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Stax rolls with soul

By Courtney Smith
On April 10, 2013

  • Three tourists visit the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. photo by Courtney Smith

If you drive down East McLemore Avenue in Memphis, Tenn., you will hear complete silence. There are no longer children hanging out in the streets. There is no longer music playing from street corners. It is so quiet that you can hear the birds flying in mid-air. This is where the Stax Records Company once stood tall. It is now gone, but not forgotten.
Stax Records was one of the most successful independent record companies through the late '60s to the early 70's. Stax Records was never the same after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968. Al Bell took out loans to try to save the company and Jim Stewart put up his home for the company, but they didn't succeed and as a result, Stax Records was closed down for good on December 19, 1975.
Now, the former record company is a museum. Right beside the Stax Museum is the Stax Music Academy, where children learn different aspects of music and how to play instruments. Since the opening of SMA in the summer of 2000, it has served more than 2,500 students. As for the museum itself, it averages an estimate of 75,000 to 80,000 visitors a year.
The company started in 1959 after Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton leased out the Capitol Theatre building. The name "Stax" came from the two owners of the record company, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton. For more than two decades, Stax Records finished with a total of 15 number one hits on either the R&B or Pop charts. Some of those number one hits were Johnny Taylor's "Who's Making Love," Isaac Hayes' "Theme from Shaft," Sam and Dave's "Hold on! I'm Comin," Otis Redding's "(Sittin' On) the Dock of the Bay," and Jean Knight's hit "Mr. Big Stuff."
There's more history explaining how the artists at Stax Records moved people to listen to their music, but it's more exciting to be able to talk to the people who grew up listening to artists such as Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Booker T. and the MG's, Johnny Taylor, Little Milton, etc.
Michelle Cleggins, of Collierville, Tenn., grew up listening to the artists of Stax Records and has visited the museum multiple times. "Al Green was my favorite artist among all of the artists who recorded at Stax Records. His music and many others had a positive effect on the people and this style of music can be passed down to other generations so they will know where I and many others came from."
The museum features many classic exhibits such as Isaac Hayes' Cadillac, the two narrow walls of album covers and the soul train display.
Cleggins said that it felt good to see history is still here in the city of Memphis.
"What I like most about the museum was how so many artists from Memphis contributed to the success of the record company such as Rufus Thomas, Aretha Franklin and Isaac Hayes. They honestly could have took just artists from the city of Memphis and made a museum."
Patricia Wilson is another Southerner who grew up listening to the music recorded at Stax Records. Every time an Otis Redding record comes on the radio, she finds herself singing along. "Hands down, I loved me some Otis Redding," Wilson said. "His music made people feel loved, laid back and very relaxed. Another thing was that you understood what the artists were saying in their music; the music today is awful. There is not a clear message in the music being made now."

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