Memphis TN—The story told by the Stax Museum of American Soul Music is the story of Memphis over the past 60 years.
It's a story filled with contradictions: a story of racial integration and disintegration, the rise of black pop culture in America, and punctuated by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
It's also a story of rags to riches to rags to riches to rags, a rollercoaster of successes and failures so common to the recording industry in the 1960s and '70s.
The Stax Records story in brief
In 1957, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton (both were white employees at a bank) started a recording company (Satellite Records) to record country music by white performers. The initial recording studio was located in Brunswick, a tiny town about 30 miles outside Memphis.
The pair quickly assembled a circle of musicians and producers who had a sharp eye for talent, but the studio's location was not conducive to recruiting that talent.
In 1960, the studio was relocated to a movie theater in a deteriorating neighborhood near downtown Memphis. The theater's auditorium became a recording studio, and the candy counter became a record shop that stocked the label's output.
The area became known as "Soulsville USA" due to the number of performers (from blues singers Memphis Slim and Memphis Minnie to up-and-coming soul superstars like Aretha Franklin, Maurice White and Al Green) who lived in the neighborhood.
Located in such a stewpot of talent, a stream of new acts were discovered by simply walking through the record shop's doors.
That talent increasingly included black performers and mixed-race bands. One such band, Booker T. and the MGs, became the house band, playing on hundreds of recordings over the next couple of decades.
In 1961, the company's name was changed from Satellite to Stax (pulled from the owners' names), and the legendary house of soul hits was born. Over the next 15 years, Stax's stable of popular acts included Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Rufus and Carla Thomas, the Staple Singers, and Isaac Hayes, along with many others.
The Stax studio's sloping floor and large space had a dynamic, live sound and became a popular recording destination for non-label acts, including Elvis Presley.
The label's first stumbles came in 1967-68. The label's biggest act, Otis Redding, and several members of his band, the Bar-Kays, were killed in a plane crash. This was quickly followed by the ending of a distribution deal with Atlantic Records that cost Stax its back catalog.
At the same time, the label's music was evolving. Stax's success had been built on a stable of integrated acts. With the death of Dr. King and the concurrent focus on music specifically aimed at a black audience, tension increased among the label's acts and staff.
As the '60s came to a close, Isaac Hayes was moving from a house writer and performer to a lead star. A huge concert in Los Angeles (the Wattstax concert) brought the Stax repertoire to an even bigger audience on the West Coast.
Despite these successes, bad business decisions brought the label to bankruptcy in 1975. The studio was shuttered and eventually bulldozed in 1989.
Rebirth of Stax
Fourteen years later, a reconstructed Stax (including a reproduction of the recording studio and record shop) was built, with a new music academy adjacent. The Stax label was relaunched as a source for both archival works and new works by young artists.
The museum tells the story of soul music as represented by Stax. It begins with a 20-minute film about the origins of soul music. The performers in the film talk about the music they listened to growing up: gospel music performed in rural black churches and country music played on white radio stations.
The museum has four centerpiece exhibits: the Hooper's Chapel Church, built in 1906 and relocated to the museum; the recording studio on a sloping movie auditorium floor; the hall of records, featuring hundreds of 45s and albums; and Isaac Hayes' gold-plated Cadillac.
In between are a series of multi-media showcases providing a chronological overview of the rise of soul music as a distinct form of popular music. The cases have the typical mix of memorabilia (sheet music, records, promotional fliers, etc.), performer artifacts (costumes, etc.) and audio-visual presentations (interviews, performances).
Everything is clean and professional, but the museum could already use a face-lift. The past decade has seen the death of some of performers, but narrative signs have not been updated. Some of the showcases have had so much material added that the narrative signs are obstructed.
The museum is not entirely comprehensive, viewing "American Soul Music" almost exclusively though a Stax lens. It only occasionally mentions Motown ("Hitsville USA"), it never mentions the Philadelphia Sound ("Philly soul") which rose as Stax's fortunes fell, and gives barely a nod to modern soul music or how it relates to rap and hip-hop.
Despite these minor quibbles, the museum is a must-see for any fan of soul music or student of pop music culture. Unfortunately, directional signage to the museum is nearly non-existent after one leaves I-240.
One final note: During my visit, (and much like the original Satellite Records), the staff and patrons of the Stax Museum were white.
For more about the Stax studio and record label, see the "Stax Records" entry in the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. For more about the Stax Museum of American Soul Music or to plan a visit, see soulsvilleusa.com.