Wednesday, January 9, 2008


The heart of a soulman
Otis Redding's recording studio on display at Stax Museum
The Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionPublished on: 01/09/08

When Deanie Parker stepped into the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in south Memphis to view the Otis Redding exhibit for the first time, it was as if she'd seen a ghost.
The exhibit, "Otis Redding: From Macon to Memphis," is set inside the museum's replica of Stax Records' Studio A — reconstructed on the studio's original McLemore Avenue footprint, sloping floor and all — where Redding recorded such R&B classics as "Try a Little Tenderness" and "(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay." The latter was recorded just days before he died, in 1967, in a plane crash.

"I walked into the studio and looked up and it was almost as if Otis' spirit was right there," said Parker, who arrived at Stax in 1963 and stayed — as singer, composer, secretary, publicist — until the family-run record label went belly up in 1975.

"Once again, he's back in his space," added Parker, now a museum complex board member. "In Studio A, where he used to prance back and forth as he was recording and teaching the musicians the arrangements to the songs."

The Stax exhibit is a state-line-jumping continuation of a similar Redding exhibit that opened this fall and is still running in Macon, at the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. Both exhibits commemorate the 40th anniversary of the artist's death at age 26. Both are dominated by memorabilia provided by Redding's widow.

"When you walk into either exhibit, you'll know what Otis Redding was about and the legacy he left," said Zelma Redding, 65, and still living near Macon. "But everyone tells a different story. When you go to Stax, the story is more about their history. They've worked so hard to tell the story of that room. And it's a great part of the story."

The Stax exhibit centerpiece is a collection of rare photographs of Redding on the 300-acre ranch he purchased in the rolling hills of Middle Georgia, about 25 miles outside Macon. Taken two weeks before his death, they show an offstage Redding patting cows, baling hay, playing with his kids.

It also includes telegrams Zelma received after his death from fans, musicians (the Temptations, Nina Simone) and politicians, including one from Jimmy Carter sent later, when a bridge in
Macon was officially named for Redding.

Other artifacts: receipts from the hotel Redding stayed in with his pilot and crew just before his death, and a poster from what became known as "the concert that never was" — the Madison, Wis., show (with opening act Grim Reaper, later morphing into Cheap Trick) that Redding was headed to when his twin-engine Beechcraft dropped into icy Lake Monona, just outside Madison.

But more profound than any relic is the context of where the exhibit is housed. Stax Records was R&B's rawer, sweatier parallel universe to the smooth, hard-waxed sounds of Motown. With a name that combined brother-and-sister founders Jim Stewart (the "St") and Estelle Axton (the "ax"), Stax was run inside a converted movie house like an integrated soul family in the heart of the South. The lettering for years on the old movie marquee: Soulsville USA.
The label produced more than 400 hits on the pop and R&B charts before it filed for bankruptcy in 1975. Artists included Booker T. & the MGs, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Sam and Dave, the Staple Singers and Isaac Hayes.

But boss hog was Redding. Stax became what Zelma Redding calls "his second home," a place where "they produced and made all those hits but, first and foremost, it was the family of Stax Records. It was love first and hits second."

He arrived there from Macon in 1962 as the driver for Johnny Jenkins & the Pinetoppers, who came to record a single. With a half-hour of studio time left, Redding, who occasionally performed with the band and who'd begged all day for a chance to sing, was allowed to record a ballad he wrote called "These Arms of Mine." It wasn't long before he became the label's biggest star.

And it all came out of Studio A. The original Stax building was razed in 1989, but a replica was built on the same site four years ago as part of a Soulsville USA complex. The studio was re-created right down to the sloping movie house floor and random Billboard magazines littered around the furniture. "From Macon to Memphis" is the first exhibit hosted inside the space.

"His presence was a lot like Elvis Presley and Billy Graham — one of those guys who when he walks into a room, the room changes," recalled Wayne Jackson, a member of the Memphis Horns who backed Redding on many hits. "He was the same in the studio as he was on stage — he marched up and down that room, just like he marched up and down the stage, and he'd sing the horn parts to us and get in our face until we were frothing at the mouth. He could instill that kind of excitement.

"He knew in his heart he didn't have long to discharge all this genius," added Jackson, now 66 and living in Nashville. "And when I say genius, I mean touched by God. He walked into that studio knowing the song and everything in it — the rhythm section, the drums, the horn lines.
"He drove a wedge in the world of music, and all of us fell into it," Jackson said. "When he was killed, we dispersed. It was all over for Stax."

What little is left is now at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music until April 30.

"Otis Redding: From Macon to Memphis" is at Stax Museum of American Soul Music, 926 E. McLemore Ave., Memphis, through April 30. $10. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; 1-4 p.m. Sundays., 901-946-2535.

Getting there
• Driving: Memphis is a seven-hour drive from Atlanta.
• Flying: Expect to pay about $250 round trip from Atlanta to Memphis.


busbob said...

Otis's airplane seat is on Ebay now. It would be a great piece of history to add to your museum. It has a great article with it. Keep up the great work you people are doing.