New mu­si­cal traces the legacy of Stax Records

The Commercial Appeal - - Mlife - Michael Collins Mem­phis Com­mer­cial Ap­peal USA TO­DAY NET­WORK - TEN­NESSEE

BAL­TI­MORE – Matthew Ben­jamin al­ways loved mu­sic. But he never re­ally felt mu­sic un­til he was a teenager and heard Otis Red­ding.

Red­ding’s record­ings helped in­tro­duce Ben­jamin to other soul and rhythm-and-blues artists pro­duced by the Mem­phis-based Stax Records, where leg­endary per­form­ers like Isaac Hayes and the Sta­ple Singers cranked out raw, gritty lyrics and grooves that cap­tured the strife and chaos of life in ‘60s and ‘70s ur­ban Amer­ica.

“It was re­ally sort of a pull-them­selves-up-by-boot­straps record la­bel,” Ben­jamin said. “It’s re­ally a re­mark­able story."

It’s a story that Ben­jamin feels has never prop­erly been told. Un­til now.

“SOUL The Stax Mu­si­cal,” a the­atri­cal piece writ­ten by Ben­jamin that chron­i­cles the story of Stax and its

Matthew Ben­jamin

im­pact on Amer­i­can cul­ture, will cel­e­brate its world pre­miere next month at Bal­ti­more Cen­ter Stage, one of the coun­try’s lead­ing re­gional per­form­ing arts com­pa­nies. Per­for­mances be­gin on May 3 and con­tinue through June 10, with the pos­si­bil­ity of an ex­tended run.

Work on the mu­si­cal be­gan sev­eral years ago and in­cluded a work­shop pro­duc­tion at the Univer­sity of Mem­phis in 2016. With open­ing night just three weeks away, the show re­mains a work in progress. The script re­mains in flux, with pages be­ing thrown out and new ones writ­ten on the fly.

But the crux of the sto­ry­line hasn’t changed: It’s the tale of how Stax came to be, set against the tur­bu­lence of the times and fea­tur­ing mu­sic that helped bring Amer­i­cans to­gether dur­ing the early years of the Civil Rights move­ment and be­yond.

“The mu­sic wasn’t just born out of ‘I’m go­ing to write a song.’ The mu­sic was born out of an ex­pe­ri­ence,” said the di­rec­tor, Kwame Kwei-Armah.

But the mu­si­cal “is not a doc­u­men­tary, where you are honor-bound to the facts,” Kwei-Armah said. “It is a piece of the­atre that is try­ing to be true to the essence of the story and true to the essence of the peo­ple, true to the mu­sic.”

At a re­hearsal ses­sion last week, Kwei-Armah and the 19-mem­ber cast ran through the show’s open­ing se­quence in a sparse, white-walled stu­dio. Coaxed on by the Bri­tish-born di­rec­tor – “should we boogie?” he asked en­thu­si­as­ti­cally – the per­form­ers danced, clapped their hands and swayed to the funky rhythms of a sin­gle elec­tric piano.

“Do you like soul mu­sic – that sweet soul mu­sic?” they sang.

Though the stag­ing could change, the cur­rent plan is for the show to open with an ac­tor play­ing Al Bell, one of the Stax la­bel heads, stand­ing amid the ru­ins of what was once Stax’s now-fa­mous record­ing stu­dio in South Mem­phis. Pro­jected onto a screen on the stage will be images of piv­otal his­tor­i­cal mo­ments from the era, such as the Mem­phis san­i­ta­tion work­ers strike, the Rev. Mar­tin Luther King Jr.’s as­sas­si­na­tion and the ri­ots that fol­lowed.

Through a flash­back, the pro­duc­tion will re­count the birth of Stax and the leg­endary artists it in­tro­duced into the Amer­i­can con­scious­ness. The first act will fea­ture songs by artists like Red­ding and Sam and Dave. The sec­ond act will fo­cus heav­ily on the grit­tier sounds that grew out of the black con­scious­ness move­ment.

