Memphis has always been a cauldron for uniquely American sounds, from the blues of Beale Street to the rockabilly of Sun Studios. When soul and R&B topped the charts beginning in the late 1950s, the city nurtured another regional sound that came to be known as Memphis soul, with Stax Records leading the way. Fifty years later, the Stax Music Academy (SMA) carries on the legacy of this definitive regional record label.
In its heyday, the Stax sound, which came to be synonymous with Memphis soul, was considered stylish, urbane, and funky, with an uptown sound that was not as hard-edged or downhome as other regional manifestations of southern soul. A shimmering, sultry style, Memphis soul featured melodic unison horn lines, organ, bass, and a driving beat on the drums. Many now-legendary performers are associated with Memphis soul and the Stax label, such as Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Booker T. & the MG’s, Eddie Floyd, Rufus and Carla Thomas, and the Staples Singers.
After the mid-70s demise of Stax Records, an empty lot was all that was left of the legendary studio and its offices at 926 E. McLemore, once the most famous address in soul music. Today it is where the Soulsville Foundation operates the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, the Soulsville Charter School, and the SMA. Since opening in 2000, the SMA has offered after school and summer programs to Memphis teens; they can choose from eight different ensembles that focus on skills including harmony, rhythm, and percussion, in addition to an audio engineering track. Beyond teaching musical chops, the SMA also helps students develop academic, cognitive, leadership, and performance skills. The academy’s ensembles have been invited to stages and special events around the world, like the Porretta Soul Festival in Italy and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. Students from the SMA have gone on to prestigious colleges as well as successful careers touring, recording and creating film and TV soundtracks.
“The core of our curriculum is the Stax records catalog, so we start there—and there are well over 700 singles that were released on Stax,” explains SMA Music Director Paul McKinney. “But we also look at what we call the ‘pillars of soul,’ the genres that led us to Stax: gospel, blues, jazz, country, and rock all played a role in the development of this music. And we also reach out to the rest of soul music, like Motown, Philly, even David Bowie. We start with the fundamentals, and after you’ve learned all the nuances of a song like ‘Soul Man’ or ‘Knock on Wood,’ you can begin to change it and make it your own.”
The alumni band was started so the SMA could continue supporting recent graduates, many of them recipients of college music scholarships. Like the classic soul revue outfits, the band features organ or keys, bass, drums, guitar, horns, and a rotating cast of singers. “They are the internationally elite in R&B, soul, funk, and gospel,” says McKinney. “When you watch them you have fun and feel good, and they’ll have a few surprises in store.”