But enough of that. Museum studies has come a long way from dusty cases and reading little cards placed next to artifacts, and the Stax museum is perfect example of how music museums in particular can integrate sound, pictures, video and historical artifacts into a beautiful whole. From Thomas A Dorsey (aka Georgia Tom) the first gospel composer of note and the man who once put together a band for Ma Rainey, to the end of Stax Records in 1974 and the soul music that happened in Memphis even after that, the Stax Museum is world class. And such a bizarre, shiny, modern change from the hillbilly grandeur of Gracelanda sight that rendered my urbane wife nearly speechless, “shag carpet on the ceiling?”
Other great stuff at Stax: A photo of the great Louis Jordan and his father at the Hippodrome Club on Beale Street in 1950. Jordan came from nearby Brinkley, Arkansas.
An interesting display on clubs across the river in Arkansas where upstanding white folk could go incognito to see black musicians play.
A great display on the late James Brown that included many of his original King albums. Pure Dynamite recorded in “Vivid Sound!” at the Regal Ballroom in Baltimore in 1963 has a super cool cover shot.
The story of Estelle Axton and Jim Stewart, brother and sister, who started the label and created a colorblind family of musicians who made Stax go, is fascinating. Also fascinating was Steve Cropper and others on digital video, talking about how the killing of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis in 1968, is what really killed Stax. Until then there had been no racism either way. None of the players had seen beyond the music and thought of each other as black or white.
Stax began when Estelle took a second mortgage on her house so Jim could buy a $1500 Ampex 350 Monaural tape recorder to put in a wooden shed in Brunswick, TN in the spring of 1959 and begin making records under the name Satellite Records. The operation moved to what was then the Capitol Theatre, on the corner of College and McLemore in 1960. That is where the Stax Museum now stands, in a building the replicates the original theatre that was torn down in 1989 by the Southside Church of God in Christ who owned it by then. There’s nothing that says “organized religion” quite like the tearing down of a secular palace.
A Scully 2 was cool if rudimentary (Otis Redding’s “Mr. Pitiful” and “Respect” were taped on it) but it was the big, nasty baby blue cabinet speakers from the original studio and Booker T’s original Hammond B3 that he used on the recording of Green Onions that are the stars of the room that is a reconstruction of the Stax studio space, complete with a sloping floor replicating the one in the original old movie theatre.
And over the whole place is the shadow of Otis Redding hovering in the rafters. One of the two best music museums in this country. Now I’m off to the other one.