Stax finally got the hometown recognition it deserved earlier this decade with the opening of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and its Stax Music Academy, which serves the North Memphis "Soulsville" neighborhood in much the same way that the original Stax label did — by providing a positive creative outlet for kids in the area.
And this year, the label is getting some kind of 50th birthday celebration through a partnership among three organizations: Soulsville (the nonprofit that operates the Stax museum and academy), the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau (MCVB), and the Concord Music Group, a Los Angeles-based company that acquired the Stax name and much of the label's catalog a couple of years ago and is trying to relaunch Stax as an active label this year.
The celebration climaxes locally this month with what the MCVB is calling "Seven Days of Soul," a week of events that will culminate in a revue-style Stax concert June 22nd at The Orpheum Theatre. Sponsored by the Concord Music Group, the concert will serve as a benefit for the Stax Museum and Music Academy.
This concert will actually be the second of at least four big Stax concerts this year to commemorate the label's 50th anniversary. In July, Stax revues will play the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles and the annual Porretta Soul Festival in Porretta Terme, Italy. The first of these concerts took place in March at the South By Southwest Music Festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, where Isaac Hayes hosted a show featuring Booker T. & the MGs, Eddie Floyd, and William Bell.
Asked if that show would serve as a template for the Memphis concert in June, Robert Smith, vice president of strategic marketing for Concord, says yes, but adds that the Memphis concert will be a "bigger, better" version. In addition to all the Stax artists who performed in Austin, the Memphis show was slated, at press time, to also include Mabel John, the Temprees, Rance Allen, and the Reddings, a group led by Otis Redding's sons.
If the June 22nd concert in Memphis wants to top what Concord and Stax put together in Austin this spring, that's a lofty goal.
I showed up at Antone's Music Hall in Austin more than half an hour before that show's scheduled 7:30 p.m. start time, and the line to get in was already snaking around the block and growing fast. The number of people in line seemed to be about four times club capacity. In three trips to SXSW, I haven't seen anything quite like it. In fact, I barely got in. Inside, the Stax crew proved worthy of such attention. Hayes strode across the stage clad in a red dashiki and sunglasses to offer an introduction: "Tonight is about some very special music. It's about 50 years of soul music. We've come together to celebrate Stax. Can you dig it?"
And with that, Booker T. & the MGs took flight, launching into "Melting Pot." Booker T. Jones set the foundation on organ, childhood friends Steve Cropper and Donald "Duck" Dunn flanked each other on guitar and bass, and modern-era addition Steve Potts kept the beat. There were moments when the quartet lapsed into playing like a very good contemporary blues bar band instead of playing like Booker T. & the MGs, but when Cropper launched the opening riff of "Hip Hug-Her," you could feel the room levitate, and from then on it was flawless: Cropper lashing out with precision riffs, Dunn crouched down, pushing the music along, Jones leading the band from behind his Hammond, mostly stone-faced but flashing a big toothy grin when "Green Onions" got the whole room dancing. As I stood up close, it was hugely entertaining to see all the eye contact and subtle nods that help orchestrate a sound among musicians who have been playing together for 45 years.
After a 40-minute set, the band was joined by original Stax star Bell, who ripped through a few of his biggest hits. Performing "Never Like This Before," he sounded like his prime years never ended. But an impassioned reading of his trademark "You Don't Miss Your Water" was the night's highlight, Cropper delicately lacing guitar riffs into the title refrain and Jones' organ lines circling the verses like an ice skater's figure eights. At the end, even the guy running the soundboard stood up and applauded.
"I don't get to play with him near enough," a glowing Cropper said, as Bell exited stage left. "He just made my day."
Bell was followed by Eddie Floyd, who pounded out his classic "Knock On Wood," among other hits (including Sam & Dave's "Soul Man"), and Bell and Hayes rejoined the stage for a group reading of Otis Redding's "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay."
"In the music business, you never know how people are going to respond to something until you get it out there," says Deanie Parker, the former Stax songwriter, performer, and publicist who went on to head up Soulsville. "So I don't think that any of us thought the demand and the appreciation for what it is we're celebrating this year was as great as it's turned out to be. Look at SXSW. We thought we'd get that kind of response, but we didn't know until it happened."
"When you get involved in those kinds of things, you always have this idealized notion of how things might come off, but honestly I think it exceeded my expectations," says Smith of that first 50th anniversary concert in Austin. "At an event like SXSW, with a couple of thousand artists playing, it's really hard to gather real momentum, but there was a palpable sense that this was the show to see, and when the line started to build, way before showtime, we had a sense of it. By showtime, I think it was three blocks long."
But Smith was even more impressed by the tone and diversity of the crowd in Austin than by its size.
"The audience was just so broad, young and old," Smith says. "There were so many different types of people there because I think people knew this was going to be an important musical event. And I think that celebration is a big part of what this whole year is about."