More than 50 years after a small recording company moved into a rundown movie theater on East McLemore Avenue and took the name Stax Records, a partnership with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra is attempting to revitalize the neighborhood around Stax using what the area is best known for—music.
Since Stax put its name in red letters on the old theater marquee, the neighborhood around the recording studio has been known as “Soulsville, U.S.A.” It is there in Soulsville, just across the street from the Stax Museum, that the symphony will be performing a series of free concerts throughout the year.
This Saturday at 2 pm the orchestra will perform in the space at 879 East McLemore Avenue. It will be the second concert in the series.
At the first, soul legend Booker T. and jazz great Kirk Whalum performed with the symphony on a hastily-constructed stage made of plywood boards, untreated and unpainted in places. The audience sat in plastic chairs. Arrangements were makeshift because the venue wasn’t built to be a concert hall. It was built to house a grocery store, but when the grocery tenant fell through, the structure, like roughly 30 percent of the neighborhood around it, sat vacant.
Just before the concert started, one of the project’s leaders, Charlie Santo, climbed the steps of the stage and addressed the hundreds of people assembled, “We’re going to put some ‘Green Onions’ in the grocery store!” The crowd applauded.
Santo is an unlikely person to be on a stage in South Memphis. He isn’t a musician, or even a resident of Soulsville. Santo is the Director of the Graduate Program of City and Regional Planning at the University of Memphis, but as he explained, planners are becoming more and more interested in the arts. “Our economy is changing in a way that cities aren’t as much about making things anymore as they are about producing ideas, producing knowledge,” Santo said, “and the people who work in those knowledge fields, can go just about anywhere, and so the amenities that appeal to those people are important in ways that they didn’t use to be.”
One of those amenities is music. It is Santo’s hope that the orchestra’s music will act as a magnet, first attracting concert-goers, and then bringing businesses and residents to Soulsville, “If we can get people out here, they’ll realize what’s great about this neighborhood.”
It’s a novel idea that got many different groups in Memphis excited. In addition to the orchestra and the University of Memphis Graduate Planning Program, Lemoyne-Owen College and the Soulsville Neighborhood Association (among others) are lending their support to the project. The collective won a national grant from the Chicago-based ArtPlace and has close to $700,000 to fund a year of concerts and to restore the home of bluesman Memphis Slim, a historic site that is next to the Stax Museum.
Further down the road (in 10 or 15 years) Santo would like to build affordable housing for musicians and create a “musicians’ village” in Soulsville. “What we are trying to do is support artists and musicians and the music industry and use music and art as tools to create community engagement and really build on the heritage that exists in the Soulsville neighborhood,” Santo said.
Even so, Santo is aware that the history of Stax Records didn’t involve a great deal of planning. The hits that came out of rival Motown were highly orchestrated and controlled, but the Stax sound was more accidental—the product of talent and happenstance. Employees of the record company have described their success as “an accident” and “a cosmic happening.”
In the book Sweet Soul Music, Peter Guralnick quoted Stax founder Jim Stewart: “I don’t think we really set out to do it. It was just the people involved, the way they came together …. It just happened.”
It’s that kind of thing that gnaws at a planner like Santo, “Something we sort of had in the back of our minds when we started this process, was trying to figure out, to what extent you can do this [revitalization] and to what extent does it have to happen organically, magically on its own,” Santo said, “but I think that you can plant the seeds, and I think you can water the seeds that are there.”
According to Santo, one of those seeds is the home of Memphis Slim. “This house has been vacant for a good long time,” Santo said, “but it’s worth saving.” The project removed a tree that had fallen on the house, but the building is still in bad condition — there is trash in the yard, the awning over the front door is falling in, and the roof and siding are in tatters.
Santo’s plan is to use grant money to turn the house into a place where musicians can practice and record and he expects the renovation will be complete by the end of the year. “That’s do-able,” Santo said.