Stax Museum of American Soul Music

Located at 926 E. McLemore Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music opened to the public in May 2003.  As per its website, the Stax Museum is the first and only museum in the world that is “dedicated to preserving and promoting the legacy of American soul music.”  Situated on the original site of Stax Records studio, the 17,000 square foot structure honors their legendary artists, including Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Albert King, The Staple Singers, Booker T & the MGs, and Rufus and Carla Thomas, who recorded on the historic record label.  The museum also celebrates soul artists, including Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Patti LaBelle and The Jackson 5, who recorded on other labels, such as Atlantic, Motown and Muscle Shoals.

Guests to the museum may experience interactive exhibits; take a tour, whether self-led, group or educational; and view images and films that detail diverse aspects of the soul artists’ lives.  Also enhancing a visit to the museum is its collection of greater than 2,000 artifacts, many of which are rare.  These artifacts include stage costumes, promotional material, gold records and instruments utilized by the label’s artists.  The Stax Museum of American Soul Music provides deeper insight to the struggles, accomplishments and contributions of these soul artists and their places in American history and global society.  The story of the Stax Records label and, especially, soul music is worth being memorialized by such an institution.

In 1957, banker Jim Stewart founded Satellite Records.  Although he played the fiddle, he knew he was not talented enough to become a professional musician.  Motivated by the success of Sam Phillips, a Memphis businessman who started Sun Records label (propelling the careers of future superstars such as Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison), Stewart decided to start his own label.  Even though Stewart had no experience in the music industry, the first record that was released in late fall was “Blue Roses”. 

Because of its poor production quality, Stewart sought financial assistance from his older sister, Estelle Axton, who loved music and believed in his dream.  She re-financed her home twice in order to get better equipment and moved their studio from West Brunswick, Tennessee into a former movie theatre at 926 E. McLemore Avenue in Memphis.  They would call the new company “Stax”, a portmanteau of the siblings’ last name, “Stewart” and “Axton”.

Inspired by the success of Motown’s Hitsville U.S.A, the record label would refer to its studio as “Soulsville U.S.A.”.  The studio, which also contained a record shop that sold the label’s music, became very popular in the community.  Before long, it began signing soul music artists and producing hits.  The first, in 1960, was “Cause I Love You”, a duet between Rufus Thomas and his daughter, Carla.  This song caught the attention of Jerry Wexler, who was a partner at Atlantic Records.  That same year, Stax agreed to, according to the museum website’s history, “a contract for a master-lease agreement on all Rufus and Carla discs and handshake deal for first refusal rights on the distribution of all Stax releases. With the deal, Atlantic took over Stax’s distribution, making it easier for the label to get their records into stores.”

In 1962, Otis Redding was signed, after a fateful turn of events.  He was serving as a chauffeur for Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers, who previously had a hit with “Green Onions”.  However, the session the group had at Stax was terrible.  Redding, who at times, performed with the group, sang after the session.  Entirely impressed, Redding’s unscheduled appearance prompted Stewart to immediately sign Redding to Stax; his first single was “These Arms of Mine”.

Stax Records continued to grow, signing more artists and internationally touring their main acts, which included Redding, its star.  Other performers signed to Stax at the time included Wilson Pickett, William Bell, The Astors, and the label’s house band, The Mar-Keys.

On December 10, 1967, tragedy struck.  Traveling in a private plane, Otis Redding and the Bar-Kays, who was also on Stax, were to perform a three-night tour: Nashville, Tennessee; Cleveland, Ohio; and Madison, Wisconsin.  The weather conditions of heavy rain and fog made it difficult for the pilot to navigate.  However, after being cleared to land, the plane’s instrument panel was affected by a low battery, causing it to plummet into a frigid lake; the only survivor of the crash was Ben Cauley, trumpeter of the band.  Only four miles away from their destination, four members of the Bar-Kays – Jimmy King, guitarist; Carl Cunningham, drummer; Phalon Jones, saxophonist, and Ronnie Caldwell, organist; Richard Fraser, pilot; Matthew Kelly, valet; and Redding were killed.  Leaving behind his wife, Zelma, and their three children, Otis, III, Dexter and Karla, Otis Redding was only 26 years old.  

