Driving south on E McLemore I see a church on almost every block. What’s God up to in this corner of Memphis? Houses not dedicated to worship of the Almighty slump among empty lots: paint peeling, porch rails crumpled, concrete warping beneath the wheels of clapped-out cars.
It takes a minute for my eyes to adjust to the bright, solid lines of Stax Records. Properly, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, a modern reconstruction of the iconic studio torn down in 1989 after a church failed to find a use for the shell.
If I believed in God, which I don’t, that would make me doubt. A righteous, omnipotent being wouldn’t let the finest thing on E McLemore vanish in dust. God would take better care.
Stax Records is to soul what Sun Records is to rock’n’roll. Stax was Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, the Mar-Keys, the Bar-Kays, Booker T. and the M.G.s, William Bell, Johnnie Taylor.
Richard Pryor recorded ‘That Nigger’s Crazy’ at Stax. Isaac Hayes recorded the ‘Theme from Shaft‘ which won an Oscar and a Grammy. Otis Redding recorded ‘(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay’ days before his private plane crashed into a freezing lake, killing him and four teenage members of the Bar-Kays.
Inside, Stax is clean and calm. A short film tells the Stax story. How it was founded by Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton (Stewart + Axton = Stax), both White. How it became a magnet for Black musicians, many of them kids from un-integrated local schools. How an alchemy of music and passion kept the place not just afloat but aloft. How Stax introduced Europe to soul and used music to bring unity to post-Watts Riots South Central LA.
Stax Records took virtually its whole roster into the South Central in 1972 for an epic concert called Wattstax. It was a joyous, defiant celebration of Black pride and unity.
I froze in front of the Wattstax display. I knew that voice: “This is a beautiful day. It is a new day.”
The next words were unfamiliar, as was the lack of piano chords beneath the voice, which rose and rose. “It is a day of Black awareness. It is a day of Black people taking care of Black people’s business.”
Jesse Jackson continued with words that, once again, reverberated with my memory: “Today we are together…. on this program you will hear gospel, and rhythm and blues, and jazz. All those are just labels. We know that music is music.”
I know Jackson’s soul-stirring speech as the intro to Primal Scream’s acid house masterpiece ‘Come Together’. But never, in the 15 years I’ve loved that record did I realise the Scottish ravers (or, more likely, their genius producer Andrew Weatherall) cribbed the best part of ‘Come Together’ from Stax Records.
Rev Jesse Jackson’s face shines from an LP on a wall of record covers. I am somebody.
Across the street from the Stax parking lot, two teenage boys lark around, holding trombones. On the pavement in front a handful of workmen stretch canvas over a frame, getting ready for a fundraiser. On the marquee: Staxtacular, February 11.
Memphis writer Robert Gordon captures Stax’s rise and fall in articulate, beautiful, passionate detail in Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion.
He tells of the brilliance. The betrayals. The triumphs. The catastrophes. The stories of people who made some of America’s finest music then, largely, slipped through the cracks of our cultural history.
Leaving Stax we drove past Royal Studios, erstwhile home of Hi Records. The small brick building with a bright mural painted over the door is the only thing in blocks that looks like it wouldn’t sway in a strong breeze. There’s no place to buy food in this neighbourhood apart from a couple of “grocery” stores with heavily barred windows and blistered paint. The houses look abandoned. Windows boarded, hemmed with weeds, screen doors hanging from a single hinge. The only business we pass is an AT&T outpost that looks like a prison, complete with razor-wire topped fences. Churches, though, have gleaming white porticoes and landscaping.
Subtly, lines soften as we head towards Midtown. Grass is greener. Blighted buildings give way to petrol stations to, finally, the accustomed restaurants, shops and offices.
I don’t know how to process the injustice, the beauty, the senseless repetition of tragic histories. Does anyone figure it out?
“Sorrow everywhere,” Jack Gilbert wrote. “Slaughter everywhere.
If babies are not dying someplace they are dying somewhere else.
With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives, because that’s what God wants.”