Otis Lives!

Still on the road in Memphis. At the center of any music trip to Memphis is the odd but very telling juxtaposition of Graceland and the relatively new Stax museum. Elvis was always very up front about where his influences came from—black blues and R&B, along with gospel music, both white and black, and Tin Pan Alley—’ most of which is honored in the Stax museum. And for the record let me say that I will never understand how Memphis, THE big city for all the delta blues pioneers, not to mention the town’s subsequent musical history, B.B. King, Elvis, Alex Chilton, Ardent Studios, etc. took their eye off the ball and lost the Rock Hall (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) to the mistake by the lake. Such a pity. It would have given this town a triple threat of music tourism. Whoever was Mayor then, not to mention the city council, the local state legislators and oh yes, the fine gun–totin’, God Afearin’ folks of the Tennessee delegation to Congress ought to be beaten.

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 Graceland—a 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 B–3 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.

nunh's picture

Great article/ blog entry - what set you off to these museums? Tour, work, pleasure - combination?

Bill Leebens's picture

Nice piece. I lived in Memphs from 1975 to 1999, and knew a lot of musicians. It was a tough way to make a living, for a city known for its musical heritage.Aside from the old Stax studios being torn down, every home Elvis had before Graceland was torn down, as well as American Sound, Chips Moman's place where the King recorded his comeback records, along with the Boxtops, Sam the Sham, Neal Diamond...It's a city ashamed of its past--until someone wants to pay to see it. ;->

james garvin's picture

Rock hall in Cleveland, and not Memphis? Politics, maybe? The same reason the induction cereomony is in New York City, and not Cleveland? Perhaps the reason that Abba and Madonna are members? Let's face it. When the music industry is run by people in suits from New York City and Los Angeles, cities south of the border are inhabited by ignorant bumpkins. There was no way the Rock Hall of Fame would be located in Memphis. The fact is that the location of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is the least of its problems. And I've been there twice.