This Wednesday, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music will host a rare visit by the label's original co-founder, who will present a rare piece of memorabilia to the museum, pay honor to alumni of the Stax Music Academy, and tell tales of the label's early days. Jim Stewart, who lives in Memphis to this day, albeit with a low profile, is a spry 87, which perhaps accounts for his reticence with the media. I spoke with the museum's executive director, Jeff Kollath, about the events scheduled for the evening and how Stewart views his legacy.
Memphis Flyer: It must be a big deal for Jim Stewart to return to Stax.
Jeff Kollath: Yeah, I think so. He's attended Stax Music Academy concerts before, so he's obviously incredibly supportive of what we're doing. But I think the thing he's most proud of, in terms of legacy, is what the Stax Music Academy does. I think he sees what those kids are doing as an extension of the type of things that he and his sister [Estelle Axton] and [onetime executive vice president] Al Bell were trying to accomplish by giving young people in Memphis opportunities fifty-plus years ago. Obviously it's in a formal educational setting now, as opposed to running a recording studio. But for us, the legacy he created with his sister and Mr. Bell, was one of espousing corporate social responsibility before anybody knew what corporate social responsibility was. And it's totally true. In terms of enmeshing yourself in a community, being a part of that community, working with the community, supporting that community, and especially for two relative outsiders to come to South Memphis and do that 58 years ago, is pretty remarkable. Whenever he's been around, that's the part that always strikes me. When he sees the kids, it's coming full circle.
It's only gaining momentum as many years' worth of students go on to play music.
Yeah, some of 'em aren't kids anymore. Some of them are full-fledged adults. The Academy started before the museum did, back in 2000. Some of these kids are well into their thirties now. But I think music is just a means to an end. It's part of the process. And I think the great youth development work that everyone at the Academy does, making informed, engaged, empathetic citizens, is just as much of a testament to Academy graduates as how great they are as musicians.
So they'll be playing tomorrow night, too.
Yeah. The Stax Music Academy Alumni Band will be playing, and then John Paul Keith is going to play a couple songs from the early Satellite Records catalog, which he did for us during our 60th anniversary stuff last March. I think he'll do “Blue Roses,” which is appropriate, because that's the only song that Mr. Stewart has a songwriting credit for, and that was the very first single out on Satellite. I don't know the other song he's gonna do. He'll do something else from the early, early days, from when Mr. Stewart used his wife's uncle's garage on the north side of Memphis. And then Krista Wroten is going to play a fiddle tune, since obviously Mr. Stewart got his start as a fiddle player. That was how his love of music really began, playing fiddle around West Tennessee, as Red Stewart and the Tennessee Cotton Pickers.
Will there be an open discussion?
Yeah, there'll be some things at the start of the event, then we'll do some talking, some music, and then Mr. Stewart and [onetime Soulsville Foundation President and former Stax employee] Deanie Parker will have a conversation. And then we'll go into the rest of the music for the night. It'll be a nice program. Hopefully some folks will hear some stories. It'll be a good chance for former Stax employees and musicians to get together and see each other again. There'll be a few folks floating around.
And he'll also unveil the new bit of memorabilia that he's donating to the museum?
Yes, we'll do that at the start. That's a surprise, we can't tell you about that. But we're pretty excited about it. We really wanna encourage folks to donate. If they've got it, share it with us and the world. We've been around 15 years, and we've got a lot of great stuff out, but we've got room for more. Jeff Dunn donated his dad [Duck Dunn's] jacket that he's carrying on the cover of [Booker T & the MGs album] McLemore Avenue. He donated that last summer when we did an event for the recent Duck Dunn book. We're gonna put the McLemore Avenue jacket out on display this fall.
McLemore Avenue, by Booker T & the MGs
An Evening to Remember, Wednesday, July 25th, 6-8 pm: a special celebration during which Satellite/Stax Records founder Jim Stewart will present the Stax Museum with a very special donation of memorabilia. Live music by the Stax Music Academy Alumni Band, John Paul Keith, and Krista Wroten. Free and open to the public. Doors open at 5:45 p.m.