Memphis, Tennessee, October 2013:
The songs starts with a blast of horns and suddenly the room explodes into life. More than 30 kids perform Otis Redding’s Shake with so much energy, charisma and talent I fear the walls of their school hall might burst with the force of it.
We’re at the Stax Music Academy in Memphis, Tennessee, a performing arts school where the standard is so high your average X Factor winner wouldn’t pass the first audition.
It’s next door to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, a tourist attraction which is celebrating its 10th birthday this year. The museum helps pay for the Academy and local kids get the kind of opportunities that classic soul label Stax gave to earlier generations. It’s sustainable tourism in action.
To mark the anniversary, visitors and the label’s surviving stars are treated to a unique performance by the Academy’s star pupils. Among the guests is lifelong soul fan Gary Arthurs from England, who has been seven times in the last five years. He has made some good friends at Stax and they invited him to this special event where he could meet his idols.
The two biggest Stax stars, Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes, have moved on to that great gospel choir in the sky. But singer William Bell (Private Number, You Don’t Miss Your Water) and songwriter David Porter (Soul Man, Hold On I’m Comin’) are here. And so are trumpeter Wayne Jackson from the Memphis Horns (just about every Stax hit) and label boss Al Bell.
“I fell in love with Memphis the first time I came here,” says self-employed Gary, 58, from Sutton Coldfield. “And everyone here loves British fans. They say it was the English that made them back in the 60s.”
When the half-hour Academy show is over we feel we’ve seen half a dozen superstars in the making backed by a band full of technique, feel and – yes – soul. Most of the old stagers from Stax are seeing these kids perform for the first time and they are clearly moved to see how their work is living on.
“The soul music legacy is in good hands,” said William Bell afterwards. “The kids brought us all to tears.”
When you talk about Memphis most people think of Graceland. Elvis Presley’s former home pulls in more than half a million visitors every year and it’s a powerful and moving experience if you love Elvis. But a trip to the Stax Museum will get you closer to the soul of a town which has music in its blood.
In the early 1960s when the South was strictly segregated, young black and white musicians could work, play, eat and drink together as equals at Stax. Their raw and soulful sound was heard on more than 150 hit records and their absence of prejudice was a unique glimpse into a better future.
The Stax Museum on East McLemore Avenue, South Memphis, is on the site of the original studio, a converted cinema that was torn down in the 80s after the label went bankrupt. It’s a careful replica down to the “Soulsville USA” sign outside and the slope of the recording studio floor.
Inside you’ll find more exhibits and info than you can absorb in one visit. As well as instruments, costumes and studio gear there’s an entire wooden country church and the gold-trimmed, fur-lined Cadillac that Isaac Hayes drove. staxmuseum.com
This town has enough attractions to keep a music fan busy for many days. Good bands play every night on in the tourist bars on Beale Street but for the real deal go to a juke joint like Wild Bill’s in Mid Town, where a two-pint bottle of Bud Lite beer costs less than £5 (after a 10 dollar cover charge) and everything happens very late.
We waited so long we thought they’d cancelled the show until, finally, three young black guys slouched in, set up in the corner, and … POW! It was like Led Zeppelin in your living room. Later a guest player sat in, casually turning the other guy’s guitar upside down to play it left-handed. An unforgettable night of electrifying blues.
A morning at the Rock ’n’ Soul Museum just off Beale Street shows you exactly how this powerful music developed and the decisive part played by Memphis itself. www.memphisrocknsoul.org
Then pay $2 for an all-day trolley pass and take an antique tram along Union Avenue to Sun Studios, where a guided tour lets you stand in the tiny room where Elvis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Howlin’ Wolf made their first and finest recordings.sunstudio.com
Some legendary music sites in Memphis are officially off-limits to tourists because they’re still in full use today. Like the superprofessional Ardent Studios where everyone from Led Zeppelin to REM and Bob Dylan have recorded. And the superfunky Royal Studios where producer Willie Mitchell created another Memphis soul sound with Al Green.
When your musical appetite is sated, add some soul food to the menu. Half a mile from Stax is the Four Way restaurant whose salmon patties, baked catfish, yams, boiled okra and fried green tomatoes were enjoyed by civil rights leader Martin Luther King.fourwaymemphis.com
Back in town, Gus’s Fried Chicken is a plain building with a nofrills style but the chicken recipe is uniquely spicy and almost grease-free. gusfriedchicken.com
Down a flight of stairs in an alley three blocks away, the Rendezvous is a subterranean temple to the worship of perfectly barbecued ribs. Previous devotees include Frank Sinatra, Bill Clinton and the Rolling Stones. hogsfly.com
Memphis is a meat-eating town, but at the five-star Peabody Hotel there’s one critter you won’t find on the menu. That’s because the hotel’s resident ducks are its star attraction. Every day they are paraded from a pond on the roof into the elevator and down five floors to splash around in the lobby’s marble fountain. It’s all done with a fanfare and flourish that draws large crowds.
The Peabody is a lovely place to experience Southern hospitalty and its duck motif is everywhere, right down to the shape of the bathroom soap.peabodymemphis.com
For an evening drink walk around the block and take the lift to the Twilight Sky Terrace at the Madison Hotel, where you can sip a cocktail with a panorama of the Mississippi river as the backdrop. madisonhotelmemphis.com
Meanwhile back at the Stax Museum (I told you there’s too much to see in one visit) let’s leave the last word to Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns, who we find sitting next to a display case showing off his battered original trumpet.
That’s the one he used on the plaintive intro to Otis Redding’s Try A Little Tenderness and the punchy horn riffs of Last Night by The MarKeys – which he tells us was his firstever recording at the age of 19.
“Last Night?” says my girlfriend Florence with a little gasp. “That was the first record I remember dancing to. My brother bought it and we played it over and over again.”
Flo is from France and her revelation opens up a half-century-old connection between the streets of South Memphis and her little town of Epernay. It’s the perfect example of why this amazing music still matters.
Wayne is tickled pink. But he’s not a man to miss an opening.
“Well there you go, honey” he tells Flo as he pulls her in closer for a photo. “We always did like to keep the pretty girls happy.”
WHEN TO GO: Early autumn is usually dry and pleasant, winter mostly mild, summer hot and humid with
occasional rainstorms, and spring is like autumn with thunderstorms.
GETTING AROUND: Memphis Hop buses connect the Peabody Hotel with every major attraction. Day tickets
MUST SEE: Look online for occasional performances by Stax Academy pupils. staxmusicacademy.org
INSIDE INFO: The original neon Stax sign is now inside the Rum Boogie Cafe on Beale Street.rumboogie.com
SAFETY FIRST: If you go to Wild Bill’s Juke Joint arrange your taxi back in advance. Locals say cabbies are wary of latenight callouts after a few were robbed in the area.
BOOK IT: Bon Voyage offer five nights in Memphis including with flights from Heathrow, Manchester or Glasgow, a deluxe room at the fivestar Peabody Hotel, a Memphis Attraction pass with entrance to Stax, Graceland, Sun Studio, and the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum plus a Mojo Tour of Memphis in a 1950s bus. bonvoyage.co.uk, 0800 316 0194
MORE INFO: Free brochures and advice on Memphis trips. memphistravel.com, 01462 440787.
An edited version of this article was published in the Sunday Mirror’s Holidays & Getaways section on October 6, 2013.