Soulsville, U.S.A.

After our intense trip to the Lorraine Motel, we made our way to the Stax Museum. We drove through what felt like a pretty rough area. The streets were deserted. Boarded-up storefronts. Much of Memphis felt deserted during our trip, although Beale Street was hopping (to some degree: we were informed by everyone we met that Beale Street is out of control starting in May, and you can barely walk on the streets because of the sea of people). But during our trip, we pretty much had everything to ourselves. It was an eerie feeling at times, like all of Memphis is a museum. Not a big tourist month, obviously. And early January is, of course, Elvis’ birthday, but his birthday is January 8th, probably the least-traveled week of the year. Everyone is back in school, the holidays are over, you are about to start the long stretch of winter. Even Graceland wasn’t a mob scene. I loved it. I love going to places off-season anyway. I have taken three trips to Ireland during November. I’ll probably go again during that month. It’s one of my favorite times to go.

We weren’t sure what we were looking for, but suddenly we saw it: the marquee with the red letters: STAX MUSEUM OF AMERICAN SOUL MUSIC. One of my favorite parts about Memphis is that it has old-fashioned signage. Even the neon is old-fashioned. I always keep my eyes peeled in New York for those ghosts of the past, such as old signage, and we’re just not the kind of city that maintains its history like that. Los Angeles is a great city for old signs. It’s just a different style, a different look, and I love it so much.

We got so excited when we saw the sign (and so proud of ourselves for navigating Memphis so successfully – we had even found Elvis’ high school!), that we pulled over onto the street opposite the museum. There is always parking on the street in Memphis. I started laughing when we walked towards the building and saw the massive parking lot behind it. We decided to move the car and park where we were supposed to. It’s hard for me to tell, since I was new to the area, and couldn’t read the signals, but it felt like we were in a deserted and relatively rough area of town. The Stax Museum, for many years after it closed up shop, was only marked by a plaque on the side of the road. Besides the phenomenal music that came out of Stax (and that will always be its main legacy), the only evidence of its existence was that plaque. That has all changed. The recording studio has been rebuilt, there is a music academy right next door with SOULSVILLE USA stretched across the roof, and the museum itself is gorgeous. Really well done, and I highly recommend taking a trip to Memphis to see this place.

Jen and I were the ONLY PEOPLE THERE. It felt like a personal tour. There were two guys working the front desk. Keenan was our guide. He was awesome. The lobby is beautiful and we stood there talking with Keenan a little bit about Stax. Jen went off to find a ladies’ room. I asked Keenan questions. He was amazed it was our first trip to Memphis and wanted to know what we were planning on seeing. I said, “Well, it’s Elvis’ birthday on Sunday–” He nodded automatically, with that kind of patient “Yes, yes, Elvis, I know” look on his face that every Memphian appears to display when talking about Elvis. “So we’re going to Graceland. We just came from the Lorraine Motel, and we’ll do Sun Records as well. But we figured Stax would be a great way to get into the Memphis music scene.” He was very informative. He was enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and friendly. Probably around 30 years old. I asked him if he ever wished for a time machine, to go back and hang out at Stax when it was hopping. He said, “I feel, in so many ways, that I was born in the wrong era.” I laughed and said, “You and me both.” Jen joined us. He was telling us what we would see on our tour (which was unmonitored – we were free to just wander around), and what to look for. First we would see a little documentary about Stax. Then we would go into the museum itself. He said, “Isaac Hayes’ Cadillac is in there.” Jen and I had, coincidentally, a big conversation about Isaac Hayes during our drive down to Memphis. She said to me, “Member that Isaac Hayes story I told you?” I said, “Oh yes!” Keenan watched this exchange and said quietly, “Well, now I have to hear the story, please.” Hahaha. Jen said, “Well, he could barely read music – I don’t think he could read it at all – ” Keenan nodded – Jen said, “So when working with his band, he would point at each instrument and tell them what he wanted, by making the sounds – He had it all in his head …” Keenan was nodding, with a big smile on his face. Nobody else was there so his attention was all on us, and I got the sense that he liked the fact that two people had just come in who were enthusiastic and already knew a little bit about the artists who had sung with Stax, and weren’t ignorant about the history of what went on there.

