Memphis Finds Value of Its Soul Roots

Roots of soul music are firmly planted in Memphis, a city that churns out stars.

By<a Href="">michele Norris</a>
June 06, 2002, 6:09 PM

M E M P H I S, Tenn., June 9, 2002 -- The roots of soul music are firmly planted in Memphis, a city that churned out a long list of soul superstars, mostly on the Stax record label.

But the city's tourist trade largely ignored this homegrown soul — until recently.

"The powers that be didn't realize the value and the treasure that they had in the music that we were producing and putting out," said Isaac Hayes, one of Memphis soul's 1960s stars.

Once overshadowed, the Stax legacy will now have a home called Soulsville — a $20 million redevelopment project under construction that will feature a museum and an academy to nurture the next generation.

"We are determined that we are going to provide for any child who wishes to discover whether they have talent," said Deanie Parker, president of Soulsville, "whether it's to sing or to write or to become an engineer or producer … [or] a marketer.

"We want to mentor to these children from the community," Parker added. "And we are hoping that he children who we are going to attract first and foremost are the children who have the potential to be at risk. That's our mission."

Rawer Than Motown

Part of the problem in preserving a Stax legacy had been that soul's image and sound weren't always upbeat like the Motown sound.

"The sound … it wasn't polished," Hayes said. "It was raw. We wrote about our lives. Whatever happened during the day, we wrote about it. Whatever we saw happen to someone else, we wrote about it. We were inspired."

Besides Hayes, the scene's stars included Sam and Dave, Otis Redding and Booker T and the MG's.

Memphis soul reflected the tumult of the times. The unique brand of soul that came out of this city became the soundtrack for the struggles of the civil rights movement.

And because Memphis was home to one of the movement's most painful chapters, many believe the city was slow to celebrate the Stax sound. After Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination here in 1968, the white power structure that controlled the tourist trade turned its back on soul music.

"For years, Memphis has been very sensitive about its racial disparities," Parker said. "This has been a separate city, and I think that perhaps to have promoted soul music was not necessarily the image that people … wanted to communicate to the rest of the world."

"There was a kind of sweep-it-under-the-rug of our musical heritage," said Henry Nelson, a local radio disc jockey.

Local Rediscovery

Then, a new vintage soul station debuted in 1998 and immediately topped the ratings for both black and white listeners.

"As we who are now the generation of 40-plus-year-olds have gotten older, we realize that this music has never died in our hearts … never died in our soul," said Nelson, who now DJs at Soul Classics 103.5, WRBO.

"When people heard it, it was quite a phenomenon, actually," he added, "because it was not just a music that was being felt by the African-American community but by a non-ethnic audience — and even more phenomenally by an audience we never expected, which is kids who are 12 years old and up."

Some also saw it as a wake-up call for the tourist trade.

"People got busy, and they started promoting and supporting this whole movement toward the renaissance of Stax records," Hayes said.

Some believe that allowed the city to come to terms with a painful past, and rediscover the musical treasures in its own back yard.

"Sometimes when you have something right at home you take it for granted and don't realize how big it is," Hayes said. "The outside world recognized the Stax sound, the Memphis sound. … Now, Memphis is becoming aware of the jewel that it has in Stax and all the music that we produced back then."

Nelson sees hope in the revival and the new Soulsville complex.

"I envision the next David Porter, Isaac Hayes, Carla Thomas coming out of the Stax academy," he said.

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