallowed. (Word has it that, under very special circumstances, Studio A might once again be used for recording purposes.)
From the studio, visitors walk past a wall of albums representing the complete Stax output: 300 LPs and an impressive 800 singles. Stax placed 243 records in the top 100 on the R&B charts and, for the audiophile and record collector, this simple display is positively awe-inspiring.
Isaac Hayes' Cadillac El Dorado is on display with its white fur interior, Superfly headlights, and built-in refrigerator and television. It's the very definition of pimpin', 1970s-style, and where the average Caddy would have chrome, Hayes had his ride decked out in gold. The exhibit lighting casts weird reflections on the walls as the car continuously spins around and around, and should the curious visitor get too close, the distinctive voice of a well-known bad muthaf#%&er will tell them to move their "fingerprints" away from the car or threaten "John Shaft's gonna get you." It's the ideal marriage of exhibit, artifact, history, and humor.
In addition to all the soul-centric artifacts, there are a number of interactive displays. One allows visitors to compare classic Stax songs to subsequent covers. Another allows the visitor to play studio engineer and mix the distinctive Stax rhythm and horn sections with more contemporary sounds.
The last exhibit is a video screen where stars ranging from Aretha Franklin to Aerosmith talk about the influence of Stax recordings. At one point, Franklin says she heard Otis Redding's song "Respect" and decided that she had "a few ideas" about what she could do with it. It is perhaps the greatest understatement in a museum that, for all its funk, sparkle, fur, and flare, is decidedly understated.
If there is anything to complain about, it's the fact that there is so much audio being played at once that all the sounds tend to bleed together and become muddy. Such is often the case with music-oriented museums, and all things considered, it's a minor complaint. Memphians often talk about wanting to be world-class, and the Stax Museum and Music Academy are a prime example of what that tired phrase should mean. In short, if somebody doesn't snap up that building across the street and commence to cooking ribs ASAP, then somebody's a stone-cold fool.
Hot Buttered Films
by Chris Herrington
|The Staple Singers in WattStax|
One is Tom Dowd & the Language of Music, a feature-length profile on the late, legendary Atlantic Records engineer whose credits include Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin, among others. But most prominently is the granddaddy of all soul-music movies, WattStax, the "black Woodstock."
A 1973 documentary about a 1972 concert in which the Stax Records stable packed over 100,000 people into Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the last day of the Watts Summer Festival (an event founded in 1966 to commemorate the Watts riots of the previous year), the cult-classic flick has been hard to see since its debut 30 years ago but has recently been digitally remastered and visually restored for a comeback tour.
This restored version of the film screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January but otherwise makes its debut Thursday, May 1st, at the Orpheum theater. Viewers will get a chance to see something that filmgoers at the time did not: the original ending, with Isaac "Black Moses" Hayes performing "Shaft" and "Soulsville" before the appreciative multitudes at Memorial Coliseum. The original release of the film had to cut the authentic Hayes performance due to contractual hassles with Shaft rights-holder MGM, instead inserting Hayes concert footage filmed on a soundstage later.
But WattStax is so much more than just a concert film; it's as much about a community. It has a look and feel very similar to other political films of its era, particularly the Chicago riots-connected Medium Cool and Melvin Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (Peebles acted as an emcee for WattStax). The film (directed by Mel Stuart, who had previously helmed Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory!) is very impressionistic, intertwining its concert footage with man-on-the-street interviews with Watts residents and using the music as an engine for montages that drive home a political or thematic point. And these segments are not just political in the sense of the economy of Watts citizens pre- and post-riot but about the culture in a wider sense, taking on issues such as how black children first discover racism, the role of the blues in the community, relationships between men and women, and the role of black men in modern society.
A third element to the film is interspersed, Greek-chorus-like segments with a young (then relatively unknown) comedian named Richard Pryor. All the Pryor footage is taken over the course of one conversation at a Watts bar. These segments are a little odd in terms of their connection to the rest of the film (Pryor's role is never explained), but this is Richard Pryor, being himself, in 1972, which alone makes WattStax a must-see.
As for the music, Stax performers such as the Staples Singers (a vibrant take on "Respect Yourself"), Albert King (who tells the crowd he's going to "learn you about the blues"), Carla Thomas, the Bar-Kays (wearing very of-the-era white suits that make them look like ancient Greeks from the future), Luther Ingram, and Hayes deliver vintage performances. Other performances are captured outside the context of the concert: following Johnnie Taylor to a club and filming Little Milton in a run-down lot in front of a garbage-can fire.
But the musical highlight of the show belongs to the late Rufus Thomas. The Stax artistic patriarch, in full "World's Oldest Teenager" mode, hits the stage in white go-go boots, a red shorts suit, and red cape ("Ain't I clean?" he asks the crowd). When he performs "Funky Chicken," hundreds, if not thousands, leap the fence to flap their arms around the stadium field. After the performance, with his handlers clearly worried about the chaos out in front of the stage, Thomas performs a feat of supernatural charm, convincing people to stop coming down from the stands ("Don't jump the fence because it don't make sense," Thomas chants), gently prodding those who have to return to their seats.
Thomas' performance is the single most invigorating chapter of WattStax, but the whole film embodies a post-civil rights movement/pre-"American Renewal" chapter in African-American life, a "Black Power" era of cultural positivism and political defiance. Hip-hop fans will recognize moments such as a Bar-Kay proclaiming, "Freedom is a road seldom traveled by the multitude," and Jesse Jackson's "I don't know what this world is coming to!" from samples on Public Enemy's classic It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back. You'll hear Jackson's famous "I am somebody" speech and see him introduce Kim Weston to sing "the black national anthem," "Lift Every Voice," and then see 100,000 people do just that. It may have been "black Woodstock," but it was about more than just peace, love, and rock-and-roll. It was about the journey of a whole people, and the filmmakers had the good sense to give us more than just bands on a stage, as great as those bands are.