The site of Stax Records has looked more like a tombstone than a cornerstone for over two decades; a historical marker is the sole remnant in the empty lot that once housed the legendary musical institution that defined and redefined soul and R&B music. But a proposal released yesterday by Ewarton Museum, Inc. in Memphis looks to rebuild the seminal Capitol Theater as the “Stax Museum of American Soul Music.”
In conjunction with the City of Memphis and LeMoyne-Owen College, Ewarton announced plans to build a replica of the Capitol Theater for the museum, which, according to a statement, will include “memorabilia, interactive exhibits and other features which will tell the story of Stax records and soul music.” The multi-million-dollar project also includes the creation of a music academy, a 500-seat performing arts center and a musical arts program for neighborhood youth in the neighborhood.
“I feel good because I know the legacy is not going to die,” says Deanie Parker, a Stax veteran as Deanie Parker and the Valadors as well as the Stax Director of Publicity from 1966 to 1976. “We’re going to be able to provide a place where children can come and learn about people who they hear on the radio. They can recognize that the rap song they’re listening to has thirty seconds of a song in it that was created right here in Memphis.”
Established in the late 1950s by siblings Jim Stewart (“St”) and Estelle Axton (“ax”), Stax landed its first major hit with Carla Thomas’ “Gee Wiz” in 1960. What followed was the creation of an institution impressive not only for its run of hits over the next two decades by the likes of Otis Redding, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Booker T. & the MGs, Isaac Hayes, and Sam and Dave, but also due to its status as that rare creation: a successfully integrated business during racially volatile years.
“What this [museum] will become is more than just a place where tourists and people interested in sharing the music created at Stax records can come,” Parker says. “It becomes more like Stax was when I was there, and that’s a real anchor of the community. We were a business with an open-door policy, where you weren’t questioned because of the color of your skin or your gender, or because you had ideas that sounded bizarre. We wanted to know, do you have a song? Can you play an instrument? What’s your thing?”
“It was a family atmosphere,” fellow Stax recording artist William Bell says of the label’s magic. “The changing times within American society, the freshness of the creativity and the blending of musical styles; it was a combination of all that.”
While the well of musical creativity never really dried, a series of bad business transactions doomed the label; on January 12, 1976, Stax closed its doors permanently. “It was like getting a divorce,” says Bell, who left shortly before the end.
An apartment complex filled the lot until two months ago, when it was leveled. Last year, Ewarton purchased the site, as well as intellectual property and licensing rights for the Stax name. Fantasy Records, who owns the rights to all Stax recordings, has joined as a working partner in the deal. An architectural team has already been contracted, and their plans are slated for delivery at the end of this year.
Parker is hesitant to offer a date for the museum’s opening, but optimistically suggests that it could be as close as two years away. As for the Academy, it should launch in the immediate future, as it is based on the nearby LeMoyne-Owen College campus.
“We can invite back performers and engineers and producers and others to share their experience and knowledge,” Parker says of the Academy. “We all became successes on somebody else’s shoulders. And so we must become the shoulders of the future so we can pass this tradition on.”