Sunday, 20 November 2011


“Can you take me to Stax please?” Best sentence I’ve ever said to a cab driver. “Sorry sir, I’m not a taxi.” He was driving a something called a medical transportation vehicle. So, if you were in a Memphis hospital last month waiting for a new kidney, I apologise for the delay.

It did mean I got to say it again before we travelled the couple of miles from the tourist drinking dens of Beale Street to across the tracks to the noticeably non-tourist area of East McLemore Avenue. Funky part of town is the white boy euphemism for a poor black neighbourhood where it wouldn’t be advised to wander around alone. I hate saying things like this as it casts aspersions on the folk there, who – like anywhere – will consist of the friendly and not-so-friendly. The vast majority of Memphis people we met couldn’t have been nicer. However, had Mrs Monkey and I walked this particularly residential route we wouldn’t have looked more out of place had we been wearing Beefeater uniforms and whistling God Save The Queen. And quite frankly, if I were looking for an easy target, I’d pick on us. For a start, nobody in Memphis walks anywhere. It is eerie to walk streets so deserted. On the occasions you do see somebody they are immediately conspicuous. Later we’d walk a few blocks from Beale Street to the Lorraine Motel, the scene of Dr Martin Luther King’s assassination and now home to the National Civil Rights Museum (an extremely uncomfortable and moving experience) and the only person we saw was a toothless dude on a bike harassing us for money. I never fathomed how people got around as there were never many cars either. Maybe the locals have exclusive use of a series of underground tunnels. When the cabby dropped us off at Stax he said not to wander from the front of the building. He needn’t have wasted his breath, we weren’t going anywhere.

Back in 1959 Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton transformed a tired theatre on the corner of E. McLemore Avenue and College Street into the Satellite record shop, recording studio and label that would become Stax. The rest, you know. After Stax went bankrupt in 1975 the building went to ruin. Published in 1997 Rob Bowman’s Soulville USA, the definitive account of the label, ends on a sour note. The final page reading, “Tragically, in 1988 the Stax building was torn down. What should have been a national historic site remains in the late 1990s an empty field containing rubbish and junkie needles. It’s a disgrace, and speaks volumes regarding Memphis’s treatment of its African-American heritage.”

A disgrace indeed but Bowman can now have no complaints after a multi-million dollar investment as produced a tremendous turnaround. Stax – the name and the building - has been rebuilt on the same spot; the façade to the design of the original building, and houses the Museum of American Soul Music. Next door stands the Stax Music Academy, a non-profit organisation which uses “music education as a tool to enrich the lives of potentially at-risk children”. There's soul power, right there.

It’s difficult to fault the museum. Unlike other museum tours on our trip, this one was self-guided. It was huge; packed with over 2000 exhibits within a modern, well designed space. It starts with a short film about Stax beginnings, heyday and resurrection. Although not made too long ago it was noticeable how many artists have since passed away. The scale of the exhibition can be demonstrated by the first area which centres on an old wooden chapel that stood in the Mississippi Delta for over a hundred years. They didn’t just recreate Hoopers A.M.E. Chapel; they picked it up and dropped it here. With a gospel soundtrack playing and video archives around the outer walls, it firmly establishes the roots of soul in the church.

From there in, it’s a chronological story. It makes reference to non-Stax artists from James Brown and Aretha Franklin to the Motown stable and Memphis neighbours at Hi, but its focus is on its own acts, with the higher profile ones each afforded their own display of records, photos, instruments and personal items: Rufus Thomas’s funky boots, Mavis Staples’s dress, Otis Redding’s suede jacket, a suit belonging to Sam or Dave, but the most jaw dropping belongs to Isaac Hayes. Much is made of Stax being the perfect embodiment of racial harmony but after the death of Otis Redding, the assignation of King, and driven on by the new leadership of Al Bell, they became a potent symbol of Black Power. Nothing demonstrated power more than wealth and success and Hayes’s peacock blue 1972 Cadillac El Dorado pimp machine, trimmed with real gold and lined with white fur, with a television in the front and a bar in back, portrayed that in a most ostentatious manner. I’m not one for cars, but this was a sho’ nuff afro turner.

In keeping with the attention to detail spent on the exterior, Studio A has been rebuilt to the exact specifications of the original using previous blueprints, photos and surviving memories. I’d estimate the combined studios of Motown, Chess and Sun would fit within these four walls on this carpeted floor. Again true to the original it had been built on a slope (remember this started life as a theatre) with the raised control room where the stage had been. Set up ready to record another smash was the house band's equipment featuring Al Jackson’s drum kit, Steve Cropper’s guitar and amp, Duck Dunn’s bass combo, Wayne Jackson's trumpet, and the Hammond organ Booker T. used on – amongst other things - “Green Onions”.

There was also the “Hall of Records” which displayed hundreds of album sleeves (loads I’d never seen before) and walls filled with, possibly complete sets, of the blue “falling records” single releases and the yellow “fingersnap” ones. When all said and done, it’s the music that matters. It’s great to see where it was created, to see the stage outfits, to read the stories, to pay tribute, but you can’t put the sound, the feeling, the spirit, the emotion, the soul that comes out of those 7 inch pieces of vinyl into a museum. The subject matter alone makes the Stax Museum of American Soul Music the best museum I’ve been to; it’s as good as it gets, but nothing beats the music itself.

Next stop: Sun Records.

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