Episode 28: That Memphis Sound

 

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Otis Redding. Booker T and the M.G.s. Eddie Floyd. Isaac Hayes. The Staples Sisters. What do all of these classic soul and R&B artists have in common? Stax Records. As he toured the history of the Civil Rights Movement this summer, host John Fea included a stop at the Stax Museum (@StaxMemphis) in Memphis, Tennessee. Eager to relive the experience and share such attractions as a floor-to-ceiling record room and Isaac Hayes’s gold-plated Cadillac, Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling are joined by the museum’s executive director, Jeff Kollath. They discuss the importance of that “Memphis Sound” for the city as well as creating a “usable past” with popular music history.

Memphis Cotton for Bibles

Cotton Museum

Next time I am Memphis I am going to try to visit the Cotton Museum

Earlier today I wrote about my recent visit to Memphis as part of a Civil Rights bus tour I am currently taking.  We visited sites from The Civil Rights Movement and the African American history of the city in the 1960s.

In the 19th century, Memphis was a major cotton market and, consequently, a major slave market.  This was largely due to its prime location on the Mississippi River.

The prevalence of cotton in Memphis even crossed over into the work of Bible distribution.  In my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society, I wrote a few sentences about the Memphis and Shelby County Bible Society and the spread of cheap Bibles into the South during the Civil War:

One of the most interesting parts of the American Bible Society (ABS) distribution efforts [during the Civil War] was the sale of Bibles in exchange for cotton.  Since the Union would not accept Confederate currency as a form of donation or payment for Bibles, the Memphis and Shelby County Bible Society in Tennessee circumvented this problem by offering the ABS bales of cotton.  Cotton was purchased by southern philanthropists and friends of the Bible Cause with Confederate money, and the bales were shipped out to New York.  In February 1865, an anonymous donor gave the Memphis and Shelby County Bible Society six bales of cotton to help defer the cost of electrotype plates used to print Bibles at the Society’s distribution depot in Nashville.  Whatever was left after the plates were paid for was used to provide boxes of Bibles and Testaments for Confederate troops.

Similarly, the Memphis and Shelby County Bible Society Society received a request from Monticello, Arkansas, proposing to exchange ten bales of cotton for Bibles and Testaments that would be distributed to citizens and soldiers in the surrounding region. The Memphis and Shelby County Society planned to have the cotton shipped directly to the [New York City] Bible House as soon as possible….The ABS was not prepared to receive cotton in exchange for copies of the scriptures, but the New York Board of Managers were more than willing to accept it if it meant getting Bibles past Confederate military lines.

Transporting cotton through a country torn by Civil War was difficult. The Memphis and Shelby County Bible Society needed the permission of Confederate authorities and generals. The ABS had to obtain special approval from the U.S. Treasury Department.  In some cases the cotton, once received in New York, was deposited in a U.S. government warehouse “to the credit of the American Bible Society for special purposes.”

Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour: Day 7

Memphis

For previous posts in this series click here.

I cannot believe we have been on the road for a week.  We started the day in Memphis and ended it in Nashville.

The major stop of the day was the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. The Lorraine Motel, of course, was the place where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.  The museum is built around the motel and an additional building–the Young and Morrow Building–located just across the street.  This is the building (a rooming house in 1968) where James Earl Ray fired the shots that killed King.

Here is New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s famous speech on the evening of King’s death. He delivered it while on the presidential campaign trail in Indianapolis.

Kennedy would be assassinated two months later.  As I listen to his speech again, I wonder if it still holds-up today.  I hope it does.

After touring the museum we headed to Beale Street and a visit to the gallery of Civil Rights Movement photographer Ernest Withers.  He took some of the most iconic photos of the era.  You can see some of my favorites here and here.

The last stop in Memphis was lunch at B.B. King’s Blues Club on Beale Street where we were treated to some great soul music from recent graduates of Stax Music Academy.

We are touring Nashville today.  Stay tuned.

Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour: Day 6

Stax_Museum_Memphis_TN_01

For previous posts in this series click here.

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):

While poking around online I found John Schaefer‘s short post comparing Motown to Stax.  Here is a taste:

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: