The Sound of Soulsville, USA
Everybody knows Motown. But at the same time another hit factory in the American South brought sweet soul music to the masses. Stax Records from Memphis made its mark on soul and rhythm & blues in the Sixties and Seventies, and gave the world legends like Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and Isaac Hayes. Listen up, class: this is a history lesson you can dance to.
It all began with Satellite Records, founded in 1957 by country fiddler Jim Stewart – who initially operated the label from his garage. Three years later Stewart moved operations to the Capitol Theatre on 926 East McLemore Avenue in South Memphis, a change of address that would change the world of music forever. And Memphis too, as the location now houses the fun-packed Stax Museum of American Soul Music, a must-visit for every music fan.
Back in the day, Stewart’s sister and Stax co-founder Estelle Axton operated a record store in the old concession stand of the former movie theatre. This unwittingly launched the stellar rise of Stax Records, as the label was called from 1961 on. The shop brought very much needed income to the table and proved to be an excellent listening pool for the new music that came out of the studio next door.
On top of that, a constant queue of new talent lined up at the counter. David Porter, writer of Soul Man and Hold On! I’m Coming!, worked at a nearby supermarket when he decided to give the new folks on the block a try. His writing partner Isaac Hayes lived in the neighbourhood and started his professional career as an in-house session musician for Otis Redding. Who earned his chance in 1962, when a failed session with The Pinetoppers’ guitarist Johnny Jenkins left 40 minutes on the clock for the soon-to-be legendary vocal stylings of Stax’s biggest-selling superstar.
In the meantime an unbeatable house band had formed, backing new songbirds while rapidly getting better with every beat. Together Booker T & The M.G.’s, with pianist/singer Booker T. Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper, bass player Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn and drummer Al Jackson, Jr, were a big part of what was to go into the books as the Stax sound.
The sound of Stax
But what is that famous Stax sound? According to Steve Cropper it has everything to do with the musicians playing without headphones in the big, downward slanting movie theatre that was turned into a studio: ‘When you put headphones on, everybody just sort of tightens up. I played watching Al Jackson’s left hand rather than by going what I heard in my head. I started to anticipate what lay ahead instead of waiting to actually hear the sound.’
Meanwhile the singer, standing behind a big heavy curtain behind the drummer, got the rhythm only after it bounced off the ceiling towards him a fraction of second later. For the layman these might be technical nuances, but that delayed backbeat unmistakably is the engine of the Stax sound.
Check out this Spotify playlist to hear it yourself. You’ll be shaking your tailfeather in no time!
Don’t have Spotify? Here are the tracks you should look for.
Carla Thomas – Gee Whiz (Look At His Eyes)
Sam & Dave – Hold On! I’m Coming!
Otis Redding – Nobody’s Fault But Mine
Isaac Hayes – Theme From Shaft
Booker T & The M.G.’s – Green Onions
Bar-Kays – Soul Finger
Rufus Thomas – Walking The Dog
William Bell – You Don’t Miss Your Water
Eddie Floyd – Knock On Wood
The Mar-Keys – Last Night
The Mad Lads – I Want Someone
The Emotions - So I Can Love You
Jean Knight - Mr. Big Stuff
The Staple Singers – Respect Yourself
Johnnie Taylor – Who’s Making Love
National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis
The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis is located at the former Lorraine Motel, where civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on 4th April, 1968.
The Lorraine was one of only a few hotels to which African-American travellers could enjoy overnight accommodations during the segregated eras leading up to the late 1960s in America. Although the museum pays tribute and homage to the legacy of Dr. King, it is devoted to the thousands of people who were part of the entire American Civil Rights Movement from 1619 to present.
The museum chronicles key episodes of the Movement, examines today's global civil and human rights issues, provokes thoughtful debate and serves as a catalyst for social positive change providing a focus of national remembrance. The museum's latest renovations saw it transformed to an immersive, interactive experience with 40+ films, touch screens and listening posts.
Visitors are transported back in time to explore galleries detailing the brutal and barbaric slave trade, the pernicious Jim Crow "separate but equal" laws which institutionalised racial segregation across America for more than 100 years, the legal battles to gain equality in employment and education as well as the sacrifice and bravery of so many activists and citizens.
Step aboard a vintage bus to hear the altercation between a public transit worker in Montgomery and Rosa Parks. Sit at a segregated lunch counter and feel the anger of a white mob.
The '1963 March on Washington' exhibit immerses the visitor into a life-like setting while an audio excerpt plays from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.
Be sure to visit the Legacy Building, a former boarding house across the road from the Lorraine Motel, where James Earl Ray lodged before the assassination and investigates his case and ensuing conspiracy theories of who really killed Dr. King?
Visitors should allow at least three hours for a quality visit and experience.
