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    Guest column: Soulsville validated across generations

    Tim Sampson, Special to Viewpoint

    As the Stax Museum of American Soul Music celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, the museum — along with the adjacent Stax Music Academy and The Soulsville Charter School on a campus we call “Soulsville” — has been enjoying a great deal of media attention.

    Students of our youth programs attended a workshop at the White House. PBS continues to air “In Performance at the White House: Memphis Soul.” Stax Music Academy graduate Kris Thomas has become a star on “The Voice.” For the second year in a row, all the students in The Soulsville Charter School’s senior class have been accepted to college (37 of them with combined scholarships of more than $8.6 million). The Stax Museum’s 10th anniversary program on May 2 brought out the very private founder of Stax Records, Jim Stewart, for his first public appearance here.

    With all of this and more, Soulsville has been working daily through the midnight hour to promote one of our most appealing assets — soul music — and make Memphians proud of their hometown.

    While the Soulsville Foundation’s real aim is to translate this exposure into essential funding to help us maintain and expand the vital work we do, sometimes things happen on the Soulsville campus that don’t make headlines but are worth noting.

    One of those spontaneous happenings was a recent hour in the Stax Music Academy with a group of 25 European journalists who came here to cover Stax Museum’s anniversary. We invited Stax artists to the Stax Music Academy to have lunch with the journalists, conduct interviews and hear a song or two by the academy’s students.

    Unfazed by performing before all of this Stax royalty, the students bounded to their instruments and microphones and began performing with the energy and professionalism of a Broadway musical cast. They looked directly into the eyes of their legends and gave them everything they had to give. One song led to another until it became a full-fledged concert. At the end of the high-octane set, the vocalists quietly gathered into formation and began an almost haunting a cappella rendition of the spiritual “Precious Lord.” Stax star William Bell sat with his chin lifted, eyes closed, tears running down his face. Former Stax Records owner Al Bell leaned forward in his chair behind me and gripped my shoulder. Journalists, both women and men, were sobbing. When the dreamlike song ended, the academy’s instructors attempted to tell the audience what working with the students meant to them and each choked back yet more tears.

    Part of the emotion was because many of the students performing that day were also in the charter school’s graduating class and would soon be leaving us for college. After being with us from 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. each school day for years, they are like our own children.

    I thought I knew what had just occurred in that room: The young Stax Music Academy students had just impressed those whose legacy has been the students’ inspiration for years. Something had come full circle. And 25 journalists would soon be reaching some 50 million people with this unique Memphis story. But, like mystical Memphis music tends to be, it was much more than that.

    The forced, involuntary bankruptcy of Stax Records in the mid-1970s was brutal. Stax people were left with painful memories, doubts, hopelessness and confusion.

    “There are times when you wonder what impact you have made in your life,” William Bell said after the performance, “both as a person and a career legacy to leave for humanity that attest to the fact that you were here on Earth. The performance by the Stax students made me understand that the contribution I made at Stax Records will remain long after I am gone. It was unequaled validation that the soul music legacy is in good hands.”

    Al Bell, who was both persecuted and prosecuted and later acquitted of fraud charges during the final days of Stax, told the students and journalists, “This has been the highest highlight in my life, the most profound arc I have ever experienced. I feel like I have been freed.”

    He said later, “I did not realize that the painful experiences I had endured in the mid-1970s when Stax was being attacked and destroyed had been compartmentalized inside of me.” The students’ performance, he said, “caused me to release that which had been pent up inside me for 40 years. It healed me when I didn’t even know I needed healing.”

    During this 10th anniversary year of the Stax Museum, we could say, “Mission accomplished.” But we have so much more work ahead of us — and we aren’t too proud to beg Memphians to continue to embrace us with their support.

    Tim Sampson is communications director for the Soulsville Foundation.

    Originally published 12:00 a.m., May 24, 2013
    Updated 06:33 p.m., May 24, 2013