News Column

Stax's past influences future musicians in Memphis

May 16, 2013

YellowBrix

By ADRIAN SAINZ

MEMPHIS, Tenn. - One by one the teenage singers practice the opening lines to "Boogie Wonderland," a disco-funk hit from an era before they were born, as dancers work on hip-swinging moves that require perfect choreography.

In another room, young musicians play the same song over and over on guitar, piano and drums, trying to get in rhythm and in tune before the singers and dancers join them to rehearse for an outdoor concert. The music hits a fevered high as the singers and the band mesh to recreate a pop classic.

Scenes like this play out daily at the Stax Music Academy, an after-school program where teenagers from some of Memphis' poorest neighborhoods learn how to dance, sing and play instruments.

Stax Records, from which the academy gets its name, died long ago, yet its legacy is still inspiring young people in the Memphis neighborhood where it was born.

The academy is steps away from the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, built 10 years ago on the site of the old recording studio where Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MGs, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers and Sam & Dave created some of American popular music's most memorable songs.

The academy also is adjacent to the Soulsville Charter School, which sends most, if not all, of its graduates to college every year.

It's been a year of celebration for the 10th anniversary of the museum. On May 2, Stax Records founder Jim Stewart - known for his extreme privacy - visited the museum to meet and congratulate the Stax Music Academy students for their success.

"The music is still alive and that's what great about it," the 82-year-old Stewart told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview. "I'm very proud of what they have done. It's amazing to me."

During the event, academy singers performed for Stewart, who shook hands with the teens afterward.

Memphis is where W.C. Handy first put the blues on paper, where Lucie Campbell and Memphis Minnie became trailblazing female performers, where Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis teamed with Sun Records founder Sam Phillips to pioneer rock `n' roll.

And it's where Stewart, a white fiddle player from rural southwest Tennessee, somehow attracted a unique, racially integrated cadre of top-shelf musicians and singers to create the soulful "Memphis Sound" at Stax Records in the 1960s.

Stax fostered a raw sound born from black church music, the blues, and rock `n' roll. It featured tight rhythm sections, powerful horn players, and singers who could be sexy and soulful in one tune, loud and forceful in another.

Some of Stax's musicians grew up in neighborhoods near the studio, which had moved into the old Capitol Theatre. They called it "Soulsville U.S.A." - a name that stuck to the surrounding neighborhood, now called Soulsville.

With Booker T. and the MGs as the house band, and the racially mixed Memphis Horns providing the backup that punctuated hits such as Sam & Dave's "Hold On I'm Comin'," Stax Records became to soul music what Motown was to rhythm and blues.

As he toured the museum, Stewart said it was hard to hold back the emotions.

"There was so much talent here, under circumstances that were almost considered impossible in Memphis, Tenn., in 1960 with the racial situation here," Stewart said in his first interview in at least 15 years. "It was a sanctuary for all of us to get away from the outside world."

Stewart said he turned Stax into a soul and R&B label after hearing Ray Charles sing "What'd I Say."

"I was converted, immediately," Stewart said. "I had never heard anything like that before. It allowed me to expand from country into R&B, into jazz, into gospel, wrapped all in one. That's what Stax is."

Stax Records enjoyed massive success into the late 1960s. But Redding and four members of the Bar-Kays died in a plane crash in 1967, and the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 intensified racial divisiveness in Memphis and around the country.

"We had so much tragedy," Stewart said.

By the mid-1970s, Stax was out of business due to financial turmoil and legal problems. The building that housed the studio was demolished.

The museum was built in 2003, with the facade of the old theater. It features a short film about Stax history, exhibits highlighting the label's most popular acts, walls of gold and platinum records, and even Hayes' flashy blue Cadillac.

Next door is Stax Music Academy, which began in 2000 with 125 primarily at-risk children in the cafeteria of nearby Stafford Elementary School.

The academy now resides in a gleaming two-story building with large windows and colorfully-painted rooms. The students pay nothing to attend.

The room dedicated to singing and dancing has a mirrored wall, where performers can watch themselves and each other. Another room is for band practice.

Once the teaching starts, it's clear this is not a typical after-school program. Energetic instructors switch rapidly from one piece of music to the next. The goal is to create a product, such as a show or concert, that students can call their own.

The students learn in a competitive atmosphere, away from the trouble and distractions of home and the tough neighborhoods in which many of them live. Many stay in the program for all four years.

Vocal coach Justin Merrick, 25, said the academy offers more than music classes. Leadership building and community service also are part of the instruction.

"We get to focus on producing productive citizens and helping to groom the entire person," Merrick said. "We're actually nurturing souls."

Other after-school music academies tutor teenagers from underserved U.S. communities. What makes Stax's program unique is the wealth of practical knowledge and tradition generated from the Stax experience, said J. Curtis Warner Jr., executive director of Berklee City Music Network, a collection of music programs for fourth to 12th graders.

Stax students are regulars at Berklee's summer program and some have attended Berklee College of Music in Boston.

"They're doing popular and contemporary music, but they're also doing classic music," Warner said. "The kids there, they understand the legacy ... They really buy into it."

Last month the Stax Music Academy performed "Boogie Wonderland" and other songs at Stax to the Max, an outdoor show on the grounds of the museum. It was the culmination of months of rehearsal, and a launching point for the teenagers who are graduating from high school and moving on to college.

One of them, 18-year-old Adrian Williams, has been offered several music scholarships, including a $50,000 per-year scholarship to Rhodes College in Memphis. He is among the academy students graduating from Soulsville Charter School on May 23.

All 37 graduating seniors from the charter school have been accepted to college with more than $8.6 million in combined scholarships and grants, Stax spokesman Tim Sampson said.

Williams, who grew up in Soulsville, said he had been singing all his life before coming to the academy as a ninth grader.

"Four years in the program has taught me the true essence of what it means to be a musician, and what it means to be soulful," Williams said.

Sometimes, as he sings and dances, he forgets about the world's other distractions, both good and bad. Williams said music "has the "power to change your life."

"Stax Music Academy has taught me that the aspirations for being a musician shouldn't be about the accolades or what to gain from it," Williams said. "Every time I practice, I practice in a way that I hope will reach someone one day."

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