Wednesday, September 6, 2006
Destination Soulsville USA
Mahalia Jackson on it, and a notice, with an explanatory message from Deanie Parker, whose grandfather founded the church in 1906: "The full moon would shine brightly, casting a shadow on the bayou. The sounds of the bullfrogs and crickets were drowned out by the stirring music that reverberated from thigh-slapping male quartets. The visiting preacher, along with the unrehearsed choirs singing R&B selections, could be heard way down the road past the silos and bamboo thickets."
The Hooper Chapel is the second thing you see when you enter the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. First comes a film in which Ray Charles explains that soul is a music in which church, blues and country "all intertwined, some kind of way". Solomon Burke states that "country music is soul music - it’s the soul of the country". Al Bell, the former president of Stax, tries to explain the music. "It wasn’t political. It was pure. It was tough." Then comes Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a stern matron in a flowery dress, knocking merry hell from an electric guitar. Somewhere, Booker T Jones makes a pointed remark. Stax died, he says, when Dr Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis in 1968.
Walking past the chapel, we may learn that the term "soul" was first applied to music in the 1950s, referring to a blend of hard bop, gospel and blues. Before soul, there was gospel, a style which aimed for transcendence and purity of expression, in which devotion walked in step with humility, and which was made commercial by Johnnie Taylor and Sam Cooke, who sang about love as if seeking salvation. We can appreciate that, with the growth of the civil rights movement, the songs became more nuanced: Respect or Soul Man could be heard as expressions of black pride. But, as Greil Marcus has noted, Respect sung by Otis Redding is different from Respect sung by Aretha Franklin. Otis is chiding his woman, Aretha is addressing all men.
The museum gives you this, while also being full of the ephemera of soul. Here, in a glass case, are the clothes of Ike and Tina Turner. Tina’s dress is yellow with silver swirls, her shoes are gold. Ike’s jacket, folded beside his Telecaster, is silver. Here is Rufus Thomas’s white spangled cape, his red snakeskin boots. There, the rabbit fur coat worn by Norman West of the Soul Children and the patchwork boots worn by Don Nix of the Mar-Keys.
In the case dedicated to Booker T and the MGs: Al Jackson’s jacket; Steve Cropper’s first amp, a Fender Princeton; Donald "Duck" Dunn’s customised pipe, with his own head carved on the bowl. In the Otis Redding display, the singer’s suede jacket. There, the tape recorder on which he recorded Respect. And there, Phalon Jones’s King Super 20 sax, retrieved from the plane crash which killed its owner, and took Otis.
Around the corner, demanding attention, are the cast-offs of a man known to one generation as Black Moses, and to another as Chef. A reversible fluorescent cape, circa 1971, in orange and pink; a yellow suit with the man’s face on the back. And - can you dig it? - a peacock blue Cadillac Eldorado with a white fur carpet: a perk of Isaac Hayes’s 1972 contract.
Next to the car, a sign: "While some members of the black community criticised Hayes for the ostentatious nature of the car, the gold-plated Cadillac was, for many, a symbol of upward mobility."
When he was looking for a line to sell his records, Stax president Al Bell came up with "Soulsville". In laying claim to a genre, Bell was guilty of cheek, but his arrogance was justified. Detroit had Motown, a brand of soul which was accessible and poppy, or, to Bell, "cosmospolitan" . Stax was something else. It was hard and immediate. At a time when pop production was tending towards lushness, Stax’s records were clear, compressed joy.
The word people use is "integrated". By an accident of geography, when Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton set up Stax in a disused cinema on McLemore Avenue in south Memphis, aiming to record pop and country artists, they sited themselves in an evolving neighbourhood. The area was white, changing to black. The membership of the house band, Booker T and the MGs (with MG standing for Memphis Group) was mixed, as was that of the Memphis Horns. "A lot of the artists came from this neighbourhood," says museum curator Nashid Madyun. "Booker T Jones walked up: when Green Onions was cut he was in tenth grade. He just wanted to see what a recording studio was like, and, here goes, he’s a prodigy. David Porter, Aretha Franklin, Nat D Williams, all from this neighbourhood."
To this list of local talent, add the names of Rufus Thomas, William Bell, horn players Andrew Love and Gilbert Caple, plus members of the Bar-Kays, the Mad Lads and the Soul Children. ‘When I listen to the music today, I feel the same way I did when we cut it. I have to fasten my seatbelt.' Another who tried to insinuate herself into the Stax family was Deanie Parker, who cut a couple of records before taking charge of publicity, sending 45s to radio announcers with a metal addressograph machine. "Stax was an incredible place for anybody who thought they had any talent at all," says Parker. "They had an open door policy." Parker played a few shows with Booker T and the MGs, before deciding that performance was not her forte. "I didn’t like singing in front of large audiences. I didn’t like being on the road. It was difficult, you couldn’t stay in nice hotels, you couldn’t eat in restaurants. You couldn’t stop and use the rest rooms. It was a hard life."
