Friday, March 16, 2012
A City of Music and History....
There’s the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum. There’s Sun Studio, where B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley recorded. And, of course, there’s Graceland. There’s also the Gibson Guitar Factory.
I had time to visit two museums in Memphis. One was the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, located at the site of the old Stax recording studios on McLemore Avenue.
The other was the Lorraine Motel, where in 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered and which has since become the site of the National Civil Rights Museum.
Located at 450 Mulberry Street, the museum includes the hotel and a large addition built around it. It also includes a rooming house across the street. James Earl Ray initially said it was from inside the rooming house that he shot King, who was killed by a single bullet while standing on the balcony outside Room 306.
Ray, who received a 99-year sentence and who died in 1998, later tried unsuccessfully to withdraw his plea of guilty to the crime.
The motel has an interesting history. Named the Windsor in the 1920’s, it was purchased in 1945 by Walter Bailey, who renamed it the Lorraine after his wife “Loree” and the song “Sweet Lorraine.”
During segregation, the Lorraine was one of the few hotels in Memphis that would accept black travelers. Song writers and musicians for the Stax Record Company, along with other visiting performers, frequently stayed there, including Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Ethel Waters, Otis Redding, The Staple Singers and Wilson Pickett.
King, who had stayed at the Lorraine on previous trips to Memphis, was in town to support striking sanitation workers when he was assassinated. Working with a local radio station, Bailey started the ”Save the Lorraine” campaign after the civil rights leader’s death with the aim of keeping the motel a civil rights shrine. To further that cause, a group of prominent Memphis residents created a foundation they called the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation.
In 1984, they changed the foundation’s name to the “Lorraine Civil Rights Museum Foundation,” through which they later purchased the property for $144,000.
Constructed under a design created by former Smithsonian Institution curator Benjamin Lawless, the museum opened in 1991.
There was one point of controversy. A former housekeeper, Jacqueline Smith, had been staying at the hotel since 1973. When she was told to leave, she barricaded herself inside of her room and had to be forcibly evicted.
A marker in front of the museum recognizes King for his role in the civil rights movement.
Nominated for an Academy Award in 2008, the documentary tells its story largely through the eyes of Reverend Samuel “Billy” Kyles, who was on the balcony when King was killed. Former NAACP Executive Director Dr. Benjamin Hooks; Maxine Smith, a one-time Executive Secretary for the NAACP’s Memphis Branch; and Taylor Rodgers, a sanitation worker who was involved in the strike and had marched with King and Kyles, also appear.
As visitors walk through the museum, they take a chronological journey through the United States’ civil rights history, starting with the first arrival of slaves here in 1619.
Visitors can see the interior of Room 306—as well as the balcony itself—through transparent plastic.
The rooming house exhibits cover the aftermath of King’s assassination, the legacy of the civil rights movement and the role the movement played in the advancement of human rights globally. Evidence connected with the assassination—including the Remington rifle believed to have fired the fatal shot—is included in the exhibits.
Beldon’s Blues Point went to the Stax Museum a few days after Soul Train host Don Cornelius died. The museum payed homage to Cornelius on its marquee.
The museum traces soul music from its roots in gospel and blues. It doesn’t just cover Stax artists; it even pays respectful attention to the company that became Stax’s primary competitor back in the day: Motown Records. Possibly because of Cornelius’ death, there was a “Soul Train” exhibit displaying clips from the show on a large screen.
Still, you get a healthy dose of Stax history, a lot of which I didn’t know when I was nodding my head and snapping my fingers to their music when I was a silly teen–ager during its heyday.
For one, the organization that eventually became Stax Records was founded in 1957 by Jim Stewart, a white country fiddler who knew little about black music.
Stewart got his start in the music business by recording country music out of a North Memphis garage owned by his wife’s uncle. The following year, Stewart’s sister, Estelle Axton, mortgaged her home to buy recording equipment for the company, which at the time was called Satellite Records.
In the summer of 1960, Satellite released “Cause I Love You,” by Rufus Thomas and his daughter, Carla.
In 1961, Satellite released “Last Night,” an instrumental by a Memphis high school group known as the Mar-Keys. That same year, Stewart changed Satellite’s name to “Stax,” a combination of the first two letters of his surname (ST) with the first two letters of his sister’s (AX).
Over the years Stax Records collected a stable of artists that included the Thomases; Booker T and the M.G.’s; bluesman Albert King; singer/songwriter Isaac Hayes; the Bar-Kays; bluesman Little Milton; the Soul Children; singers Sam and Dave of “Soul Man” fame; Johnnie Taylor; and perhaps their brightest star of all, Otis Redding, who, along with several of the Bar-Kays, tragically perished in a 1967 plane crash.
In 1965, Al Bell, a former disc jockey from Little Rock, Arkansas became director of promotions at Stax. Over the years, Bell, an African-American, rose through ranks, becoming executive vice-president in 1968.
In addition to his administrative work, Bell worked with Stax artists as a songwriter and promoter. After Redding’s death, when Stax separated from Atlantic Records, Bell brought on several signees—including the Emotions, the Staple Singers and the Soul Children—in his effort to rebuild the company’s catalog. In 1969, he bought out Estelle Axton to become a 50-50 co-owner with Stewart.
The Stax sound was grittier and closer to the blues than the more polished, pop-oriented Motown. It emphasized the low end, with the extensive use of horns in the background. For bridges, it relied on pre-arranged horn ensembles instead of the guitar, saxophone or keyboard solos heard on much of the popular songs of the day.
Over the years, the company carved a place for itself in popular music.
In 1967, several Stax artists toured Europe to enthusiastic fan support. Also that year—a few months before his death—Otis Redding shared the bill with popular rock performers such as the Who, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin at the Monterey Pop Festival in California.
In 1972, the company filmed Wattstax, a documentary centered around a Stax charity concert in Los Angeles.
But by the mid-70’s the company was in trouble. A distribution deal with CBS didn’t meet expectations after CBS started warehousing the records. On another front, the IRS began investigating Stax after an employee was found carrying $100,000 through an airport.
By 1974 the company was unable to pay salaries for over 200 employees. It also found itself immersed in a web of lawsuits and countersuits.
The year 1975 brought more bad fortune, and from several directions. A record-pressing company sued Stax and a bank foreclosed on the company publishing arm. Bell was indicted by a federal grand jury for bank fraud, a charge he was later acquitted of. And Al Jackson Jr., a drummer, songwriter, producer and founding member of Booker T. and the M.G.’s, was murdered.
The company went into involuntary bankruptcy in December, 1975.
In 1981, a bank deeded the McLemore Avenue facility to the Southside Church of God in Christ for $10. The church demolished the building in 1989 to make way for a community center that was never built.
The current building is a replica of the original. Among the numerous displays, you will find this jacket owned by Otis Redding:
Here is some of the original recording equipment used by Stax:
And here is the piano used to compose one of the company’s most popular hits, “Green Onions” by Booker T. and the M.G.’s: http://www.civilrightsmuseum.org/ If you want to know more about the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, check out its website at: http://www.staxmuseum.com/ In the meantime, join our site! Represent!