A trip to Memphis can conjure up quite a history lesson about American music: Explore Elvis Presley’s Graceland; check out the Rock ‘n’ Roll Museum; or take a stroll down Beale Street, where blues and rock are said to have started. Now, Memphians have one more site to add to this impressive list – the STAX Music Academy and Museum of American Soul Music.
Located on Memphis’ McLemore Avenue, the museum is positioned on the site that housed the once-prominent STAX Recording Studio – the hub of a neighborhood that produced so much musical talent, it was known as Soulsville USA. The studio launched artists like Otis Redding and Booker T. & the MGs; produced songs such as “Soul Man” and “I’ll Take You There;” and evolved into a multimedia company (investing in and producing movies, Broadway plays, major music festivals, and more). But after experiencing cash flow difficulties, the STAX Recording Studio filed for bankruptcy in the mid-1980s and the building was torn down; a historical marker was placed in its spot.
Soulsville USA, however, had a vision for what was to be built in place of the studio. With the help of Memphis-based Looney Ricks Kiss Architects, the vision became reality. Rebuilt on McLemore Avenue, the STAX Music Academy and Museum of American Soul Music serves many purposes: to visually represent the creation and evolution of soul music in America, and what the STAX Recording Studio meant to the early years of soul; to help renew a distressed inner-city neighborhood; and to provide a music academy for the youth of Memphis to involve them in the continuation of a vast musical legacy.
With a challenging goal of reproducing the original recording studio building (all that remained of the building were photographs and remnants of the foundation), the design team recreated the building to reflect the STAX Recording Studio circa 1967, when some historians believe the studio was in its prime. Old photos and public documents were reviewed in order to determine the appropriate plan of action for the recreation. Significant musical artists available for contribution were also involved in the project; they were interviewed and asked to recall personal memories, and donate artifacts and additional photographs.
The museum portion of the project has a slightly larger footprint than the original recording studio in order to accommodate program requirements. A recreated classic neon-lit marquee is featured at the museum’s entrance. Conditions within the building (including HVAC, lighting, etc.) must be just right in order to house the memorabilia featured inside (Isaac Hayes’ 1972 gold-trimmed Cadillac Eldorado, a 100-year-old dismantled and reassembled Mississippi Delta Gospel church, Albert King’s famous purple “Flying V” guitar, etc.). Interactive touch-screen computer exhibits are located throughout the museum to display information about the original STAX Recording Studio, the history of American soul music, and more. The center of the museum is home to “Studio A,” recreated as it once existed in the historic days of the original recording studio, complete with sloping theater floors, sound and drum booths, tiled and curtained walls, and period recording equipment. Here in Studio A, visitors can listen to outtakes from STAX artists’ original recording sessions. The original Studio A Control Room, with a window overlooking Studio A, was also reproduced using a combination of original and period mixing boards and furnishings. The museum also features an interactive soul music dance floor.
Located to the west of the museum is the music academy, which provides a high-tech learning environment complete with lecture halls, classrooms, acoustically refined band and choir rooms, music technology labs, and a recording studio. Proper acoustics necessary for the music made inside the academy are integrated into the building’s architecture: sloping glass walls that minimize reflections, ceiling baffles to reduce noise, and acoustic concrete wall ribs. By providing a place for Memphis youth to play music, not only does the academy aim to educate students about the music created in the original recording studio, it is also geared toward shaping future music legends. For functionality, the academy’s lobby is designed as a flexible space to accommodate student activities and special events/receptions that occur periodically at the academy.
The museum and academy are connected with a covered walkway – a perfect space to accommodate area events and activities. The project also features an outdoor amphitheater and a distributed sound system to allow music or orientation-type audio programs to be broadcast across the musical campus.
Because of the several purposes this facility serves, its aesthetics mix funk and eclecticism with the historic neighborhood street, both acknowledging the STAX Music Academy and Museum of American Soul Music’s place in the community and attracting local students.
Located less than 3 miles from the celebrated Beale Street, these first-rate facilities are a channel for change – bringing economic opportunity back into a South Memphis neighborhood and revitalizing the surrounding area of Soulsville. Wouldn’t Otis Redding be proud?
Leah B. Garris (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate editor at Buildings magazine.