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We spent a lot of time in the bus today as we drove from Birmingham to Memphis. For me the highlight was tearing my calf muscle while running through the pouring rain to make it back to the bus on time after lunch.
I cannot put much weight on my leg, but I was able to hobble my way through the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. If you want to learn more about Stax Records I would encourage you to watch this documentary. (Below is the first of 9 segments):
Motown and Stax. The two great labels of American soul and R&B. There is really no good way to prove that one label was better than the other – but that won’t stop us from asking the question. After all, this is the fun part of being a fan. Sports fans, I have to admit, enjoy arguing about who has the best centerfielder or middle relief pitching or defensive front line as much as we do actually watching games. So Motown vs Stax may be the musical equivalent of Mickey Mantle vs Willie Mays – an argument you can never settle – but who cares?
As for me, I love the Stax Records roster of Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Booker T and the MGs. Sam and Dave can be added to that list, too, though they were part of the alliance with the major label Atlantic Records. It’s interesting to note that this legendary institution of black music was founded by white guys (actually, a guy and his sister); and the fact that they had a color-blind house band as early as the early 60s is pretty great. Also, the records had a grit and a sense of audio verite that was and is noticeably different from the slick, highly produced sound of Motown.
The Stax Museum tells the story of this historic record label through a narrative of interracial cooperation. It is clear that the guardians of the Stax legacy believe that the cooperation between blacks and whites was representative of what the Civil Rights Movement hoped to achieve in both Memphis and the nation. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis was not only a national tragedy for the Civil Rights Movement, but it was also a tragedy for Stax’s vision of interracial cooperation, at least in the music industry. Consider this line from the museum website:
Memphis’ racial tension came to a head when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis after speaking to the city’s striking sanitation workers (the Lorraine had been a regular gathering place for Stax employees, both black and white).
When citizens rioted in the streets after King’s murder, Stax’s building was left untouched, but the studio’s atmosphere as a creative respite with no regards for race was forever altered.
The Stax Museum (and the website) does not elaborate on how this “creative respite was forever altered,” but it is hard not to interpret this as a critique of the Civil Rights Movement’s turn toward Black separatism and Black power.
Today we continue in Memphis and then make our way to Nashville. Stay tuned. I will leave you this classic Stax hit from the Staples Sisters:
And a bonus track from Booker T & the MG’s: