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Stax's past influences future musicians in Memphis

Thursday - 5/16/2013, 10:45am  ET

In this March 22, 2013 photo, Bongo player Brandon Chornes, from left, drummer David Pruitt and bass guitar player David McKenzie rehearse a song at Stax Music Academy in Memphis, Tenn. The Stax Music Academy is an after-school program where teenagers from some of Memphis’ poorest neighborhoods learn how to dance, sing and play instruments. The academy’s students play annual shows in Memphis and have toured to Washington, Italy and Australia, helping spread the soulful “Memphis Sound.” (AP Photos/Adrian Sainz)

ADRIAN SAINZ
Associated Press

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) -- 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.

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