He told us we were the only ones there at present. “And there is a dance floor in the museum with a big sign that says EXPRESS YOURSELF, so if you feel the desire to get your groove on, feel free.”

“Oh my God, we so will,” I said.

He ushered us into the small movie theatre and left us. Jen and I sat in the chairs, laughing with excitement about the experience we were having. We were just so happy to be right where we were at that moment. And it was so AWESOME to have it to ourselves! The documentary was really really good, setting us up with the history, how it all started, why it was different, why it was revolutionary, what distinguished it from Motown. There were interviews with many of the main musicians. You could still feel their passion for the place. A couple of guys teared up as they were sharing their memories. A special place, full of energy, with black and white musicians recording together, playing together. A racially equal place in the middle of a pretty segregated town. It sounds a little bit like heaven, and all of the Stax people talked about it like that. The assassination of Martin Luther King changed all that. It changed Memphis forever. Hostility just beneath the surface came exploding out into full view. Stax never really recovered. The documentary seemed to want to deal mostly with the good times, not dwell on the bad, but I got the sense that racial tensions – which had not existed at all during the heyday of Stax (white and black guys were interviewed saying, “We were just men to each other – I didn’t think of him as white – he was just my trumpet player …”) – exploded, ruining the good-time friendly vibe of Stax. MLK’s assassination had larger implications for Memphis as well, and the documentary went into that a little bit. You could feel the entire culture shift at that moment. Isaac Hayes was interviewed, everyone was interviewed. It was a great documentary. Jen knows more about this stuff than I do, so I was very glad to have an introductory film to set me up for everything I would be about to see.

The museum itself is exquisite and overwhelming. We could have spent hours more time there. The memorabilia they have is exhaustive. They have everything. Dresses worn by Tina Turner, Ann Peebles, Isaac Hayes’ outrageous outfits, all kinds of recording equipment, they have recreated the waiting room exactly as it was, with Billboard magazines from the day lying on the vinyl couch, and old-school bottles of soda on the table.

Tina Turner’s dress

The studio itself was awe-inspiring. A giant room with a slanted floor. The space had originally been a theatre of some kind, and they used that space for the studio. They had no money to level out the floor, but they soon found that that gentle slant improved the sound in that space, creating a mini-amphitheatre. Events are held in that room, wedding receptions, etc.

The displays of the museum wound around with little cubby-holes for each artist (and there were hundreds). We came upon the dance floor, and danced. One of the guys working the front desk happened to walk by, and was polite, saying, “Excuse me” but it made me laugh because we were so busted in our private moment.

The music! Some of the greatest music ever recorded. There were headphones set up, too, at various intervals. There was an overwhelming wall of 45s that stretched around a corner. Seeing it all in one place was something else.

There was also a beautifully lit wall of album covers. Oh, vinyl, I love you so.

In a big isolated case was the 1972 Academy Award for “Shaft”.

And that led us into the CRAZY area where Isaac Hayes’ blue Cadillac with chrome detailing circled in a corner. This car was insane. INSANE. It had a white fur interior, it gleamed in blue and gold, and was so gorgeous and so right there that I had a hard time not leaping over the railing and climbing inside.

My God. It is outrageous, it is over-the-top, it is gorgeous and ridiculous. Thank God there are people out there who do have that sense of history, who preserve such things, so that the rest of us can enjoy them. This was a car Isaac Hayes bought with the money he made from Stax, and when Stax went under, the car was re-possessed. But it has been brought back to its home, and I am so glad of that. I am so grateful that I have seen that damn car. (While Graceland was wonderful, it was Elvis’ car museum across the street that blew the top of my head off, and I wanted to hide in the bathroom so that I could spend a night amongst those gorgeous machines, a la From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler). These cars!! These men who bought these cars!

I look at those cars and I see wealth and power, sure. I see entertainment and fun, and men with a lot of money who buy beautiful things, who value beautiful cars. But I also see SEX. These cars exude sex. I mean, LOOK at that thing. Frankly, it makes me want to have sex. Immediately.

There was an entire room devoted to Otis Redding, one of their most successful stars. We saw his instruments, and photos of him. We saw some of his hotel bills (with his careful calculation of the tip for room service). See, it’s artifacts like that that I really love. Totally everyday objects, things left behind, casual things, something that Otis Redding would never have thought would ever be saved, or be behind glass some day in a museum. But it’s evidence. Of a life lived. A full life. He threw a barbecue for 1300 people and there was his notebook-page of a menu, with his own handwriting on it. You know, there had to be a full cow to be slaughtered, as well as 10 pigs. Stuff like that.

