New musical traces the legacy of Stax Records
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
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.”
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 /