The pro­duc­tion’s tim­ing could not be bet­ter, com­ing on the heels on last week’s events mark­ing the 50th an­niver­sary of King’s as­sas­si­na­tion.

Plac­ing the mu­sic in a his­tor­i­cal con­text was im­por­tant, Kwei-Armah said, but “it is a mu­si­cal, and one has to get the bal­ance right now, so that we’re not hav­ing a his­tory les­son.”

Orig­i­nally known as Satel­lite, Stax was founded in Mem­phis in 1959 by sib­lings and busi­ness part­ners Jim Ste­wart and Estelle Ax­ton and took its new name in 1961 from the first two let­ters of their last names.

Ste­wart con­verted an old movie the­ater on East McLe­more Av­enue in South Mem­phis into a record­ing stu­dio and cranked out dozens of hits that launched the careers of leg­endary artists such as Red­ding, Sam and Dave, Ru­fus and Carla Thomas, Booker T & the MGs and nu­mer­ous oth­ers.

Some of those hits ex­pected to be per­formed in the mu­si­cal in­clude “I’ll Take You There” by the Sta­ple Singers, Hayes’ Os­car-win­ning theme song from the film “Shaft” and Red­ding’s iconic “(Sit­tin’ on the) Dock of the Bay.”

Through the years, Stax would weather a se­ries of hard­ships, such as Red­ding’s tragic death in a plane crash in 1967 and its bankruptcy and court-or­dered clos­ing in 1976. The la­bel was re­vived a cou­ple of years later and even­tu­ally pur­chased in 2004 by Con­cord Records, which has given its ap­proval to the new mu­si­cal. The orig­i­nal Stax stu­dio was de­mol­ished in 1989.

While the mu­sic of Stax is an in­escapable part of the Amer­i­can sound­track, the la­bel it­self never be­came a house­hold name like its com­peti­tor, Mo­town, which in­tro­duced the world to a slicker, more main­stream ver­sion of black mu­sic.

The new mu­si­cal pro­duc­tion might help change that, said Tim Samp­son, spokesman for the Soulsville Foun­da­tion, a Mem­phis-based non­profit that works to pre­serve Stax’s mu­sic and her­itage.

“Ev­ery­body knows the mu­sic of Stax – they just aren’t clear where that mu­sic came from and the story be­hind it,” Samp­son said. “It’s such an im­por­tant part of Amer­i­can his­tory, and a fas­ci­nat­ing story.”

For ac­tress Tasha Tay­lor, it’s also a per­sonal story. Her fa­ther is John­nie Tay­lor, a singer and mu­si­cian who be­came an R&B star dur­ing his ten­ure at Stax.

“This is my fam­ily’s legacy,” said Tasha Tay­lor, who is one of the mu­si­cal’s co-pro­duc­ers and also plays Mavis Sta­ples and a cou­ple of other roles in the pro­duc­tion. Her brother, Jon, plays their fa­ther.

In a sense, Tasha Tay­lor said, her in­volve­ment in the pro­duc­tion is sort of car­ry­ing on in her fa­ther’s foot­steps, “which is a very daunt­ing thought.” The mu­sic he and the other artists made at Stax is still rel­e­vant and in­flu­en­tial, she said, even if to­day’s per­form­ers who sam­ple it in their own work are un­fa­mil­iar with its roots.

“It’s nice to point and say, 'This is the (orig­i­nal) artist – it didn’t start in our gen­er­a­tion, it started be­fore,'” she said. “And know­ing how hard they worked to get things and op­por­tu­ni­ties that come a lot eas­ier to us to­day, I think this is re­ally an im­por­tant piece of Amer­i­can his­tory.”

BAL­TI­MORE CEN­TER STAGE

The cast of “SOUL: The Stax Mu­si­cal” re­hearses for the pro­duc­tion’s world pre­miere at Bal­ti­more Cen­ter Stage. The new mu­si­cal tells the story of the rise of Stax Records dur­ing the tur­bu­lent ‘60s and ‘70s. PHOTO COUR­TESY OF BILL GEENEN /

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