Stax Museum, Performing Arts Center Planned

Organizers behind proposed $17 million complex hope to revitalize depressed Memphis, Tenn., neighborhood.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — For the past 11 years, the site of the storied Stax Recording Studios — once the home of soul legends Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes and Rufus Thomas — has been a vacant lot in a poverty-wracked section of town.

But a group of local entrepreneurs that purchased the land last year plans to build a $17 million Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which would include a re-creation of the recording studio, as well as a performing arts center and music academy in partnership with adjacent LeMoyne–Owen College.

"The premise of the museum was to take a negative situation, which is the empty barren lot at the corner of College and McLemore, and turn it into a positive situation," said Sherman Willmott, director, vice president and curator of Ewarton Museum, Inc., the nonprofit group behind the project.

Plans for the complex include a 500-seat performing-arts center, a musical arts program for neighborhood youth and a music academy that would house the LeMoyne–Owen music department — which is scheduled to begin operation later this year on the LeMoyne–Owen campus until the permanent facility is completed. Ewarton's Web site estimates completion in a few years.

Willmott said the museum's organizers hope to give the South Memphis neighborhood's youth "opportunities that [Stax songwriters] Isaac Hayes and David Porter had when they walked through the doors."

The museum will be a replica of the city's former Capitol Theater. It will include memorabilia, interactive exhibits and other features that would tell the story of Stax records and soul music.

The Genesis

The story began in 1959, with the founding of the Satellite recording studio and label by Jim Stewart and his sister, Estelle Axton. After issuing a few singles on their Satellite imprint, including the 1961 Carla Thomas hit "Gee Whiz," Stewart and Axton took the first two letters of their last names and rechristened the label and studio Stax. Throughout the 1960s and into the mid-'70s, Stax produced some of the most influential soul hits of the era. The long list includes Booker T. and the MG's' "Green Onions" (1962) (RealAudio excerpt) Rufus Thomas'' "Walkin' the Dog" (1963) (RealAudio excerpt), Sam and Dave's "Soul Man" (1967) (RealAudio excerpt) and Redding's "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" (1967) (RealAudio excerpt).

Although Stax gained international prominence through its numerous hits, the studio also was the central nervous system of its South Memphis neighborhood, which teemed with restaurants, nightclubs, grocery stores and movie theaters.

"The people at Stax were friends with everyone in the neighborhood," recalled Sandra Hall, who worked at the label in the mid-'60s, first as a member of the Goodees and later in the company's publicity department.

"People in the neighborhood would come in and get handouts every now and then," Hall said. "Estelle always made sure that people got money if they walked in the door and needed it #151; if they were hungry or needed help with the rent. And working there was like a big party. Everyone seemed to love each other so much. I could not wait to get up in the morning and go to work at Stax, whether in the mailroom or anywhere."

But that sense of community had foundered by the mid-'70s, when Stax folded following a series of financial setbacks. The organizers of the Stax Museum hope to bring the communal feeling back to the neighborhood.

"This project is not redevelopment, it's revitalization," said Andy Cates, president and director of Ewarton Museum. "We have an area that was arguably as powerful an economic engine for South Memphis as ever existed. And we believe we can make that happen again.

"It's not in our interest to radically change the neighborhood," he continued. "We want to simply help the neighborhood empower itself. And we're using a natural resource — in this case, music — to help save kids. It gets down to arts to save kids."

Honoring The Soul Of The Neighborhood

The museum will honor the many artists who recorded at Stax, as well as artists of other soul labels and other genres who recorded at other studios in the neighborhood; artists who lived and worked in the neighborhood; and late artists who are buried in the neighborhood.

Other artists who lived or recorded in the neighborhood include Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Phineas Newborn Jr., Jimmie Lunceford and Maurice White.

Design and construction drawings for the complex are expected to be completed by the end of this year. A search for permanent staff will begin within the next two months.

Ewarton, Inc., was formed in 1997, when a group of anonymous donors committed seed capital through the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis to begin the project, according to the Stax Museum's Web site. In 1999, funding was increased to $4 million, with an additional $1 million set aside for the music academy's endowment fund.

In January, Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton pledged $2.5 million of the city's money toward construction, which is set to begin late next year. That brings the total in Ewarton's coffers to $5 million; the non-profit corporation still will need $10.5 million to complete the complex's construction. It hopes to raise that money from government sources, private individuals, corporations and foundations, according to the Web site (http://www.soulsvilleusa.com/).