Review: Stax Museum of American Soul Music a Memphis Musical Landmark

Jim Stewart was a part-time fiddle player and bank teller who wanted to make music. His sister, Estelle Axton, was a schoolteacher who wanted to run a record store.

Together they formed Stax Records — the “St” for Stewart, the “ax” for Axton. And the sounds from their modest recording studio set the music world on its ear. Their unique blend of soul revolutionized music and made their Memphis facility a mecca for musicians of all colors, ages and walks of life.

Soulsville USA was emblazoned on the world-famous marquee of the neighborhood theater that was converted into Stax Records. The humble studio at College and McLemore Avenue lived up to its name as its star artists and dedicated musicians pumped out a cavalcade of hits that are the standards of American popular music.

Stax Music Academy teaches children all facets of the performance and recording profession. Logan Peters photo

From 1960 to 1975, Stax placed more than 167 hit songs in the top 100 on the pop charts and an astounding 243 hits in the top 10 rhythm and blues charts. With a catalog of 800 single and 300 full album recordings, Stax was home for American cultural icons like Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, The Staple Singers, Booker T. & the MGs, Rufus Thomas, Johnnie Taylor, The Emotions, The Memphis Horns and more.

A hallway of Stax records. Logan Peters photo

Memphis’ soul music rivaled Detroit’s more polished pop-oriented Motown sounds. Memphis music was grittier, closer to where blues began. It was down home soul music, born out of blues.

When the Music Died

Then came two major death blows. In 1967, Otis Redding’s plane crashed into Lake Monona, Wisconsin, killing the singer and most of the Bar-Kays who were touring with him. Released posthumously, “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” became a No. 1 hit and a big part of Otis Redding’s legacy.

In 1968, Memphis suffered its most wrenching moment — the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. MLK was shot down at the Lorraine Motel just a few blocks south of Stax Records. Riots ensued. The bottom fell out of Stax. And it seemed like Soulsville — and all of Memphis — would never be the same again.

By 1976, Stax had gone bankrupt. The famed studio was sold to a church and demolished in 1989. All that remained was an inconspicuous historical marker, courtesy of the state of Tennessee. Surrounded by weeds and litter, the marker was more of a tombstone — the only clue that this site was once ground zero for soul music. Soulsville USA was dead.

Or so people thought. Arising from the ashes, Stax came back.

Stax Lives Again

Opened May 2, 2003, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music was rebuilt on the studio’s original construction plans on its original site. The museum chronicles the life and times of former Stax artists, employees and people who were members of the Soulsville neighborhood during the Stax time.

To symbolize the roots of soul music in the blues and gospel, the first exhibition visitors see is a one-room wooden church transported from its original location in the Mississippi Delta 100 miles south.

A one-room wooden church is the first exhibition visitors see. Logan Peters photo

Visitors also see a 13-minute film about Stax, along with memorabilia about the label and the Stax artists who collected eight Grammy awards and an Oscar for Isaac Hayes’ “Shaft” movie soundtrack. Another display in the museum showcases Hayes’ 1972 El Dorado Cadillac with its white sheepskin carpet, TV set and bar.

Stax created a sound that was unique to America. Jim Stewart’s country-tinged production was low key and sparse. The punch was added with walloping drums on a two-four beat, a thumping organ or piano and soaring horns. Gospel-influenced vocals blended with the instruments.

Why Soulsville? Walk around the two-square-mile neighborhood located less than three miles from historic Beale Street and you’ll find the answer. Aretha Franklin was born here at 406 Lucy Avenue.

Her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, preached at the New Salem Missionary Church at 955 S. Fourth. The late Johnny Ace lived in a shotgun house right behind Stax at 899 Ferry Court.

Isaac Hayes’ 1972 El Dorado Cadillac with its white sheepskin carpet, TV set and bar. Logan Peters photo

Booker T. Washington High School still stands at 715 S. Lauderdale Street. After going to high school during the day, many of the teens worked at Stax, including the Bar-Kays and Booker T. Jones of Booker T. & the MGs. Blues pianist Memphis Slim and Isaac Hayes’ songwriting collaborator David Porter were born here.

