As Unsung Melody continues to grow, we are looking for ways to expand our coverage of the cool things in and around the cities we cover. It’s a series we’re going to call “On the Road“.
In this article, we’ll take a look at a very important museum in Memphis, Tennessee. That would be the Stax Records Museum. Stax Records was home to many LEGENDARY soul artists up until it’s demise in the mid-1970’s.
Some of the names on their roster included Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers, Booker T. and the MG’s, Sam & Dave, blues legend Albert King and of course my favorite voice of all-time, Otis Redding.
Stax wasn’t exactly located in the most prosperous of neighborhoods some 40+ years ago, so sadly that element hasn’t really improved. Do not let that discourage you one bit, though. The area is very well-lit and the campus was exceptionally clean and beautifully maintained.
Upon entering, you get to see a quick movie telling you a bit about the history of Stax and their new mission. You see, the original building was razed, so the museum was built in the spot of the original location. The campus is also quite large. In addition to the museum, it includes a large recording academy, an amphitheater, and a prep school for talented young musicians, with the intent of making sure those children get the shots that they deserve.
Once inside, you are presented with the core element that created so many soulful artists; the church. Preserved is the interior of an African-American church from Mississippi. You’ll see the handmade pews and get a feel for the times that shaped so many. Religion and work were the only things that many people knew, so the museum takes a moment to shift the focus to the foundations of soul music and the importance that the church played in its evolution.
You’ll find many awesome displays that take you through the history of Stax and soul music in general. Exhibits featuring Ike and Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, as well as Ray Charles and the Chicago Blues help to paint the overall picture, but it’s the displays of the Stax artists themselves that truly are the stars.
You’ll see the original recording consoles, tape machines, speakers, and instruments that helped create and capture that distinct Stax, or as many called it, Memphis sound.
From displays of Otis Redding’s personal artifacts to Isaac Hayes gold-plated Cadillac, the museum offers up a tremendous variety.
One of my favorites was the Albert King display, which featured his custom pink Gibson Flying V that was given to him by ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons. Her name was Lucy, by the way. It also featured his first guitar, a stage shirt, and many cool posters. If you’re unfamiliar with Albert, he was by far the biggest influence on Stevie Ray Vaughn. After listening to one song from Albert, it will be abundantly clear that SRV modeled much of his style after Albert. I’d suggest starting with Born Under A Bad Sign and Crosscut Saw to understand what I mean.
Isaac Hayes played a huge part in the Stax success and his memorabilia was some of coolest there. From his many gold records and his shirt with his face embroidered on it, to his cape, hat, platform shoes, and of course the aforementioned Cadillac, Isaac and his swagger were perfectly displayed.
Seeing the many Grammys on display was also a great treat, as was the section dedicated to Wattstax, which was a festival organized in 1972 in the Watts community of Los Angeles. The event was to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the riots in Watts. There were many doubters, but Stax brought their entire roster together for the show. Tickets were sold for $1 each to allow as many members of the African-American community to attend as possible. Many people cast it aside as the African-American answer to Woodstock, but culturally, it was so much more than that. If you get the chance to watch the documentary on Wattstax, I highly recommend you do so.
Memphis is one of, if not the most culturally important cities in the US. So many things took place there that changed our civil rights, that the National Civil Rights Museum is located there. It’s built onto the back of the Lorraine Hotel, which was of course the spot where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. It’s the birthplace of rock and roll and has been the home to so many influential artists. Of course that included its most famous citizen, Elvis Presley.
The Stax Museum, much like Sun Studio, is an absolute must see if you ever make your way to Memphis. I thought I knew a lot about Stax before I went to the museum, but I was mistaken. I left there feeling well-versed in their history and fully satisfied that I received my money’s worth. Most “touristy” spots are overpriced, but with the wealth of knowledge that was shared, I feel the Stax Museum was the biggest bargain of our trip.
You can find out more about the Stax Museum here.
Stream 15 Number One Singles from the Stax Roster below:
I hope you enjoy the photos!