The previous month, Redding had written and recorded his classic “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of The Bay” with Steve Cropper.  Redding’s death affected many, as this track became the first posthumous number-one record on both the R&B and Hot 100 charts of Billboard.   Redding’s influence extended beyond the United States, as evidenced by The Dock of the Bay, becoming the first posthumous album to attain the number one on the UK (United Kingdom) Albums chart. The death of Otis Redding especially devastated those at Stax Records.

Also drastically impacting in 1967, Atlantic Records was bought out by Warner Bros.  As such, Stax lost its distribution.  However, worse than having no distributor was that Warner Bros. chose not to honor the previous agreement between Stax and Atlantic, refusing to release the master tapes of the Stax catalogue.  Warner Bros cited, according to the museum’s site, “a clause in Stax’s original contract that gave Atlantic ‘all right, title and interest, including any rights of reproduction’, in all Stax’s Atlantic-distributed recordings between 1960 and 1967.  Warner also took control of Sam and Dave, who had been ‘on loan’ to Stax as part of their original deal with Atlantic.”  Jim Stewart and the executives at Stax Records also discovered that Atlantic Records owned the rights to the entire catalogue of Otis Redding.

Following these losses, the nation was embroiled still in civil unrest and violence: Memphis was no exception.  On April 4, 1968, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel.  He had been in Memphis to speak with African-American sanitation workers who were on strike for better working conditions.  After the murder of King, Jr., riots erupted in Memphis, but Stax Records was untouched, most likely for its work and contributions to the African-American community.

With the passing of its top artist and practically all the label’s songs now owned by Warner Bros, Stax Records was on the verge of bankruptcy.  In 1969, Al Bell, an African-American executive of Stax was promoted to vice-president, after Estelle Axton left.  Understanding the urgent need to create a catalogue, he guided Stax Records into a period of unparalleled growth that would become known as the “Soul Explosion”.  In this burst of creativity, 27 albums and 30 singles were recorded in 8 months!

One of the artists who would contribute greatly to the Soul Explosion was Isaac Hayes.  An in-house songwriter and studio musician, he was promised complete creative freedom to record an album.  Hayes would record Hot Buttered Soul, a lush LP that featured only four tracks, including a sensual version of “Walk on By”, that spanned a total of 45 minutes.  Selling more than 3 million copies in 1969, Isaac Hayes became the newest star on Stax Records. 

Stax Records was on the rise.  To spur this ascension, Bell sent some of the label’s biggest artists to perform in the 7th Annual Watts Summer Festival, which commemorated the 1965 Watts Riots.  Bell ensured that various genres of Black music, from soul, jazz and blues to gospel, funk and R&B were promoted at the benefit concert.  Playing at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on August 20, 1972, the Stax roster featured in the festival included Hayes, The Staple Singers, Johnnie Taylor, Rufus Thomas and The Bar-Kays.  A documentary as well as a live recording of the concert was created.  They provided Bell with the national recognition and sales he wanted; the live recording, Wattstax: The Living Word, sold greater than 500,000 copies shortly after its release.  The film footage of David L. Wolper and his crew was developed into a movie, Wattstax.  Directed by Mel Stuart, it was nominated for “Best Documentary Film” of the Golden Globes Awards in 1974.

Although the label began to enjoy increased sales success, in late 1972, the IRS began investigating the record company.  That same year, CBS, who acted as the distributor of Stax Records material, severed ties with the record company, leaving the label without any way to get their products to their customers.

By 1975, Stax Records was forced into involuntary bankruptcy when three creditors sued the label for unpaid debts that totaled approximately $2,000 (approximately $9,500 in 2019).  U.S. Marshalls took control of the building, only giving Stax personnel fifteen minutes to vacate the premises and seized the record company’s materials.  Bell, at gunpoint, was forced out.  The bank to which the creditors were affiliated with retained all property, including all the master tapes, of Stax Records.  The demise of this music and community staple, the era of Stax Records and Memphis soul was truly endangered.

Although Fantasy Records would initiate a revival of Stax Records in 1977, it would only last two years.  In 1981, the studio, which had been left vacant since the record company’s shutdown, was sold by Union Planters Bank to the Southside Church of God in Christ for $10.  The church’s plan to use the building for community outreach never came to fruition and in 1989, it was razed.  Two years later, a historical marker was installed but the land where the studio stood remained vacant.

