Blue Star Museums Blog (Archive)

The Soulful Sounds of Memphis

The Stax Museum of American Soul Music lights up McLemore Avenue in Memphis. Photo courtesy of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, Memphis, Tennessee

In 1957, Tennessee banker Jim Stewart launched Satellite Records in a “recording studio” that doubled as his wife’s uncle’s garage. It was a humble beginning for a label that would one day change the legacy and sound of Southern soul. In 1961, the label became Stax Records, a name that is today synonymous with some of soul’s greatest icons. Otis Redding, the Staple Sisters, Isaac Hayes, and Sam & Dave all recorded with Stax, helping the label place 167 songs in the Top 100 pop charts, 243 songs in the Top 100 R&B charts, and secure eight Grammys and even an Oscar.

Although Stax folded in the 1970s (it was later re-launched in 2007), its spirit lives on through the Soulsville Foundation in Memphis. The organization runs the Stax Music Academy and the Soulsville Charter School, as well as the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Here, visitors can learn about the evolution of Southern soul, the history of Stax, and can groove to the label’s top hits on an actual dance floor.

This summer, the museum is also hosting WattStax: The Living Word, a photo exhibit commemorating the 40th anniversary of the WattStax concert. Held on August 20, 1972 in Los Angeles, the concert featured the entire roster of Stax musicians and, at the time, was lauded as “the black Woodstock.” The museum's collections curator, Levon Williams, spoke with the Blue Star Blog about the exhibit, and enlightened us about the history and distinguishing elements of Southern soul. As an added bonus, he also shared the five songs that he would classify as soul's greatest hits.

NEA: How did you become interested in soul music?

LEVON WILLIAMS: I was born into it. As an African American born in 1980, this was around me all the time. This was a part of my parents’ culture, and people much younger than me. I think as a black American, you’re born into a culture that includes music, soul music particularly.

NEA: Besides geography, what would you say distinguishes Southern soul from other types of soul?

WILLIAMS: Each region, whether it’s Northern soul, Southern soul, East Coast, or West Coast, everywhere you went, the music was very influenced by the culture. There’s a more delayed backbeat on the Southern soul because in the South, it was a slower pace of life. And in Motown, where everything’s industrial, everything’s on that upbeat kind. The culture of each region informs how music is played and how it’s interpreted.

The interior of the historic Hoopers A.M.E. Chapel, which was taken from the Mississippi Delta and reconstructed in the museum. The church is used to show the connections between gospel and Southern soul. Photo courtesy of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, Memphis, Tennessee

NEA: Can you talk a bit about the evolution of Southern soul?

WILLIAMS: The roots lead back to gospel and blues, and even those are very, very intertwined. Both came out of the oppression of blacks in America, out of slavery, out of slave songs. [Singing] gospel was the only time that slaves felt they really could express themselves in a way that wasn’t underneath oppression; the only time they felt free was in church. So it becomes this very different, very unique, very American thing because it’s informed by the oppression they were feeling.

Blues music was also taking place at the same time. It sort of began speaking in code about the ills of the day, or even the celebrations of the day. People seem to think that blues is particularly sad music, and it’s totally not. I think the mixing of those, and moving forward, taking the influence of jazz---all of these things sort of came together and created that rhythm and blues tradition. Also rock and roll comes out of it. So for me, Southern soul develops as time goes forward and people start experimenting a little bit, taking these elements.

Ray Charles would probably be cited as the person that really got it absolutely right, and put the stamp on what soul music is. It has the elements of the blues, it has that element of gospel in it, and the lyrics are secular. It’s about taking all of those influences, putting them together, and translating them, and making sure that your performance, whether it’s on record or it’s a live performance, that energy---everything that you’re dealing with, all the troubles of the day, all the celebrations of the day---is coming out in your performance. It’s a very real, very earthy expression.

NEA: How do you think Stax, and Southern soul music in general, fits into American musical history?

WILLIAMS: I wouldn’t say that it sticks out any more than these other genres that I mentioned, but again, what I would like to say is that just like blues, just like gospel music, these things are uniquely American. These forms of artistic expression came from the culture of America, the environment that people were dealing with. It’s that real expression of joy, pain---every emotion that you can think of---filtered through the art form of music. It’s important to America because it’s uniquely American…. And for the most part, it’s an African-American-created art form. It’s important to the American story because those kinds of stories aren’t always told, what the African American has brought to American culture as a whole.

An image of Mavis Staples performing at WattStax. The photograph is featured in the museum's current exhibit, WattStax: The Living Word. Photo courtesy of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, Memphis, Tennessee

NEA: Can you tell me a little bit about Wattstax: The Living Word exhibit and what visitors will see there? What was the significance of the event?

WILLIAMS: It’s a photo exhibit to commemorate the concert Wattstax that took place in Watts, Los Angeles in 1972. It’s large, print color photos---pictures taken of the artists, pictures taken of the audience---just to give people a feel for what was happening and why this was significant. At the time, it was considered the “black Woodstock.” It was the largest gathering of its kind in L.A. It was a culmination of the Watts Summer Festival that had been going on for seven years, and a partnership with Stax Records.

NEA: As a curator, how difficult is it to visually convey the sound and culture of soul music?

WILLIAMS: The way the Stax Museum approaches it is really trying to take the visitor on a journey through the creation of soul music, [and] the different elements that came together to make it. Gospel, blues, jazz---these American art forms really sort of amalgamated and created what is commonly called soul music. Before we even take them on the journey to Stax itself, the record label, or Southern soul, which is what we focus on, it’s trying to give the visitor a real understanding that this [music] didn’t just come out of anywhere. This is a culmination of a people’s culture.

Isaac Hayes's peacock blue, gold-trimmed, fur-lined, 1972 Cadillac. Photo courtesy of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, Memphis, Tennessee

NEA: Do you have any personal favorite pieces in the collection?

WILLIAMS: The two biggest things that stand out and get the most attention are a 105-year-old church [from Mississippi] that was rebuilt in our museum. Everything in that church is original except for maybe two parts of it. We also have Isaac Hayes’s 1972 peacock blue Cadillac with gold trim, which was a great thing for us to get.

NEA: What would you say are five must-listen songs or artists to anyone interested in discovering soul?

WILLIAMS: It’s very hard to come up with five. But I did come up with five Southern soul favorites that I think are great.

One would be Hold On, I’m Comin’ by Sam & Dave, written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter. For me personally, it’s the perfect melding of the two songwriters and Sam & Dave. I think that song just came out perfectly.

I really love Isaac Hayes’s version of Burt Bacharach’s Walk On By. His arrangement is so different from the Bacharach arrangement that had been done for Dionne Warwick. It was taking something and deconstructing it, and reconstructing it. I think that’s when Isaac really showed his potential.

Another would be Respect Yourself by the Staple Singers. Mavis’s voice is so fantastic, and Pops’s voice---I love the way that he sings. I think the song itself really showed where they were going as a political group.

I would also include Al Green’s Love and Happiness. Al’s voice is always fantastic, and the Hi Rhythm Section---again, it was just the perfect melding of these two entities that were working together on this.

And lastly, I would say Aretha Franklin’s I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You). It’s simply classic, [with] her voice, and the Muscle Shoal Sound backing her up.

NEA: Why did you join Blue Star Museums?

WILLIAMS: When I originally read about Blue Star Museums…I thought it was a great idea. We have an immense respect for the men and women who serve in the military. That’s first and foremost. And the second layer for me is that I really feel like it’s targeting younger families, and it’s introducing younger families to museums as places of learning and places of bonding with family members. I think that’s fantastic.

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