We’re going to let you in on something: You don’t have to have lived through the Stax Records era to enjoy a visit to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis.
My sister is a decade older than I am, a gap that exposed me to better music than my friends. I remember her telling me about a song I had to hear. She played it, we danced, she played it again. It was “Try A Little Tenderness” by Otis Redding, the first soul song I fell for.
Fast-forward 20 years and I move to Memphis, where I keep hearing about the city’s soul music museum – and memorabilia related to Otis. My sister’s visiting. Perfect.
We park at the museum and start dancing the way we used to. Tunes play from speakers in the parking lot and we sway all the way inside. The film at the top of our tour confirms what we know: Soul music gets you moving. And what we don’t: This is Memphis soul, differentiated from Motown by its grit and serendipity.
The Stax Records Story
Stax Records, where the music was made, was similarly unique: a former theater transformed into a shoestring studio where workaday people could be heard and, perhaps, reborn as something extraordinary. The museum tells their stories . . . Of high-schooler Carla Thomas dropping by to audition. Of Otis begging to sing, having come to Stax as a driver for another act. Of Steve Cropper and Booker T. Jones jamming their way to “Green Onions.” Stax was the studio that became their creative home, a place where raw talents of any age, color or gender could collaborate – even at a time when race divided the city around them. As guitar legend Steve Cropper reminisces in the opening film, “Color never came through the door (at Stax).” In fact, Stax came to stand for hope and to anchor the neighborhood. They called it Soulsville.
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What You’ll See at the Stax Museum
Following the film, we jaw-drop at artifacts of the soul explosion: footage of the studio’s legendary 1967 European revue, Cropper’s guitar and Jones’ organ, Isaac Hayes’ gold-trimmed Cadillac, a Hall of Records lined with more than 1,000 cuts, listening stations sampling the hits. Not only “Try A Little Tenderness,” but Otis’ “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of The Bay.” Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming” and “Soul Man.” Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood.” Funky instrumentals like “Last Night,” an early example of the “Memphis Sound,” driven by punchy horns. The museum provides a dance floor if you need it. Parents with their kids, visitors from around the world, celebrities passing through town or perhaps recording music in Memphis – they’ve all danced here.
There’s context, too: accoutrements of soul pioneers like Tina Turner, raised in the Delta blues culture that informs soul; a reconstructed rural church that recalls the genre’s other denominator, gospel. But nothing’s as stunning as the museum’s closing spaces, starting with the recreated Studio A. Recreated because Stax was razed after being forced into bankruptcy in the 1970s. It’s a complex, heartbreaking story detailed in the museum’s final room. Thankfully, the Stax story didn’t end there. In 1999, a group formed the Soulsville Foundation and began planning construction of a museum and music academy on the studio’s original site. Since then, the Stax Music Academy has performed internationally, a public charter school has been established on-site and blues great Memphis Slim’s home has been renovated across the street, creating community practice and recording space.
Celebrate the Museum'S 20th Anniversary
You’re getting the picture that Stax is more than a museum. And with its year-round lineup of free programming, it’s a gathering space for locals and visitors of all ages. 2023 marks the museum's 20th anniversary. To celebrate, Stax is hosting free monthly Soul Sessions. Throughout the year, you're invited to lectures, book signings, film screenings, genre celebrations, wine tastings and more! Bookmark the museum’s events calendar for updates on all the anniversary happenings, including the official 20th Anniversary Stax Birthday Party in May.