Every great studio that produces tons of hits seems to have a house band that plays on track after track. Think about it. At Hitsville USA in Motown, it was the Funk Brothers. You’ve got the Swampers down in Muscle Shoals. In LA, you had the Wrecking Crew. And at Stax Records in Memphis, you had Booker T. and the MGs coupled with the Memphis Horns. Unlike those other house bands, Booker T. had a massive hit all by themselves, the fantastic instrumental Green Onions.
Yeah, these guys, like their city, were gritty and played with a rawer edge than many of those others. But let’s not try to rank or do something silly like that. Let’s instead dive into Stax and its legacy to see what was going on in Memphis in the post-Sun period.
The Stax museum is definitely worth visiting. Stax took over a former movie studio, modified it to contain a large control room and studio, and then punched out the hits for local and national adulation alike. Take a look:
Who recorded there? How about Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes, Rufus Thomas, Albert King, the Bar-Kays and the Staple Singers to name a few. This was soul music, gospel with secular lyrics, and it was a sound that came out of Memphis and other black urban hubs throughout the nation. But having people like Otis Redding carrying the flag makes it hard to compete. Once again, Memphis boasts a larger musical heritage than its modest size would otherwise indicate.
The quick Stax story is that a brother and sister combo, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, set up a record shop and eventually a recording studio, and they operated the place in a color-blind fashion. Opening up in a traditionally black neighborhood referred to as Soulsville, this team of white people would record anyone with talent, and formed an integrated band well before integration was acceptable in this part of the world. Word got around, and Stax made a distribution deal with Atlantic Records that allowed its songs to get the national exposure that ensured commercial success. Tons of great music was recorded here, and the place competed with other local studios/labels like Hi and Argent (Argent ended up becoming a somewhat partner, and recorded other great bands, like the Box Tops and Big Star). The whole thing came spiraling down after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The place then ultimately falls derelict before being resurrected as the current museum.
Unlike most of the other music museums, this one told the story of soul music whether or not it was recorded at Stax. Sure, they focused on some of the great Stax artists and had more artifacts from them, but they also had some great stuff from Ike and Tina Turner.
But the collection of Stax memorabilia is super cool and some is over the top. Check out Isaac Hayes’s custom Cadillac:
Wow, can you imagine that thing driving around town? It would certainly catch your attention. Other great stuff includes Otis Redding’s stylish suede jacket, instruments used by the Bar-Kays, and lots of stuff from Booker T. and the MG’s: Steve Cropper’s Fender Telecaster, Donald “Duck” Dunn’s Fender Precision bass, Al Jackson, Jr.s drum set, Wayne Jackson’s Besson Brevete Trumpet, and Booker T. Jones Hammond M-3 organ. Take a look:
I don’t know why, but I love seeing that stuff. How about this send-off of the Beatles Abbey Road picture, done Memphis-style by Booker T. and the MG’s:
And let’s not forget the wall of 45 singles that were recorded at Stax:
Stax tells the story of American soul music, with a special emphasis on what Memphis brought to it. There's great video, too, and you can spend a lot of time in the joint just watching and then checking out the artifacts. One young kid was there, and the adult with him referenced the Theme From Shaft. The kid had never heard it, which blew the adult and me away (notice how I don't reference myself as an "adult"), and then we played it for him on Spotify. Yeah, he liked it. Who doesn't?
Memphis. How can such a small, gritty city have such a large impact on the world? Location, individuals with ambition, and great local talent all conspired to make Memphis a music hub. It's days are not gone, either. I still have to write up the Beale Street experience, where I came into contact with an extraordinary musician named Jason James. We'll get to that soon. But I need a break from Memphis. Can I take one? Phew, the boss said OK. I hope you'll like my detour. If not, skip the posts and then roll on back for more from Memphis. In the meantime, turn up the volume and rock it!
My name is Bill, and I live in the greater Philadelphia area. I love music, and I have a lot of opinions. This site is primarily focused on music, but sometimes I get off track. I hope you enjoy.