Stax Records was more than a music machine releasing hits by the likes of Otis Redding and The Staple Singers. According to author and music historian Robert Gordon it was also an example of unity in 1960s segregated South Memphis. In his new book, Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion Gordon uses the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement to emphasize Stax’s groundbreaking interracial harmony from the relationship its white founders, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, shared with African American music executive Al Bell, to the racially mixed studio house band, Booker T. & The MGs.
“The book is very much about race,” says Gordon. “What was going on inside Stax was a transcendent oasis above a society that was largely acting horribly. The issue with race is can we not see it and at Stax they did not see race. So that’s certainly something to look toward.”
The Memphis native read from his book this past Saturday at a signing held at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. It was a fitting location since Gordon believes that The Soulsville Foundation, which funds and operates the museum, The Soulsville Charter School and Stax Music Academy represents the future promise of Stax. “I think the museum, school and academy is where we are going. This is really about enriching this neighborhood and about kids. Tell me that Jim Stewart, Estelle Axton and Al Bell would not be thrilled about that,” he says.
One of the leaders helping to carry forth the legacy of Stax is Justin Merrick, vocal director and operations director of the Stax Music Academy. And now the Grammys are taking notice. Merrick is part of a historical moment this year as one of 217 quarterfinalists for the first-ever Music Educator Award. “The fact this platform exists is exciting because people are taking note and music education is being valued,” says Merrick.
The Grammys aren’t the only ones recognizing the work of the Stax Music Academy. Since it’s launch in 2000 the program has served more than 2,500 students and they have performed for the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton and Stevie Wonder. Meanwhile the Academy’s sister organization, The Soulsville Charter School, graduated their first class in 2012 with 100 percent of students accepted to college. Merrick believes that its individualized approach to education has led to such milestones.
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