Thursday, February 01, 2007

Soul, in the Strangest Places

To visit Memphis is to be surrounded by music. Beale Street has a lot to do with this, but if you’re lucky enough to spend some time here, you come across the music that made Memphis famous in the oddest places. I bought milk one night at my local Wallgreens and they were playing a live Earth, Wind and Fire show on the PA system. Same thing at a local shoe store, an Ann Peebles record. Both times the music was played at a low level, somewhere above ambient, but it caught my attention, not because the music was great (it is), but because of the setting. Even though people weren’t dancing in the aisles, they were humming, bobbing, reaching for paper towel rolls and casual flats. This isn’t any different from any other city. People love music everywhere, but what struck me as important was how Memphis continues to celebrate this music, even in the most mundane locations.

Two of the better-known attractions in Memphis that openly celebrate this history are the Smithsonian Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.

The Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum tells the complete story of Memphis music. More than a sound, Memphis music was about a movement. From the rural fields of the 1930’s, to the Sun and Stax era of the 1970’s, to its continuing influence today, the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum tells the story of the musical pioneers who overcame racial and socio-economic barriers to create the music that shook the world. With over 100 songs, the audio tour is a museum in and of itself.

Stax, on the other hand, takes an intense look at arguably the most Memphis of all Memphis music, Soul. Home to more than 2,000 cultural artifacts dating back to the 1959 launch of Stax Records—the tiny studio that somehow managed to crank out a huge catalog of hits from soul icons like Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Rufus Thomas, the Staples Singers and countless more. On the original site of Stax Records, this 17,000-square-foot museum celebrates not just the artists, but also the music that changed our culture forever.

And if the inherint drama of this museum doesn't get you, there's always Isaac Hayes’ Cadillac from the film, Shaft. I’ll write more on that later.

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