Due to the fact that we have already departed The South and are now enjoying some higher altitude and lower temperatures here in the Southwestern city of Santa Fe, we are going to try our best to catch up on a week’s worth of travel and news.
I left off last time still in Memphis. After the farmer’s market and several laborious hours (laborious due to the heat and lack of things open on a Saturday afternoon) spent doing laundry and errands, we sped across town to the Stax Museum for a visit we have been anticipating for months.
Dedicated fans of such musical artists as Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MGs, and the Staple Singers, one of our main incentives for visiting Memphis was to pay homage to Stax Records, home of the above mentioned artists as well as many others (think Isaac Hayes, Eddie Wood, Sam & Dave, Rufus Thomas etc), and arguably the birthplace of American soul music.
In the interest of expediency as well as accuracy, I am going to recommend that any interested parties check out the full official story and history of this legendary record company here. However, there are a few things we would like to mention about Stax:
This record company, founded on humble beginnings in an old theatre, would come to produce some of the most notable musicians of its time. Stax came into existence prior to the Civil Rights Movement and was known for signing both black and white musicians and supporting mixed race groups (such as Booker T. and the MGs), creating a safe space for people to gather together and produce music and culture. During segregation this was a big deal (remember that blacks and whites could not eat, drink, shop etc under the same roof) and Stax is thought to have contributed greatly to the thriving culture of Memphis at the time.
As I mentioned in a previous post, today the city still feels depressed and deserted in many areas. What we learned at the museum is that Stax was really along for the whole ride as Memphis rose and fell (again, this is a highly simplified account). In the 1960’s, Memphis was Soulsville, USA, and was bustling with activity, economy, and culture. In 1967-68, three significant things happened in rapid succession that are thought to have marked the decline (and eventual death) of the record company as well as the dispersal of the remarkable culture of Memphis. First, Otis Redding and four members of the Bar-Kays were killed in a plane crash while on tour (a tour which had rocked Europe and brought Otis to the Monterrey Pop Festival, revealing him as a major star), then Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in Memphis, triggering race riots and wildly affecting the often peaceful relations between blacks and whites in the city, and finally, Stax records, having learned that they had lost ownership of the rights to many of their major hits (though uncertain business dealings with Atlantic Records), sold out to the Gulf & Western Film company.
There are several interesting documentary films about Stax including Respect Yourself: The Stax Record Story (PBS) and WattsStax (1973), which documents a festival put on in Los Angeles, CA following the Watts riots and featuring artists from the record company. Both of these are a great way to get familiar with this incredible record company and musical movement (which is often overshadowed by the incredible popular success of Motown Records) and also to reflect on a very important aspect of our nation’s recent history. Unrelated, but awesome, if you are into watching documentaries about black music in America (and Africa), definitely check out Soul Power. Standing in the Shadows of Motown is also worth viewing. Can you tell we are enthusiastic?
Ok, time to keep moving! We still have all of Arkansas and Texas to cover. Pictures are up so more words to come soon!