The Greatest Ride of Our Lives, Part 3: the Stax and National Civil Rights Museums
The great Fletcher family road trip of 2012 spent two days and nights in Memphis experiencing the ghosts of America’s music city in museum form. Following Monday at Graceland and Sun Studio, Tuesday morning was spent at the superb Stax Museum, (re)built on the site of the former studio and label. If you go to Memphis and only have time for one musical museum, make this it: one can easily spend a whole day here, studying black American history, learning about the birth of soul music, grooving on all the wonderful memorabilia, dancing under the Soul Train disco ball while watching clips from that classic American TV show, listening to radio broadcasts, hearing all the great Stax tunes on headphones, studying the (incomplete) wall of 7″ vinyl and 12″ sleeves, and, during our visit, reliving the epic Wattstax concert of 1972. And, if you are like me, you can then go and spend $100 or more or endless pieces of Stax souvenirs in the Satellite store, from key rings to T-shirts, baseball caps to shot glasses, because let’s be honest, has there ever been a greater logo than this one?
(Best yet, the Stax Museum is more than a money-making machine; income from tickets, donors and souvenirs help fund the Soulsville Academy next door, a charter school with a focus on music.)
Sadly, the National Civil Rights Museum is closed on Tuesday, though a pilgrimage to its home at the Lorraine Hotel was nonetheless paramount, to pay respects and help educate our kids. Stax, as much as Sun Records, Tamla/Motown, Alan Freed or anyone else in music, helped set the tone for a multi-racial America: the house band of Steve Cropper, Booker T. Jones, Al Jackson Jr. and Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn was integrated long before the Memphis restaurants and schools. Throughout the 1960s, these musicians (and the label’s white owners, Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton) said that race was never an issue within the company or the black neighborhood within which it was based. But after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine on April 4, 1968, and the riots that followed, suddenly race was paramount; the open doors of the Stax Studios were replaced by security guards and fences. Stax’ own cause had hardly been helped by the tragic death of Otis Redding a few months earlier, and the label’s fateful discovery, after its distributor Atlantic sold out to Warner Brothers, that it didn’t own its masters. Jim Stewart sold Stax in May 1968, though the label thrived through the early 1970s under the leadership of Al Bell, before going bankrupt, in controversial circumstances, in 1975.
Large parts of Memphis are still something of a mess, unfortunately. But its music lives on. And on. And on.
At the Lorraine, we shed some tears, for what once was and what still can be. And then we moved on, across America.
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