Soul Music in Memphis

From great tunes to a gold-plated Cadillac, Stax is back.
Wanda McKinney

Smokey Robinson said it best. "When that Detroit sound of Motown traveled south of the Mason-Dixon, it was different."

You'll find out just how different when you walk into the new Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis. Here you'll find 17,000 square feet of sights and sounds you've heard all your life: Isaac Hayes, Sam and Dave, Rufus and Carla Thomas. These legends began their recording careers in the 1960s at a renovated movie theater called Stax Records.

Enjoy watching and listening to an introductory movie that tells the Stax story in words and tunes. Listen to Otis Redding urging you to try a little tenderness. Pay attention as Aretha demands some respect.

You'll hear stories about some of your favorite artists, such as B. B. King. The first music he learned to read was country. In fact, country and gospel music formed the foundation for much of soul music.

All these sounds coming out of the Mississippi Delta and the neighborhoods of Memphis collaborated for many tuneful years under company cofounders Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton. In 1960 they joined the first two letters of their last names to call the venture Stax Records.

Made up of African American and white musicians, Stax broke the color barrier long before that was the norm. The company flourished for several years, but after the death of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Memphis mourned, Stax faded, and the business closed in 1975.

Something that distinguishes this soul music museum from others is the inclusion of exhibits from Motown, Muscle Shoals, and Atlantic Records--showing their importance in the total soul musical mix. Another unique feature is the century-old Delta church that was moved here to emphasize the role gospel music had in the formation of soul.

You'll find a large Isaac Hayes section, as the famous singer played a significant part in the Stax story. His turquoise 1972 Cadillac Eldorado entices visitors; be sure to note the gold plating. Now amble over to the exhibit that tells you what original artist recorded a particular song and who did the remake. Other displays show how Stax songs have been (and still are) used in commercials and movies.

By the time you end up in the gift shop, be prepared. You'll be hard-pressed to pass up the four-CD set of the Stax story ($67). At the very least, pick up a cool T-shirt for $15. The logo on the back is a hand with its fingers snapping to the rhythm, and that rhythm is back at Stax.

Stax Museum of American SoulMusic: 926 East McLemore Avenue, Memphis, TN 38106; (901) 942-7685 or www.soulsvilleusa.com.

"Soul Music in Memphis" is from the February 2004 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.