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New Memphis Music
Memphis is home to Sun Studio, where everyone from Elvis Presley to Johnny Cash to B.B. King recorded hits, and Stax Records, the label behind legends like Otis Redding and Booker T. & the M.G.s and contemporaries like Melissa Etheridge and Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats. The blues were born in Memphis. Big Star was born in Memphis. Julien Baker was born in Memphis. Al Green, Bruno Mars and U2 have all recorded in Memphis.
Memphis welcomes musicians in droves, artists who visit the city to record in famous spaces and then leave and though legends come and go, Memphis still boasts plenty of local acts. Rockers Lucero have been stalwarts of the scene for years now, but the gates are opening for new bands and hip-hop acts on labels like Goner and Madjack Records. Paste Magazine rounded up 10 emerging bands and artists from the “Birthplace of Rock ’n’ Roll” to prove Memphis has still got it.
James & the Ultrasounds
Longtime Memphis musicman James Godwin is the brains behind James & the Ultrasounds, a four-piece surf-rock group who frequently plays local venues. Their sophomore record, None of the Above, dropped in August, and, clocking in at a short-but-sweet 28 minutes, it’s a great first taste of Memphis rock ’n’ roll. Though surf feels like their most applicable classification (None of the Above is chock full of wavy guitar and lots of backing oohs and ahhs), James & the Ultrasounds don’t confine themselves to one style. Listen closely and you might pick up on their garage, punk and blues influences. James & The Ultrasounds are touring the UK October 2018, follow this link if you're interested in some free tickets!
Blues rockers Dirty Streets released their fourth full-length LP last month, Distractions, their first since 2015’s White Horse. At times, their sound is polished and soulful (like on the Distractions title track); other times, they embrace the grime and churn out greasy garage rock (“Loving Man” is down-and-dirty yet danceable). Dirty Streets’ Southern grit would pair just as well with a PBR and a loud Beale St. bar as it would a back porch and sweet tea—they just sound like Memphis.
Nots haven’t released a full-length LP since 2016, but they’re worth mentioning as one of Memphis’ long-time established punk outifts. The all-female four-piece makes well-crafted, aggressive punk music, and they recently played their label Goner’s rock festival in Memphis. Their 2015 single “Reactor” is a resonant, spacey trip through punk, with disjointed, agitated vocals acting as a vessel. In 2017, they released four new searing singles, and you’ll want to keep an ear out for whatever they do next.
The Pop Ritual
The Pop Ritual sound nothing like their name would imply. The Memphis trio makes brooding, resonant industrial post-punk, music so dark it would put the night sky to shame. But for big fans of glitch-glaze and electro-punk, their music might feel more like a sonic blanket than a vast stormy sky—it does have a covering quality to it. Their most recent release was a 2017 LP, Perinde Ac Cadaver, which is a texturised trip through electronic beats and hooks.
AWFM (A Weirdo From Memphis)
AWFM is an eclectic hip-hop artist from Memphis, part of the larger hip-hop collective and label Unapologetic, who are key players in Memphis’ burgeoning indie rap scene. You won’t find his groovy rap on Spotify—AWFM is strictly an inhabitant of SoundCloud and YouTube, which seem like the most appropriate homes for his relaxed DIY rap.
Marcella and Her Lovers
Though leading woman Marcella Rene Simien originally hails from Lafayette, Louisiana., her band with the “Lovers” is Memphis-based, and Simien has lived in Memphis since moving there for art school in 2009. Simien’s powerhouse voice lends itself to the group’s swampy soul sound. The band released a groovy new single just last week, “Where You Are,” a follow-up to last month’s “En Chaleur,” both from their new EP, Got You Found. Memphis has long been home to soulful blues bands and Marcella and Her Lovers know how to freshen those classic Memphis sounds for a 2018 audience.
John Paul Keith and Amy LaVere are both established solo musicians who’ve played the Memphis circuit many times over, and with LaVere’s husband Will Sexton, the trio make Motel Mirrors, a jazzy take on roots and Americana. They released a record, In The Meantime, earlier this year and it’s a romp through Johnny Cash-influenced country and classic Memphis soul. Keith also has a release out this year, a solo LP called The Heart Shaped Shadow.
The Band CAMINO
Indie alternative group The Band CAMINO haven’t even released a full-length album yet, but they’ve attracted quite a fan base since their 2016 EP My Thoughts on You. Their breezy, radio-ready rock songs seem to be peppered everywhere on Spotify’s mood playlists, giving them a boost with listeners beyond their hometown of Memphis. Their latest single, “Daphne Blue,” is the loudest and most arena-ready of their releases so far, but it still maintains The Band Camino’s signature pop angle.