Between the lines of Parker’s remarks is an acknowledgement that, though Stax was integrated, Memphis and the South were still in the grip of racial segregation.
What happened? Stax expanded and the purity of the sound was diluted. After 1968, the family spirit of the company began to weaken. Integration became difficult when, after King’s assassination, Memphis was gripped by riots. The studio closed in 1975, ownership transferred to the church and the building was left to rot. It was demolished in 1989.
Throughout that time, Deanie Parker had a dream. "I was afraid to share it with anybody, because I knew it would be a monumental task. I was afraid that I could never assemble the kind of support, financial and otherwise, to make it happen alone, and I had been around long enough to know that when you share a dream, people kill the dream.
"I also hurt a little bit, because we didn’t get a farewell. We were put out, those of us who were at Stax Records. We were, what’s that word for when you’re in a home and you don’t pay your rent? Evicted."
When Stax folded, Parker left Memphis, and refused to visit the derelict site. She returned in 1983, and was asked to join a group who planned to obstruct the bulldozers. "I was frozen. I couldn’t do it because, to me, what was left here that was decaying, along with the rest of the neighbourhood, was symbolic of nothing more than bricks and mortar. The lives of people had been interrupted and destroyed. That was the most important thing that had happened.
"The worst part of it was that this was an organisation whose greatest strength was that it had an open door policy, that it was a mentoring environment, that there were people here who enjoyed cultural exchange. We were a seamlessly integrated organisation. We were atypical of everything else that was going on in Memphis and the South.
"You can’t put that together again, you can’t make up for that lost time, but the music saved us. The music is timeless. The music has made a statement. The music has given us a reason to do what we’re doing today. Because, I tell you, when I listen to it today, I feel the same way that I did when we cut it. I have to fasten my seatbelt."
Parker is president and executive director of Soulsville USA, which has rebuilt the Stax studio, and which plans to use the profits from the museum to support an academy where local children can learn to play music. Soulsville is now a defined geographical region encompassing two zipcodes in south Memphis. The area, no less depressed than it was when Stax was extant, is benefiting again from the visceral power of soul music.
Outside, a few steps from the Michael’s Magnificent Cuts and Styles barber shop, I meet Curtis Johnson, who used to sing with the Astors, and had a hit with Candy. He has just toured the museum, and was impressed by the reconstructed studio, which reproduces the old sloping floor, inherited from its days as a cinema. "The old control room is what got me: the way it’s set up, the Billboard magazines on the floor and the Coke bottle sitting on top of the mixing machine. The same way Steve [Cropper] and the guys used to do when they were working at the machine.
"We spent many, many hours listening to playbacks after we’d go out there and record. But with the two-track system you couldn’t edit the way you do now. You had to just go back and re-do it over and over, so we may sing the same song 25 or 30 times, and we had to listen to the playback each time to make sure that it was right.
"We didn’t realise at the time that we were going to be a part of history. As a matter of fact, I got rid of all the old outfits and uniforms that we used to wear, and the posters. Had I known that anything like this would develop I would have kept a lot of that stuff."
Johnson’s voice is heavy with emotion. "I’m just blown away by the whole thing," he says. "Deanie’s dream of bringing this back and doing this ... we’re in her debt forever for, in a sense, making us immortal."
I ask Deanie Parker about Dr King. She says that Stax had been trying to fulfil his dream, but at the time, Memphis wasn’t ready.
"This community did not deserve to lose Stax records. This was the crown jewel of this community. It was the hope, the pride. Now we’ve come back even better because we’re able to do something for the future. For the children who are looking for the same kind of opportunities, the same kind of attention, patience, for somebody like Steve Cropper to say, ‘OK, Jimmy King …’"
It seems as if Parker is thinking about absent friends: Jimmy King and Carl Cunningham of the Bar-Kays died in the Otis plane crash in 1967: "One of the things Steve said to me when we were talking about memorabilia was, ‘If you’re talking to the King family, ask them if they still got that guitar that I let Jimmy have. And I’ll guarantee you that if Al Jackson Jr were living he’d probably say, ‘Hey, you can have these drumsticks. Carl gave them back to me, he’s gone on to be a great drummer now.’"
"This kid, Carl, used to roll his little apron across his waist and come from across the street down at the corner from the shoeshine shop and sit there mesmerised by these guys in the studio.
"This is what we have to do. You reach a point where you do things and you look back and you say, ‘Well, what is my life really worth if I can’t share these things that have benefited me?’"
Stax Museum of American Soul Music, 926 East McLemore, Memphis, tel: 001 901 942 7685; www.soulsvilleusa.com
Posted by Kirk Elder at 1:35 PM