B ack in the 1960s, the Stax recording studio and in-house Satellite Record Shop were gathering spaces for musicians — black and white — to exchange ideas and collaborate on songs. The music that came from that time and that place would be heard around the world and become the soundtrack for change during the civil rights movement.
With the downfall of Stax and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the area would see a sharp decline and blight would fill in the gaps left by an exodus of residents and businesses. But the Memphis Music Magnet is looking to turn that around. Led by organizations such as the LeMoyne-Owen CDC, Community LIFT (Leveraging Investments for Transformation), and the Soulsville Foundation, a new twist is being put on the idea of a gathering place as impetus for revitalization.
The Memphis Slim House is a music “collaboratory” (collaboration + laboratory), best described as a community center focusing on music rather than after-school sports; a gathering spot for members of the art and music worlds.
“This place is the Memphis music myth realized,” explains Memphis Slim board member Pat Mitchell Worley. “That myth [was] that ‘at Stax everybody came together,’ but it was really only the people that worked at Stax, they all worked together. At Sun [Studios], they worked together. Here, it’s people who are all doing different things coming here to collaborate, but they still have their own things that they’re doing — they’re putting out their own music, they’re producing the right beats, performing with the symphony, or what have you. But here, they can come together and work together, share music, share ideas, write together, and everything. So that’s why the phrase ‘community center’ seems to work better in explaining what we do.”
John “Peter” Chatman was born in Memphis 100 years ago. Better known as Memphis Slim, the jump blues piano compositions he recorded for such labels as Okeh, Chess, Bluebird, and King in the 1930s through the 1980s have been covered for years by musical legends in their own right.
Slim’s band was known as the House Rockers, named for his Miracle label recording “Rockin’ the House.” His own house, having fallen into disrepair in the South Memphis neighborhood that gave us the likes of Aretha Franklin and David Porter, has been reborn and is rocking the neighborhood in its own way again.
“Musicians get the opportunity to come in here and collaborate and work with one another on different projects,” says Isaac Daniel, director of the House. He’s a working musician, playing woodwinds and saxophone, the production manager for the Stax Music Academy, and has worked with the collaboratory since last fall.
The Greater Memphis Neighborhoods Plan was developed in 2011 by citywide stakeholders to revitalize underserved areas and, through a selection process of community input, focused on three neighborhoods to start: Binghampton, Frayser, and South Memphis. Memphis Slim House is owned by the LeMoyne-Owen College CDC and operated by Community LIFT, an organization that uses strategic investments to revitalize neighborhoods and develop thriving, sustainable communities. Memphis Slim House underwent a $365,000 renovation funded by the Kresge Foundation, ArtPlace America, the Assisi Foundation of Memphis, and the Hyde Family Foundation, beginning in 2012 and ending with its grand opening just over a year ago.
“With the redevelopment of Slim House, it’s the reinvigoration of that tradition [music], we’re really trying to use that tradition as our primary economic development strategy for the neighborhood,” says Tsedey Betrou, vice president of Community LIFT. “It’s not just part of revamping the culture of the neighborhood, but really using it as a magnet to attract musicians, tourists, and other people into the neighborhood.”
The new building, the same footprint as the original house, was designed by Jason Jackson of brg3s architects. It has an interior of warm woods, some of it repurposed from the old home which was in such disrepair that the only original piece is the brick fireplace (dismantled and soundly rebuilt). The space flows for both people and music, and is accommodating for a group as small as a trio of musicians to the audience that might sit to hear them.
“We have an event called the Memphis Sandbox,” Daniel says, “where we have different artists of different genres who come in together and they make music from scratch and just vibe, or sometimes they’ll have prepared pieces and perform in different genres.”
On one such occasion, Daniel continues, artists from Opera Memphis, the Stax Music Academy, the University of Memphis, and a local Beale Street musician came to play together.
Most of the artists utilizing the space are local, Daniel says. “This is really for our community to bring us together in Memphis and this is the focal point.” But those from other cities, such as Lady Rizo who came in recently to write music and rehearse before recording at nearby Royal Studios, want to be part of the magic as well.
Music Makers is an educational-based program for people to come in, make music and, at the end of seven weeks, have the opportunity to perform and sell their merchandise. “It gives them the platform to learn the whole entire process,” Daniel says.
In addition to musicians, support people such as artists and photographers are brought in to collaborate on album covers, and engineers work to perfect the sound and concept of compositions. There is gallery space upstairs with a revolving showing of local artists, from photographers to painters to sculptors.
Membership runs $75 per year and comes with an allotment of practice hours per month and the use of recording equipment. But it’s the sense of community that is the real prize. Just as one might find at Royal around the corner, or as was found in Stax across the street; just as the porches and living rooms were when the neighborhood was the heartbeat of Memphis music.
Like the bookend beats of Stax and Royal, Memphis Slim House has a strong foundation of history and hits. However, says Worley, “It is more about the present. It focuses on helping present artists who may grow into being the next superstar or the next musician who’s playing around town. But it’s dealing with ‘the now.’”