Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Travelblog--Part 1

"Alright, kids, now that I've recovered from the trip I've been on, time to share a few highlights from it...

My first stop on Saturday morning in Memphis was the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and it pretty much set the tone for the entire trip, as it turned out to be a very educational experience for me, even though I consider myself pretty knowledgeable when it comes to popular music—just goes to show that you're never too old to learn.  Even I had never quite realized how prolific Stax and its associated labels were in the late '60s and early '70s—Booker T & The MG's, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave, Aretha Franklin, The Bar-Kays, Al Green, early Ike & Tina Turner, Johnnie Taylor, Rufus Thomas—they were basically the Motown of the South, and their output was more prodigious than I ever realized, thus prompting me to buy the book that chronicles the history of Stax.

I always thought the name "Stax" was a play on words as in "stacks of wax", but it was actually an amalgam of its founders, Jim STewart and Estelle AXton.  Not unlike Motown, the Stax recording studio was active day and night in the late '60s, and local white musicians like bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn and guitarist "Play it" Steve Cropper (you may know them better from the Blues Brothers) would work together with black singers, musicians and producers like Isaac Hayes and David Porter, among many others, to produce some damn fine music, and color was never an issue, even in the racially-divided Deep South.  I was also totally unaware of an event that took place in 1972 at the L.A. Coliseum called Wattstax--a soul/R&B Woodstock featuring Mr. Hayes (aka "Chef" to you "South Park" fans).  You can read all about it on the 'net, but suffice to say that this museum did a great job of resurrecting the history of Stax, right down to the building itself, which is a replica of the old movie theater they converted into a recording studio, which was subsequently torn down in the late '80s after Stax went out of business.  The museum was built on the exact same spot, and it's totally worth the trip through a rather seedy neighborhood to get there.  An A+ in my book!

I paid a courtesy call to Elvis next, but being as it was Saturday and there was a two-hour wait for the mansion tour, and being as I'd done it before anyway, I decided to pass.  I merely roamed around and snapped a few photos of Elvisland, which is a major tourist trap.  The graffiti on the outer walls of Graceland is mildly entertaining, mainly because most of these people can't spell worth a damn...

I was rather impressed with Memphis' new minor league baseball stadium, Autozone Park, located just a couple blocks from the Beale Street entertainment district.  Looks like a great place to watch a ballgame, and it fits in perfectly with its surroundings.  I also checked out a nice park on the west side of downtown that features several Civil War-related statues and overlooks the mighty Mississippi and Mud Island, which houses an outdoor amphitheater.  Between all that and Beale Street, I find it rather pathetic that a city the size of Memphis can blow away Kansas City when it comes to downtown attractions.  I hope to hell this new Power & Light District/Sprint Center helps reverse that trend...

Attached at the hip to the new FedEx Forum arena is the Smithsonian Rock & Soul Museum, which is rather generalized, but still worth a look.  One major thing I took away from it was the impact of the first black-owned radio station in America, WDIA AM 1070 in Memphis, which still plays old school R&B to this day.  I had never ever heard of them before, but apparently they were quite instrumental in the success of Stax Records, as well as Soul music in general (the black version of Country music's WSM in Nashville, if you will).  If nothing else, the Smithsonian thing was worth it alone for having Isaac Hayes' gold-plated 1972 Cadillac pimp-mobile on display!

More to come later...

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