When the music that helped define Memphis was being made at 926 East McLemore Ave., there wasn’t much thought about giving the music the grand sweeping depth of a symphony orchestra.
Stax was simpler than that. The music on vinyl was a direct connection person to person, be it through lyrics or a beat or a feeling or all three.
Music ages just like people and times change. That’s not always a bad thing in the case of music.
That was how the Memphis Symphony Orchestra began its Soulsville concert earlier this month in a concert space that will hopefully some day be a supermarket. The Stax overture included familiar melodies from South Memphis in the 1960s and 1970s but when the orchestra got to “Gee Whiz,” an early label hit by Carla Thomas, something happened.
The immaculately simple song with just enough strings to carry it along effortlessly got a sweep from the orchestra’s full sound that carried the melody across the decades of triumph, turmoil, despair, renewal and millions of lives affected by this special place.
The music that made Memphis is an institution. Some of us return to it over and over again. Others discover and process it anew.
Soulsville, the revitalized neighborhood, has much in the way of critical mass going its way. As our cover story points out, this really began in the outrage when the original Stax building was demolished in the late 1980s.
A lot of people worked against long odds not just to bring back a relic but to reestablish something the city has a right to claim – the heft of creativity as an institution. The Soulsville Foundation is not just about maintaining a museum. The foundation operates a charter school and a music academy. This is about more than music.
Soulsville could well become known as a cradle of technology or architecture or literature as a result of what is happening on a campus that is growing north from McLemore.
The goal is not the next American Idol, as foundation chief operating officer Mark Wender told us. This is about creativity and achievement on the terms of our present. It’s not someone else’s beat or idea. It is ours – made for our times. The horizon belongs to the future and those on the horizon will see possibilities the ghosts of Soulsville could never have contemplated. It’s a different part of what Stax players once called a “head arrangement” that began long ago in the minds of Memphians who brought the life they saw on the streets of our city into a recording studio.
There are still lots of challenges to come for the bricks and mortar part of Soulsville’s return. But they are closer to our grasp than they were more than 20 years ago when this comeback began in the rubble of the place where we found that our soul belonged to the world.