Living as a Mod in the 21st Century

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

I’ve seen the Promised Land: Stax Records

Like many Mods, when asked to choose between Motown and Stax, I have always leaned on the Memphis sound. Even if they have a lot less hits then their Detroit counterpart, I prefer their raw, gritty, funky sound when compared to the more polished, pop oriented, clean arrangements of Gordy’s gang.

When you look at artists like Sam & Dave, The Bar-Kays, Booker T. and the MG's, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Ike & Tina, The Mar-Keys, Otis Redding, Al Green, Eddie Floyd, it all screams Mod. In fact, when these artists flew to England on their ’67 tour, they were greeted like superstars. A lot of them remember that tour as the pinnacle of their career. Steve Cropper, guitarist for Booker T. and the MG's remembers: “They treated us like we were the Beatles or something.” Stax has undeniably always had a huge Mod following.

So I don’t think it would surprise anybody if I said that one of the main reasons why I chose Memphis as a vacation spot was to go visit the “ground zero” of one of the most influential soul recording companies, Stax Records.

It all started when Bill Stewart started recording out of a garage and then moving the business in a small record shop out of an old movie theatre on McLemore Avenue. The place long gone, it's now a comprehensive museum. An impressive collection of stage costumes, musical instruments and concert posters are displayed along with concert clips and interviews. An extensive history of soul music, from its roots in gospel and blues to Isaac Hayes’  peacock-blue and gold trimmed Superfly Cadillac El Dorado, complete the picture.

Tina Turner's stage dress
Otis Redding's favorite suede jacket
Sadly, the original studio has since been demolished but a replica of the famed Studio A has replaced it.  A new building annexed to the museum houses the non-profit Stax Music Academy and Soulsville Charter School. As an elementary school teacher, I can only support such an initiative.

Stax's original Scully two-track recorder. Otis Redding cut Mr. Pitiful and Respect on this machine.
I get chills just thinking of the hits that were mixed on this soundboard.
The place may not emanate the same mystical and magical atmosphere that I felt when I visited the untouched studios of Motown and Sun but I was still in awe in front of the historical significance of some of the pieces.

Booker T. Jones' M-3 Hammond organ, used to record Green Onions.

What I take away from visiting the legendary studio is how everybody involved felt like they were part of a big family, where there was no color line, black and white working together. That may sound overly simplistic but maybe that's the perfect ingredient for making such timeless music.

When we left Stax, I asked the taxi driver if he could do a quick detour on Edith Street so we could go see Booker T. Jones' former house, a few blocks away from the studio. The older taxi driver, that could of easily passed for a blues player himself, was a bit surprised by my request. He admitted it was the first time he was ever asked that. Luckily, I had the address. That's how big of a fan I am.

Booker T. Jones former house near Stax.


  1. Brilliant post as always Patrick. That first paragraph rather eloquently sums up my position on soul as well! It looks like you had a great trip.

  2. Great stuff - I'm planning on going there later this year as part of my honeymoon. Although - if I had to choose between the two, Hitsville would be number one.