Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Memphis Soul and The Struggle for Civil Rights

Any visit to Memphis must include a stop at the National Civil Rights Museum. Housed in the Lorraine Motel, site of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., this exceptional museum brings the stories of civil and human rights to life in moving fashion. Interpretive exhibits and in-depth audio/visual displays focus on milestone events like the Montgomery bus boycott, the Memphis sanitation strike and much more.

While turmoil and struggle dominated the streets, inside Stax Records musicians, singers and songwriters were coming together.

While segregation dominated the South throughout the label’s early years, Stax was one of the most successfully integrated companies in the country — from top management and administration to its artists. Though founded by Jim Stewart and co-owned by Estelle Axton, Al Bell eventually joined the team, becoming co-owner of Stax Records in 1968.With 200-plus employees, Stax was one of the largest African-American-owned businesses in the United States during its time, and the most successful record label ever to come out of Memphis,Tennessee.

These are the facts that reflect a very real relationship between whites and blacks during a time when, for most of the country, that was not possible. But to truly understand this relationship, look no further than the Stax house band.“It’s fair to say that,to define what was going on in Stax at the time,” former label executive Al Bell said in an interview with CBS News, “one would have to walk into Studio A and see two white guys and two black guys who made up a rhythm section called “Booker T. and the MGs”…and hear all this soulful, passionate music.”

Composed of BookerT.Jones,Steve Cropper,Donald“Duck” Dunn andAl Jackson,BookerT.and the MGs provided the instrumental backing for Rufus and Carla Thomas and Sam & Dave, as well as penning their own instrumental hit,“Green Onions.” Over the next seven years, the group recorded independently, backed various Stax acts and pursued their own individual careers. Jones worked with artist-producer William Bell and co-wrote the blues classic “Born Under a Bad Sign,” while Cropper supervised the recordings of Otis Redding and co-wrote hits withWilson Pickett and Eddie Floyd.Though BookerT.and the MGs made music at the height of the Civil Rights Movement,they never pursued a political agenda.They were, to put it simply, a bunch of guys who became friends through music and thus experienced the kind of freedom Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., sought for all people.

Though Stax Records was an oasis of racial harmony, and the color of one’s skin was not an issue, the label did far more than produce music. It gave back to its African-American, music-buying public in many ways, utilizing its marketing budget to help keep publications like Jet and Black Enterprise operating. Stax financed free benefit concerts with its artists, helped raise money for the needy during the holidays, and participated in and helped publicize the federal government’s “Stay in School” program.

This spirit continues today in Memphis with the culturally diverse Stax Music Academy, the Soulsville Charter School and the Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum, as well as the National Civil Rights Museum, which is housed in the Lorraine Motel, site of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and brings stories of civil and human rights to life in moving fashion.


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