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Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
Watching the O'Jays on the museum's Soul Train dance floor.

Stax Museum of American Soul Music

Field review by the editors.

Memphis, Tennessee

It's a weird fact that two of the most prominent attractions in Memphis are spots where someone died (Graceland) and someone was murdered (National Civil Rights Museum). Stax Records, a one-time Memphis music powerhouse, was dead, too -- dead and gone -- and then it was reborn as the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Its resurrection was a feel-good miracle for a city that needed it.

Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
Hallway o' Hits displays a lot of Stax wax.

Stax Records began on a shoestring. By necessity it made its recordings in a former movie theater -- whose big, open space unexpectedly helped to give Stax music its raw, natural sound. From the 1960s to the mid-1970s Stax churned out #1 hits for everyone from Otis Redding to Isaac Hayes. But in 1975 it was forced into bankruptcy, everything was sold off, and the building was abandoned and then bulldozed.

Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
1906 Mississippi Delta church: the roots of soul music.

"For years this was an empty lot, covered in garbage," said Tim Sampson, the museum's communications director. Memphis gradually realized what it had lost, money was raised, and in 2003 an exact replica of the Stax studio was built on its former lot -- as if it had never gone away -- and opened as the Stax Museum. "We weren't going to build it anywhere else," said Tim.

Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
Isaac Hayes head razor and scalp tonic.

Stax, according to Tim, is "the only museum in the world dedicated strictly to American soul music."

A walk through the museum begins with a 1906 sharecropper church moved piece-by-piece from the Mississippi Delta, and ends with a look at the next-door Stax Music Academy, which offers inner-city kids a toehold in the performing arts much as Stax Records once did. Stax songs are broadcast everywhere, inside and outside, which makes it fun just to park your car in the museum lot.

The most famous exhibit at Stax is probably Isaac Hayes' customized 1972 Cadillac, with its own bar, color TV, rabbit fur carpet, and solid gold windshield wipers. Hayes' deep bass voice -- familiar to a later generation as Chef from South Park -- purrs from an accompanying display as he describes the Cadillac: "When people first got in the car they starting feeling the upholstery, and all that luxury inside... soft leather... soft fur... all of this opulence. When you ride down the street on a bright, sunny day, all that gold shines." The car spins on an oversize turntable next to the Academy Award that Hayes won for his Stax record, "Theme from Shaft."

Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
1972 custom Cadillac had chrome accessories plated in solid gold.

Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
Floor-length leather vest worn by Bar-Kays frontman Larry Dodson.

From the museum's disco ball dance floor, which plays video clips from Soul Train, to its displays of flamboyant stage costumes worn by acts such as Rufus Thomas and Little Milton, to a wall of singles with titles such as "Can Your Monkey Do the Dog" and "Cockroach," you get the sense that working at Stax was exhausting but enjoyable. "It was like a big family," said Tim. "Very much down home."

With the museum's array of eye-grabbing exhibits vying for the visitor's attention, we asked Tim if there was an item that he wished more people would notice. He mentioned the saxophone of Phalon Jones, salvaged from the plane wreck that killed him, Otis Redding, and most of the Bar-Kays in 1967. "His mother held onto it for years," said Tim. "He was an only child." Another memento that's also often overlooked is a black velvet portrait of Isaac Hayes that was somehow painted by a fan who was locked up in prison. "The prison sent it to Isaac at Stax Records," said Tim. "It's awesome."

Stax Museum of American Soul Music

926 E. McLemore Ave., Memphis, TN
South side of downtown. From South: I-240 exit 28A. Merge onto Cummings St., drive north one-half mile, then turn left onto McLemore Ave. for a quarter-mile. From North: I-240 exit 28 A. Loop back over the freeway, then take an immediate left onto Cummings St. Drive north one-half mile, then turn left onto McLemore Ave. for a quarter-mile.
Tu-Su 10-5 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $13.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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