Blues greats Ma Rainey and Memphis Minnie are buried in the local cemetery. Jazz pianist Phineas Newborn lived here. Rev. Herbert Brewster, Smithsonian honored gospel composer, lived and composed here.

Isaac Hayes’ 1972 Oscar. Logan Peters photo

And Memphis’ favorite son, Elvis Presley, lived and died at his Graceland mansion, just seven miles south of Soulsville.

Birth of Stax

For Stax, Jim Stewart rented the old Capitol Theater on the corner of College and McLemore Avenue for $100 a month. His sister took out a mortgage on her home to help buy recording equipment. She opened the Satellite Record Shop in what had been the candy area at the front of the theater.

Stax records produced many hit songs. Logan Peters photo

Located in the Black working class community, Stax offered equal opportunities for Blacks and whites. A key ingredient of the Stax success was that it crossed racial lines. The “house band,” Booker T. and the MGs is an example. Piano/organ player Booker T. and drummer Al Jackson Jr. were Black. Guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn were white.

Jim and Estelle had an open-door policy. Many people said that if Stax Records had not given them a chance to sweep the floor, they would not have become musicians, publicists and recording engineers.

Stax had an integrated group of 200 employees at a time — especially in the South — when such integration was uncommon. Women had key roles in running the company many years before the equal rights amendment was enacted.

Stax Museum has memorabilia from Ike and Tina Turner. Logan Peters photo

Stax Legacy Continues

When Stax folded, the neighborhood was hit hard. As people began talking about opening a Stax museum, worries arose that the old neighborhood was not a suitable place for a tourist attraction. Putting the facility downtown would have made more sense, they said. But Stax Museum of American Soul Music is meant to be more than an attraction.

Organizers wanted Stax to be a catalyst for economic development and a mentoring program for at-risk youth. The $20 million project was financed by federal, state and city funds as well as private donations. It’s also meant to be a source of neighborhood pride in a blighted area where many people once feared to venture.

Stax Music Academy is located next to Stax Museum. Logan Peters photo

Knowing what music can do for children, the Stax Music Academy was founded first in 2000, before the museum opened in May 2003. The Stax Music Academy is a state-of-the-art learning center designed to teach children good values and good citizenship through music.

The Stax Music Academy is not only for children to discover their musical talents, but it also serves as an essential after-school program in a deprived area where many children are raised by single women.

The Stax Music Academy includes hi-tech recording studios and rehearsal rooms, plus equipment and computers for composing music. Students can learn all facets of the performance and recording profession. But more importantly, they can learn that there are better options for their lives other than the street.

A former student at  Stax Music Academy, Ashton Riker performs at B.B. King’s Blues Club. Jackie Finch photo

On a warm April evening, Ashton Riker was wowing the audience at B.B. King’s Blues Club on Beale Street in Memphis. But his life would have been entirely different without Stax, Ashton says. “Without Stax, I would have been a statistic – either dead or in prison.”

Instead, every day after school as a kid, Ashton would head to his neighborhood Stax Music Academy where he would spend hours studying how to be a singer/songwriter.

“Music saved my life,” Ashton says.

And the enthusiastic response of the audience to Ashton’s songs seems proof that the Stax legacy is alive and still sharing music almost half a century after the famed studio shut down.

B.B. King’s Blues Club is located on Beale Street in Memphis. Jackie Finch photo

Ed. Notes: See Mississippi River cruises here:

American Cruise Lines Cruises

Browse Cruise Ships and Cruise Lines

CruiseCompete and its member travel advisors provide many curated cruise and land deals, offers and amenities on over 50 cruise lines with over 500 cruise ships sailing all around the world.

Sea Tales 2024 Family Cruise Travel Planner

Shore Excursions – Ports, Day & Weekend Trips

Leave a Comment

Trusted by over 1.5 million cruisers since 2003.
Get FREE access to members-only pricing.
There is a highly acclaimed way to receive multiple quotes from a site called CruiseCompete, where cruise specialists compete to offer you the best deal. The media sums it up for CruiseCompete:
Score Luxury Cruises at Bargain Prices” (The Street)
Best site for cruise deals” (The Wall Street Journal)
28 Best Travel Sites” (Kiplinger's) Multiple annual mentions
36 Web Addresses You Should Know” (The Washington Post)