Urban blight and crime plagued the region where Stax Records was once housed but in 1998, local citizens, activists, philanthropists and musical artists created a nonprofit effort to revitalize the area.  Their effort was named “Soulsville” in tribute to the slogan of the Stax label.

Community planning and building led to the creation of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Stax Music Academy, both of which opened in 2003.  The academy is geared towards providing mentoring, music education and performance opportunities to local youth who may not have access to these experiences otherwise.  Also onsite is the Soulsville Charter School.  Founded in 2005, the school has an academically rigorous, college-preparatory curriculum that covers the five core subjects; it also actively promotes music.  The school’s focus on music involves the development of the Soulsville Symphony Orchestra which has performed for Stax legend, Isaac Hayes; soul and R&B genius Stevie Wonder; and musical artist, John Legend, the first Black man to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony (EGOT) Awards.   15 minutes. The building was seized

In taking a tour of the Stax Museum, visitors will witness many concepts, including the roots of soul music … The Black Church.  In this site, the museum has re-assembled and installed an actual church of the Mississippi Delta.  This humble church, built at the turn of the 20th century, symbolizes the foundation of spiritual and gospel sounds of the American South.

Visitors may groove on the Express Yourself dance floor to the funky sounds of soul music performed by artists such as Stax singers Johnnie Taylor; Atlantic duo, Sam and Dave, who, at one point, were “on loan” to Stax; and even the Warner Bros. pioneering funk band, Parliament-Funkadelic.  You may create your own dance moves or dance in synch with the performers featured on the vintage Soul Train videos that are streamed on the large screen accompanying the dance floor.

Guests may go back in time and imagine they are a recording artist for the Stax Records label when they enter Studio A.  It is, as stated on the museum’s site, “…an exact replica of the legendary converted movie theater where Stax artists cut records, down to the gently slanted floor that contributed to Stax’s special sound.”

The museum highlights their many creations with their own Hall of Records … literally.  In this area, the walls, from floor to ceiling, are lined with cases that contain every single and album that were released on the Stax Records and its subsidiary labels, 1957-1975.  Visitors may observe the art of the LPs, read liner notes and even hear tracks at the listening stations.

What is sure to make an impression on any guest is the customized Eldorado of Stax label star, Isaac Hayes.  This ninth-generation luxury car by Cadillac was included as part of a renegotiated deal Hayes made with the recording label in 1972.  Costing $26,000 at the time, ($156, 000 in 2019), it was especially designed for Hayes by Al Bell, Stax Records executive and owner at the time.  The vehicle is, according to the museum’s literature, “fully equipped with unique amenities like a refrigerated mini-bar, television, 24-karat gold exterior trim and white fur carpeting on the floorboards.”  In the voiceover, Hayes, who also was a music producer and in-house songwriter at Stax, proudly exclaims, “it was gold all on that car, even down to the screws on the license tags!”  The Eldorado was gifted, as Hayes had just received the Academy Award for “Best Original Song” for his “Theme from Shaft”.

Aside from the permanent exhibits, there is also a gallery that highlights special exhibits five times each year.  To commemorate your visit to the museum, memorabilia may be purchased from the gift shop.  Educational programming and accompanying materials are available.  Finally, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music is available for rental.  On its website, it excitingly promotes that the museum “is the perfect venue for hosting parties, weddings, receptions, dinners, corporate functions, family reunions or conventions. Whether you’re having a dinner for 10 or a reception for 450, our staff and event planner will work closely with you to create an event that your guests won’t forget.  At Stax, you can host a dinner party next to Isaac Hayes’ restored 1972 Cadillac, tie the knot in a 105 year-old Mississippi Delta church, dance the night away on the Express Yourself dance floor or party in our legendary Studio A. Event rentals include access to the whole museum, including the gift shop, photo booth, video screens and theater.”

With tours that are available, Tuesday through Sunday, from 10am to 5pm (excluding Easter Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas), visitors are sure to walk away from this incredible institution with an even greater appreciation for the Stax Records label, its artists and American soul music!