Hash Redactor are scarcely on the internet, a rarity in 2018, so their music is difficult to track down unless you actually live in Memphis and can catch them live. But they came so highly recommended by so many Memphis locals that Paste Magazine had to include them. They crank out clashing, riotous punk jams and they’re currently working on a full-length record, expected out in winter 2019 on Goner. In the meantime, you won’t have much luck finding them on Google, but you can track down their “FISH” demo on YouTube for your listening and rioting pleasure.
Aquarian Blood’s latest release, titled Late Nite in Paradise, is yet another example of Memphis’ unexpected, but flourishing, fringe-rock scene. It’s antsy, loud and everything you’d expect scrappy DIY punk to sound like, with a touch of electronica. The relatively young group is also tricky to track down on the inter-webs, but once you do, you’ll want to stick around for their angsty, delightfully dissonant musings.
Stax Museum of American Soul Music, Memphis
The Stax Museum of American Soul Music tells the story of Stax Records and other American soul music through videos, vintage musical instruments and interactive exhibits.
Thousands of items of memorabilia help explain the phenomenal and complex story of how STAX Records came to launch the careers of icons such as Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave, Booker T. & the MGs, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Albert King, Eddie Floyd and numerous others.
Located at the original site of STAX Records, your soul odyssey starts with the award-winning short documentary complete with rare footage of the 1967 STAX/Volt European tour and seminal WATT STAX concert in Los Angeles.
From the documentary the odyssey continues to an authentic 1906 Mississippi country church which is reconstructed inside the museum with original pews, pulpit, altar table and cornerstone to help tell the story of the African-American church influence on soul music.
Isaac Hayes’ gold-trimmed, fur-lined 1972 Cadillac Eldorado complete with television and refrigerator is a highlight of the museum and one of the most photographed exhibits. Also on display are original instruments used to create the STAX sound including the M3 organ Booker T. Jones played on “Green Onions” while The Hall of Records has some 300 albums and 800 45 singles all recorded at STAX.
You can see Stax Records’ founder Jim Stewart’s circa-1907 French violin, the same one used to help create the string arrangements on Carla Thomas’ ‘Gee Whiz’ and don’t miss the ‘Express Yourself’ dance floor complete with disco ball that continuously shows vintage Soul Train television footage.
The STAX Museum generates income for the non-profit Soulsville Foundation which also operates the world-renowned STAX Music Academy and The Soulsville Charter School for almost 700 inner-city middle and high school students with a 100-percent graduation and college acceptance rate.
Look for local performances by the STAX Music Academy and see how the STAX legacy is being preserved by and for a new generation.
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Beale Street – America's Most Iconic Street
What does the renowned Beale Street have to offer? With three blocks of nightclubs, restaurants and shops in the heart of downtown Memphis, the Beale Street Entertainment District is a melting pot of delta blues, rock 'n' roll, R&B and gospel.
- B.B. Kings Blues Club
Whether it’s Blues, Soul or Rock ‘n’ Roll, you will find your beat at the legendary B.B. Kings Blues Club located at the top of Beale Street. Ribs are their specialty, but shrimp, grits, barbecue chicken, burgers and other fine Southern dishes are also available. For lovers of live music, this is a must-visit club if you're in town!
- Memphis in May
Summer starts with Memphis in May, a month long celebration including a 3-day Beale Street Music Festival which brings major headliners like Ed Sheeran, Neil Young, Snoop Dogg, Red Hot Chili Peppers and John Legend, the World Championship BBQ Cooking Contest, a local festival and tribute to an international partner to Tom Lee Park end of Beale Street on the Mississippi River.
- FedEx Forum
Catch a game at the largest indoor arena in the Mid-South area located on Beale Street and home to the Memphis Grizzlies and NCAA Division 1 University of Memphis Tigers Men's basketball team. Plus check out the calendar as some of the world's biggest performances take to the stage throughout the year.
- Beale Street Flippers
The Beale Street Flippers astonish crowds as they defy gravity with their amazing acrobatics along the street as a Memphis treasure turned national sensation!
- Rum Boogie Cafe
Eat, drink, boogie, repeat - open 7-days a week until 1am. Including live music and a delicious Cajun bbq menu, this juke joint is a featured venue for the International Blues Challenge that takes place every January.
- A. Schwab
A. Schwab is the only original business remaining on Beale Street. It is the place to buy all things Memphis from arts and crafts to books, magazines, sweets and famous brands such as Sun Studio, Hi Records, Elvis and Stax.
- Orpheum Theatre
Located in downtown Memphis on the southwest corner of South Main and Beale Street you'll find the majestic Orpheum Theatre. Broadway shows, live music and comedy performances are some of the events you'll find here.
- New Year Celebrations
50,000 festive friends count down the Guitar Drop every year as they ring in the New Year at the Hard Rock Cafe. This party features boas, beads and of course barbecue, with the best live music coming out of the clubs on Beale Street.
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