Most people interested in popular music, and soul music in particular, will have heard of Stax. And of Memphis, Tennessee, USA.
Stax Records (originally Satellite Records), was created in 1957 by two ‘white’ siblings, Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton – hence the name ST-AX.
Stax soon relocated their studio to an old movie theatre in a ‘black’ neighbourhood in South Memphis – at the time (1961), Memphis was still completely racially segregated.
Stewart and Axton welcomed local emerging musicians and also music fans to their adjoining record store. They understood what their customers wanted and began to build a significant local and mainstream following.
At this time, Elvis Presley had just purchased his Graceland mansion in Memphis, Johnny Cash played at San Quentin, Cash and Patsy Cline were Country stars, B B King was already at his peak and up north in Detroit, Tamla Motown had just been established.
Stewart and Estelle Axton were later joined by Al Bell in 1965.
Most visitors to Memphis will be heading for Graceland, Elvis’s mansion and estate.
However, just 4km (2.5 miles) south-east of downtown Memphis, you will find the now rebuilt (in 2003) Stax Museum of American Soul Music – a careful reconstruction of the original building , with a modern Stax Music Academy and Soulsville Charter School now attached.
(The original building was demolished in 1989 after the collapse of Stax in 1975, but you wouldn’t know it.)
Memphis city is located on the Mississippi River in the south-western corner of Tennessee, 340kms (211 miles) west of Nashville. Now an attractive small city with nice river foreshore, straddling the states of Mississippi and Arkansas.
On this, my first visit to The South, I took a Megabus coach from Birmingham, Alabama, 385km (239 miles) north-west through northern Mississippi.
For 18 years during the 60s and early 70s, Stax Records developed the sound that became known as Memphis Soul. Later Al Bell said that he wanted to merge the “raw and gutsy soul” of (early) Stax with the “sophisticated, polished” sound of Motown.
Booker T & the MGs was formed from local Stax session musicians the Mar-Keys and became the studio’s house band. A racially mixed quartet of 2 black (keyboard, drums) and 2 white (guitar, bass) instrumentalists.
Booker T Jones was only 17 when he composed the now-legendary, funky/jazzy/bluesy “Green Onions” tune and played it on a Hammond M-3.
Famously also, much of the Stax soul sound from around 1967 onward was distinctively driven by the sound of the so-called “Memphis Horns” session musicians.
Artists who recorded for Stax during this time included Rufus and Carla Thomas, Eddie Floyd, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Albert King, The Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes.
Other artists who recorded at the Stax studio included Wilson Pickett and Elvis Presley.
The American South contains numerous poignant landmarks in the history of American Civil Rights, eg. Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham – but arguably none more affecting than the site of Dr Martin Luther King’s murder in Memphis.
The racial harmony around Stax (and nationwide) was shattered in April 1968 with the assassination of Dr King at the nearby Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
The Lorraine was African-American owned and the Stax ‘family’ often stayed and socialised there, in an otherwise segregated city. (Now preserved and developed into the excellent “National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel”.)
In the ensuing civil unrest nationwide, it was notable that the Stax premises were untouched.
Tragically too, a few months earlier in 1967, they lost their biggest artist, Otis Redding (together with 4 members of his Stax backing band, the Bar-Kays) in a plane crash.
Additionally, a legal dispute with Atlantic Records in 1967, stripped Stax of the rights to most of their releases going back to 1960.
After Estelle Axton departed in 1969, Al Bell managed record production until the label’s financial collapse in 1975. (It was reported that Jim Stewart lost his home and his personal fortune as a result.)
Stax’s major artists during this late period included the Staple Singers and Isaac Hayes.
They supported African-American causes, most notably the successful promotion of the huge Wattstax benefit concert in Los Angeles in 1972. Over 100,000 attended.
Stax was purchased by Fantasy Records in 1977 and released compilations and re-issues.
Since 2003, Concord Records revived Stax and re-commenced recording new artists.
The current “Stax Museum of American Soul Music” (17,000 sq ft/1600 sq m) contains an impressive array of exhibits including:
- Recreation of a 100-year old Mississippi Delta gospel church.
- Authentic reconstruction of the large ‘Studio A’ with Control Room and equipment.
- Display of all of the Stax albums and singles with listening kiosks.
- Isaac Hayes’ gold-trimmed 1972 Cadillac Eldorado car.
- Memorabilia such as original instruments and costumes.
- Displays covering also other great Soul artists and a history of American music.
- A video theatre and a gift and record store.
Footnote: Another Memphis recording studio, the American Sound Studio, where Dusty Springfield (partly) recorded the “Dusty in Memphis” album and where Aretha Franklin, Elvis, Neil Diamond also recorded – sadly has long been demolished.