Indeed, Stax was responsible for some of the most memorable soul sounds of the '60s and '70s.
The label's history is a story of integration, creativity and empowerment.
On CBS News Sunday Morning, Correspondent Russ Mitchell examines that legacy and the renewed attention brought about by the opening of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which is built on the original site of stax. Also there: the new Stax Music Academy.
Mitchell sets the scene: Perched on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River sits Memphis, Tenn. Musicians have long gravitated there -- bringing from their fields, churches and kitchens -- their songs. Aretha Franklin was born there. W.C. Handy – father of the blues -- once called Memphis home. So did Elvis Presley, the king of rock 'n roll.
And then there was Stax, the little music label that could -- and did -- create some of the most memorable sounds of the '60s and '70s. But its history was overlooked until a few years ago, when the city of Memphis, looking to reclaim an important part of its cultural past, opened a museum and threw a party to welcome soul back home.
But before all this, there was the music.
It was 1960. Jim Stewart -- a country fiddler -- and his sister Estelle Axton moved their fledgling record company to an abandoned movie theater at 926 East Maclemore in Memphis. Here, they would build a recording studio and record store. Using the first two letters of their last names, Stewart and Axton, they would call their new label "Stax." Soulsville USA was born.
Former Stax employee Deannie Parker was there almost from the first: "It was a rare opportunity in a neighborhood where there were not any such opportunities," Parker remembers. "The Soulsville neighborhood at the time was a neighborhood that was transitioning. …This was becoming a predominately African-American neighborhood. …By virtue of their having established a business in this area, they had access to an untapped resource for some of the greatest undiscovered talent."
Neighborhood teens like Parker would walk through the studio's open door -- hoping for a chance at fame.
"My goal," she says, "was to be star. The first song I recorded along with The Valadoors was, 'My Imaginary Guy,' which i wrote."
Parker never did find stardom. Others, however, would: Stax would assemble an array of talent that created the blueprint of a southern sound -- a potent mix of gospel, blues, jazz and country -- a signature sound often confused with its more successful Northern cousin, Motown.
"In the North," says Isaac Hayes, "there was Motown. They had a slick, polished sound. …But when you go below the Mason-Dixon Line, down South, the soul is a raw, raw sound. It was ours."
It was a sound, Mitchell says, that soon would belong to all of us. Empathetic, prideful, the music paralleled the struggles of its turbulent time.
Writer Peter Guralnick has authored a book about Stax' history in his book, "Sweet Soul Music."
"It's remarkable, remarkable story," he says, "that you should have this musical integration in Memphis at the time of almost total social segregation."
Former label executive Al Bell says, "I remember when I first walked through these doors of Stax, how inspired I was. I guess it's fair to say that, to define what was going on in Stax at that time, one would have to walk into Studio A and see two white guys that made up a rhythm section called 'Booker T. and the MGs'...and then look into the control room…and see this white guy...and recognize that he had been a country fiddle player. And hear all this soulful, passionate music coming from these people.
Stax artists Booker T. and the MGs: "Somehow, we all knew what the goal was that we wanted. We knew we wanted it to be simple. We knew we wanted it to be funky. And we knew we wanted to have a good time doing it."
Stax' 15-year history was puctuated by plenty of highs and lows. And by 1975, a series of legal and financial reverses led to the label's demise. The Soulsville community lost an important anchor. It, and the Stax legacy, fell to neglect.
But Deannie Parker's love for the Stax legacy only grew stronger. And almost 20 years after the company closed, a Memphis group approached her about helping to bring Stax back to life.
They wanted her to open a club on Beale Street -- Stax Records. And she refused. Why? "I simply could not reduce Stax records to a club on Beale Street. …I was asked then by this team, 'Well, if not here and in a club, what then?' And I said, "Well, I have a vision for it, for what I think Stax Records…should be glorified, if you will."
The vision, Parker says, was that it should be a museum. Not just any museum: a full restoration of the original Stax complex, with an added educational component.
The idea? To build economic opportunity around musical heritage. And the name? Soulsville USA. Its president: Deannie Parker.
The museum journeys through soul's rich history, in the process displaying many of the more than 800 singles released at Stax.
But if the museum is a drive down Memory Lane, right next door, Soulsville looks to the future. The real jewel of this $20 million project is the Stax Music Academy.
Here, neighborhood children learn about music's ability to transform and change a neighborhood -- and young lives -- one voice at a time.
"I came back to Memphis to be part of something special. And boy, I found it," exclaims academy Director Mark Willis. "We're trying to raise some kids through music. We want them to grow up, we want them to hang out, we want to do formal programming, we want to do informal programming.
"I want 'em in the building as much as they can stand to be in here. We want music all over. I want you to come back and go, 'Man, there's too much music. And can you turn some of that down?'
"I want to know them. I want them to know the staff. I want them to come to a place that's safe, that they can trust and, frankly, where adults do what they say they're going to do."
Some children comment, "I like having fun here, I like learning the notes. I like the teachers." "They teach us the basics of how things are done in the real world." "The staff is great. They're real easy to talk to and they're very accessible."
"We like to think," Willis says, "in terms of, 'Can we save one kid's life?' In proportion to what we've done, it's worth it. …It sounds funny to talk about (saving one kid's life) but, I mean, we're really in the business of saving lives. When we think about this community and the needs of this community and the resources of getting a kid on the right path and making the right decisions, we're going to save a couple lives."
An ambitous goal, and no small task for one of the nation's poorest communities.
A task Parker says is too valuable to be ignored.
"I find it very difficult to tell you (Mitchell) everything without becoming emotional in terms of what this place means for children, what it can be for children, because I'm reminded of the fact that we were children when we came here. …What I really hope is that this museum and the academy will do for children today what Stax records did for us when we were youngsters."
For more information:
Stax Museum of American Soul Music
Stax Music Academy
926 East McClemore
Memphis, TN 38106
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