• Print

    Soul Celebration: Stax Museum of American Soul Music turns 10 in May

    The Stax Museum of American Soul Music is celebrating 10 years in May. The city and county jointly have proclaimed 2013 the “Year of the Stax Museum.”

    (Photo Courtesy of Ronnie Booze)

    John Fry, the venerable founder of the Memphis-based Ardent record label and accompanying studio facility, still remembers wandering into the Satellite Record Shop, the music store that once operated in front of Stax Records.

    He was a teenager at the time, and Stax co-founder Estelle Axton would sell him 45s from over the counter. It seemed like every time he stepped foot in the shop, the music-loving, label-founding saleswoman would be there, plugging new releases from Stax as well as new releases from other labels.

    Just as important was the question she’d ask about them: “So, what do you think about that?”

    This year offers time’s answer to that question as well as an opportunity for ordinary Memphians and music-lovers of all stripes to answer that question. Because 2013 is a special year in Memphis music history, and both city and county mayors already have honored it as such.

    In January, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell issued a joint proclamation calling 2013 the “Year of the Stax Museum.” Likewise, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam proclaimed May 2 as “Stax Museum Day” throughout Tennessee.

    That date harkens back to May 2, 2003, when the Stax Museum of American Soul Music opened its doors at the original site of Stax Records, which for more than a decade before that had existed as a vacant, overgrown lot. A lone historic marker had been pretty much the only reminder of the soul-stirring glory days to let visitors know that this place, this hallowed music ground, deserved more.

    “Soulsville USA” was a slogan on the old Stax marquee at the height of the record label’s fortunes, a response to Motown’s slogan of “Hitsville USA.”

    It had been home to the label that launched the careers of artists like Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Johnnie Taylor, the Staple Singers and dozens more.

    After Stax went bankrupt in the 1970s, a church bought the building and tore it down.

    “The story of Stax is an improbable tale,” began an NPR broadcast on May 2, 2003, about Stax’s reopening.

    Today, the refurbished facility is not only a respectful homage to the past – with the preservation of recording equipment, Studio A, and a replica of a church interior among the highlights – but the Stax facility also includes a charter school and a music academy.

    The music academy’s student band performs around the world with the same verve and fire of the musicians of yesteryear. It also entertains guests on its home turf, including people like ex-Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Digger Phelps, who was a recent guest at Stax.

    Upon his visit, after a motivational talk in Stax’s Studio A to a business crowd, the band performed the soul classic “Walking the Dog,” and soon enough Phelps himself was dancing as the pounding beat reverberated off the walls.

    “I was blown away today,” Phelps said after touring the museum, talking to some of the students and hearing them perform. “Today, I got educated.”

    Tim Sampson, the communications director at Stax, has worked with the organization since it was still a pile of rubble.

    “We’ve got this wonderful museum but also so many behind-the-scenes things that go on here with the music academy and the charter school,” Sampson said. “I just had an 11th grader in my office wanting help with an anti-KKK rally.

    “I’ve traveled with the kids to places like Germany, New York and Washington, D.C. I love Stax. The music, the culture, the whole story.”

    Among events scheduled for later this year in honor with the anniversary, on March 18 there will be a concert with Memphis native and jazz legend Charles Lloyd and his Sky Trio at Rhodes College. April 27 is the date for Stax to the Max, presented by ArtsMemphis, which is an all-day, free outdoor music and arts festival at the Stax museum.

    In May, the Stax museum along with the Memphis In May International Festival will present an exhibit on this year’s country of honor, Sweden. The exhibit will feature photographs, press releases, records and other memorabilia celebrating the 45th anniversary of Swedish journalist Jonas Berholm’s pilgrimage to Memphis and other cities around the U.S.

    “My favorite thing about working here is twofold,” Sampson said. “Making great friends from all over the world, and watching these kids grow up and become the most amazing adults. It’s just incredible. I’m blown away every single day by it. You can’t have a bad day here. It’s impossible.”