Memphis adds new jewel to its musical crown

— Music plays again at Soulsville USA, but it's not coming from Isaac Hayes or Sam & Dave.

It's young musicians like Whitney Thompson, 10, and Marquel Combs, 11, who now strum the guitar and await greatness at the site of the former Stax recording studio.

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AP Photo

Deanie Parker, executive director of the Stax Museum and Music Academy, takes a walk through the Stax Museum in Memphis, Tenn. The former Stax recording studio has been turned into the city's newest tourist attraction and honors the musicians, singers, writers and producers who worked there.

"My guitar is all white," said Marquel, who hasn't decided yet if he wants to be the next B.B. King or a professional wrestler. "And I have all white picks, too."

Whitney and Marquel take music lessons at the Stax Music Academy, part of a $20 million project to turn the site into the city's newest tourist attraction -- and honor the Stax musicians, singers, writers and producers who left an indelible mark on American music.

In the 1960s and '70s, Stax Records turned out many of the country's best-known records, including "Hold On, I'm Comin'," "Knock On Wood," "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay," and "Walkin' the Dog."

But the studio, which proudly boasted Soulsville USA on the marquee of the former movie theater where it was housed, was torn down in 1989.

In 2000, a nonprofit group called Soulsville began raising private and public money to help preserve the studio's history. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music opens with parties and concerts this week.

Along with Beale Street, Elvis Presley's Graceland and the old Sun Records studio, the Stax museum should give visitors a better understanding of the city's vibrant musical past, said Deanie Parker, director of Soulsville.

"It recognizes the musical contributions of the geniuses who have been sought after and revered more by people from outside of Memphis than from Memphis," Parker said.

Founded by former banker and part-time musician Jim Stewart and his sister, Estelle Axton, Stax drew white as well as black artists and was by many accounts an oasis of racial harmony for the times.

From 1961 to 1975, the studio produced close to 300 albums and more than 800 singles.

Along with Hayes, and Sam Moore and Dave Prater (Sam & Dave), Stax recorded Otis Redding, the Staple Singers, Booker T. & the MGs, Carla and Rufus Thomas, David Porter, Eddie Floyd, Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, Albert King and others.

In a museum video, the late Rufus Thomas describes the music from Motown, another soul haven, as polished, smooth and urbane.

"But once you crossed that Mason-Dixon line and got down to Memphis, it was altogether different," he says.

The musical rules were loose, and the artists were free to let their talents take them where they would. Drawing from the gospel, country and blues foundations of the region, the artists came up with work that was often a bit on the raw side but always full of energy.

The museum tells the story of Stax through photographs, videos, recordings and exhibits of instruments and other personal belongings of the artists who worked there -- including the blue and gold-trimmed Cadillac driven by Hayes after he hit it big with "Shaft."

"We were too busy having fun," Hayes says in a video, "to realize the impact we were making."

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