Here, at 926 East McLemore Avenue -- home of the now-defunct Stax Records studio and one of the most famous addresses in American music history -- the soul is returning to a rundown black neighborhood.
Stax was one of the most popular soul-music labels ever, second only to Motown in sales and influence. With its studio in a converted Capitol movie theater, Stax folded in 1975, and the surrounding neighborhood fell on hard economic times.
Until now, that is.
In April, a new museum, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and an adjacent music academy are due to open, part of an ambitious urban and cultural renewal program for the area dubbed "Soulsville USA" in the 1960s. The $20 million project is financed with federal, state and city funds as well as with private donations.
In a city with an already rich musical tradition, from Elvis Presley's Graceland mansion to the blues joints of Beale Street and the legendary Sun Record studios, the museum would seem to be just another tourist attraction. But it will be more than a static depository of memorabilia from the recent past. It will be testimony to the power of music to change sometimes hopeless lives, its founders say.
"The academy will not only be for kids to discover their musical talent, but will also serve as an essential after-hours program in a still-deprived area where the majority of kids are raised by single women," said Deanie Parker, president and executive director of the Soulsville nonprofit project.
"If kids can join gangs and learn to shoot guns, we thought they could learn to harmonize, too," Parker told a visiting reporter recently. "Since we broke ground on the project [last year], crime has really gone down."
When Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Eddie Floyd, Carla Thomas, Albert King and Isaac Hayes were recording at the Stax studio at 926 East McLemore, the whole neighborhood was alive with what sax player King Curtis famously dubbed "Memphis Soul Stew."
"We know what music can do for children. They just have to get past the rap and find their roots," Parker said. Those roots were apparent during the 1960s when Stax -- with its horn-backed sounds and string of hits, including eight Grammys and an Oscar for Hayes's "Shaft" soundtrack -- was the focal point of what was then a middle-class neighborhood. All this in a two-square-mile area that has to be one of the richest musically in the United States.
Aretha Franklin was born here, as were Stax house band leader Booker T. Jones, blues pianist Memphis Slim and Isaac Hayes's songwriting collaborator David Porter. Blues great Ma Rainey is buried in the local cemetery, and Memphis's favorite adopted son -- Elvis Presley -- used to sneak into black churches here to listen to gospel music.
But everything changed when Redding died in a plane crash 35 years ago in December. That was, for many soul fans, the end of an era.
Although Booker T and the MG's and the Stax house musicians kept making records, rhythm and blues was already moving in the direction of heavy funk and sexy slow-burn ballads that dominated the 1970s and 1980s. And just as punk revolutionized rock, R&B was ripe for change that came from the streets, rather than the church, and that ultimately led to rap and hip-hop.
Marc Willis, director of the academy, showed off the new center's facilities, which include high-tech recording studios, rehearsal rooms, equipment and computers for composing music. Students can learn guitar, bass, drums and singing.
Parker, who had worked at Stax as a songwriter, said the studio is being recreated. And to symbolize the roots of soul music in the blues and gospel, the first exhibit museum visitors will see is a one-room, wooden church transported here from its original location in the Mississippi Delta 100 miles south.
There will also be memorabilia about the label, which between 1959 and 1975 released 800 singles and 300 albums. Stax artists collected eight Grammy Awards, produced three No. 1 hits, 12 top-10 hits and 167 top-100 hits.
Willis said a key ingredient of Stax's success was that it crossed racial lines. "If this [Soulsville] shows people that blacks and whites used to play together, it helps us confront our fears about the stain on our city that will always be there," he said.
That stain was the 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. at the nearby Lorraine Motel.
But, as Parker noted, there is a connection between Stax and the then-segregated motel, which is now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum. "Otis and Eddie [Floyd] used to go to the Lorraine to rehearse and write," she said.