Soulful synergy

The Memphis News cover story

Dec. 7, 2013

Museum, music academy, school creating sweet sounds in Soulville

What happened at the corner of McLemore Avenue and College Street in the 1960s is nothing short of extraordinary.

Students rehearse at Stax Music Academy, a key component in the Soulsville revival.

(Photo: Andrew J. Breig)

At the crossroads of segregated neighborhoods in South Memphis, two white business partners would open the doors wide to whites and blacks alike, who congregated to write and record songs that would set off a soul explosion heard around the world.

What’s happening at that same corner today is too great for Deanie Parker – a Stax Records songwriter, performer and its first African-American salaried employee in 1964 – to squeeze into a single, simple word.

“There are so many great things about what we’ve been able to do in Soulsville, USA,” she said.

The “great things” Parker speaks of are initiatives and revitalization and a vision that has sprung from the site of the old Capitol Records building that would become Satellite Records before Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton joined their names to bring the world Stax Records.

The Ewarton Foundation, a moniker formed from the remaining letters of the founders’ names, was founded in 1998 with a $3 million challenge grant from the Plough Foundation matched by the city of Memphis, Shelby County and the federal government, and a $3 million donation from an anonymous donor.

The mission of the foundation, renamed Soulsville Foundation in 2005, is “to preserve, promote, and celebrate the many unique cultural assets of the Soulsville, USA, neighborhood in Memphis, while supporting the development of new educational and community-building opportunities.”

To that end, there are three components within the Foundation – the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, the Stax Music Academy and the Soulsville Charter School.

“Soulsville has been a catalyst for community redevelopment and it’s a source of pride for the residents of this neighborhood,” said Mark Wender, CEO of the Soulsville Foundation.

The buttoned-up former bank executive seems an unlikely leader for what might be the funkiest block in the city – and perhaps the world – but Jim Stewart was a banker as well, and Wender’s passion for the vision of the Foundation is limitless.

The Stax Museum of American Soul Music honors the city’s musical past.

(Photo: Andrew J. Breig)

Five acres in the neighborhood, including the site of the original Stax building, was purchased after the foundation’s initial funding. On that site was built a replica of the original theater that would become the museum. It acts as a “beacon,” as Robert Gordon, author of “Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion,” recently called it, and draws people from the world over to see the wall of vinyl records, instruments played by the MGs and others and Isaac Hayes’s gold-trimmed Cadillac.

Once there, says museum director Lisa Allen, the tourists, music enthusiasts and journalists invariably ask about the other buildings on the campus.

“We are the gateway to the rest of the organization,” Allen said. “I think it took the museum to get attention to this corner.”

Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, the museum sees approximately 50,000 visitors annually. With only three full-time employees and an annual operating budget of $800,000, it is a wholly self-sustaining entity within the Soulsville Foundation family. Revenue is generated through admission prices and rental events.

Two years prior to the opening of the museum, the Stax Music Academy began its programming in the cafeteria of nearby Stafford Elementary School. A dedicated facility on the Soulsville campus was opened in 2002.

Funded by the Plough Foundation, the program works with middle and high school students from throughout Memphis and Shelby County. Students must audition to enter the program each year and tuition is $1,000 per student, though 90 percent receive scholarships. It’s an after-school program as well as a five-week intensive summer program called the Summer Music Experience, where students work with their instruments while learning the science of recording and business side of music. The summer program culminates in a live performance at the Levitt Shell . . . (read more)