There was a wall of telegrams to Mrs. Otis Redding when Otis died in a plane crash in 1967.

There was one there from Elvis.

The gift shop was also great. I didn’t buy much while I was in Memphis. I bought a couple of magnets at Graceland. I saved all my ticket stubs, though. Those are more important to me than buying a cheeseball mug or something. But the Stax gift shop was pretty cool. They sold 45s. Jen and I browsed for a while and talked a little bit more with Keenan, who was so nice. He gave us a “Memphis Passport”, with all of these deals for the Memphis sights, buy one, get one free, etc. We ended up using our passport when we went to Sun Studios the following day.

What is mindblowing is that seeing Stax and Sun back to back really gives you a sense, like no other, of what extraordinarily fertile ground Memphis had for making music. Similar to Detroit, I suppose, and Nashville. Specific music-heavy towns. Of course music is made everywhere, but having two organizations like Stax and Sun (which coincided in time for a bit) in one town was something else. Memphis is an interesting place. The Mississippi River gave it somewhat of a cosmopolitan vibe – it’s a port city after all – so influences easily flow in and out of it, that’s for sure, and probably was true from its inception. Land-bound cities are sometimes more isolated in their influences. Memphis was wide wide open. Its racial makeup was also rich and diverse, and there was a ton of crossover. This was something Elvis obviously absorbed – hillbilly/country/gospel/rhythm & blues/pop – the blend was already occurring when he came along, and certainly the audience was shifting. White kids listening to the “race” radio stations, hungry for something else, hungry for a more alive sound, something that dug deep into them. Elvis was the white boy who brought that underbelly to the surface, but there were so many others. He was a sponge, expressing the culture that he grew up in, and its mix of sounds and people. But Memphis was ripe for something like that. It’s in the ground, it’s in the air. You could feel it at Stax too.

On Sunday night, I met a homeless guy on Beale Street and befriended him. He thought I was from Memphis (“Girl, you just standin’ there lookin’ like you lived here your whole life!”), and was amazed and almost hurt when I told him it was my first visit. He was shocked. He then began to tell me the whole history of Beale Street, pointing things out to me. (He didn’t ask for money, either. He was just excited to show off his home town). He told me about different buildings, and how he used to climb the scaffolding of one of them in high school. He said, “Sheila -” (once I told him my name, he kept saying it) “The world is so messed up today. We have so many problems in our world, Sheila.” I said, “I agree. But on a one-to-one basis – like with you and me – we’re doing just fine.” He reached out and gave me a huge hug, saying, “Praise God, praise God, you are right.” He told me (and this may have been a line, but I will just report it here because it is an enjoyable story) that he used to carry the instruments of the Stax musicians back in their heyday and the musicians would throw him a couple of bucks.

“I cried on the day they padlocked that door, Sheila. It was a sad sad day for Memphis.”

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7 Responses to Soulsville, U.S.A.

  1. april says:

    That car is a baaaaaaad mutha… SHUT YOUR MOUTH!!!

  2. Larry Aydlette says:

    You’re killing me with this stuff. The Oscar AND the Cadillac. I might have had to sit down and compose myself.

  3. sheila says:

    Larry – haha. I know. It was so intense. A rush of success, adrenaline and sex.

    The whole museum is overwhelming but that corner in particular was like a Shrine to Awesomeness.

  4. Melissa says:

    I love going to museums on empty days and not feel rushed, or in the way of other people – you get to immerse yourself in the experience, instead of just seeing it….

  5. Kate says:

    Oh, that telegram …brought me to my knees.

  6. Nondisposable Johnny says:

    When I make it in this world I’m gonna get a car just like that!

  7. Paul says:

    Last year, I wandered into a Memphis bar, not knowing anyone, but having a foreign accent tends to help that. Before I left I’d met one of the managers of the Stax Museum and had a long, long conversation about Isaac Haye’s death (and the impact of Scientology on that early demise) and the greatness of Bettye Lavette, among other things. Memphis is great like that. So many people to meet, with so many stories.

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