There were two rival labels – and two cities – that defined soul music in the public consciousness. And fans still debate their preferences between the polished Motown soul of Detroit and the gritty Stax soul from Memphis.
This feature was produced in collaboration between High Ground and its sister publication Model D.
Where Motown boasted an in-house finishing school, Stax embraced the raw, live energy that came from its studio being located in a converted movie theater with a sloped, concert hall-like floor. Motown self-proclaimed its studios to be Hitsville, U.S.A., while Stax's neighborhood called itself Soulsville, U.S.A.
The rest, as they say, is history, and Motown and Stax have come to define their hometowns in the eyes of the world. So how are those cities embracing their soul music heritage and turning it into a cultural and economic asset?
While both Motown and Stax enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity in the 1960s, Stax would suffer a devastating crash in the 1970s before its eventual resurrection as a museum, school, and community anchor in the 2000s.
Founded in 1957 at Satelite Records and rechristened as Stax in 1961, the Memphis-based soul music label was bringing in more than $14 million a year in sales before being driven into bankruptcy in 1975 by a one-two-three combination of punches from forces outside of its control.
First, a 1967 plane crash killed the label's biggest-selling star, Otis Redding, along with all but two of the original members of the Bar-Kays, Stax's session band. That same year, the label was forced to deal with the sale of Atlantic Records, with whom Stax had a distribution deal, to Warner-Brothers. The sale caused Stax to lose the rights to all its material released between 1960 and 1967. Then the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stifled the formerly-vibrant atmosphere at the famously integrated recording studio. The deeply wounded label tried to soldier on, but folded in 1975.
The Church of God in Christ bought the Stax building on McLemore for $10 in 1981 with plans to build a community center, and then demolished the structure in 1989, according to Robert Gordon in his book "Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion." Fortunately for the site's future, the sale included a clause that said the property could only be used for "nonprofit, religious, charitable, educational, scientific, cultural and/or civic purposes."
The recreated Stax Studio opened in as a museum in 2003 at the exact site of the original Stax building, the pride of the Soulsville neighborhood. The Music Academy sits to the left of the museum, and a satellite record shop on the right.
The property found its civic purpose a decade later when Tim Sampson, who is now the Communications Director for the Soulsville Foundation, met with an anonymous donor in front of the blighted lot that had been Stax Records. The spot that had once been a source of intense pride for the impoverished neighborhood had become just another empty lot adding to the decay.
A museum exhibit features a replica of the Soul Train dance floor, circa 1970, with original footage from the program.
"I started with this organization in January of '98," Sampson says. "This was like a warzone. Where the Academy building is now, there was a 65-unit apartment with no windows and a burned out school bus behind it. There were no opportunities for kids in this neighborhood."
Some people were skeptical of the plans to build at the former Stax location. "We were asking, 'If we build the museum there, is anyone else going to come?'" Sampson recalls. "I'm really happy we did it right smack here."
Building the on the legacy of Stax
Today the Soulsville Foundation is composed of three organizations at the original Stax site – the Stax Museum of Amercian Soul Music, the Stax Music Academy, and the Soulville Charter School. "It was never in our plan to be just a museum," Sampson said.
In fact, the Stax Academy opened in 2000, three years before the museum. The Academy provides after-school mentoring and music education with a focus on at-risk youth. It was initially at the nearby Stafford Elementary School until its current 27,000-square-foot facility opened in 2002 as the first component of the Soulsville Campus.
The museum opened next door a year later in 2003 at the exact site of the original Stax building, with its famed exterior and Studio A recreated in exact detail as part of a 17,000-square-foot space packed with exhibits and memorabilia ranging from old instruments, costumes, and recording equipment to Isaac Hayes' gold-trimmed and shag-carpeted Cadillac.
Finally, the Soulsville Charter School opened behind the academy in 2005 with a class of sixth graders. The intensive, tuition-free college preparatory school added an additional grade each year as its initial students grew up until it became a full grades 6-12 middle and high school.
After-school practice at Stax Music Academy
Many of the instructors at the academy are also professional musicians, like trombonist Victor Sawyer who has taught there for the past two years. "It's a rigorous schedule. To perform the music you really have to immerse yourself in it," he says.
The mentoring also goes beyond music as the instructors coach the students on every aspect of preparing for college from practicing for their music program auditions to making plans for housing. "We focus on how we can make each student a great person – what we call a 'soul communicator,'" Sawyer says.
The Academy's students have performed around the world, from Australia to the White House, and since 2008, every one of them who has applied to college has been accepted, along with every student from the charter school during the past four years.
Many former students also return to campus from college to visit with former instructors who continue to mentor them. The alumni end up mentoring younger students in the process, bringing back the old spirit of Stax, a place where young musicians from the neighborhood would learn from the older pros in the studio.
"Everything we do here is based on the legacy of Stax. Everything is open door," Sampson says. "We've really made people proud to be from this neighborhood again."
Other south Memphis neighborhood landmarks
The gleaming Soulsville campus has helped to revitalize the surrounding area as well. Across the street, the Memphis Slim House was once home to legendary bluesman John "Peter" Chatman, a.k.a. Memphis Slim. During the heyday of Stax, it was a popular hangout for the artists, but the house fell into disrepair after Chatman's death in 1988. Today, however, it has been redeveloped as the Memphis Slim Collaboratory, a space in the Soulsville neighborhood for people to create, rehearse, and record music.
Around the corner at a place where the music production never stopped, a studio owner is happy to see a new generation embrace the neighborhood's history. Royal Studios is were legendary producer Willie Mitchell recorded artists like Chuck Berry, Al Green, and Ike and Tina Turner back in the 1960s and 1970s. And it is where his son and current Royal owner Lawrence "Boo" Mitchell has recorded modern smash hits like "Uptown Funk" with Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars.
"Before the whole Soulsville Foundation, the 12- and 13-year-old kids had no idea who Isaac Hayes, Dave Porter, Sam & Dave, or Booker T were," Mitchell said. "To me, that's probably the greatest impact on the youth. It's insuring our music has a future."
Techno, rock, punk, jazz, and hip hop -- the pantheon of 20th century music has representatives from Detroit in every genre. And then there's soul music, the genre that made Detroit synonymous with its most famous label, Motown Records.
The musical legacy of Motown has its roots in the Great Migration of the early 20th century, when millions of African Americans made their way to industrial cities like Detroit in search of opportunity. Theatres, bars, and clubs lined the streets of Detroit's popular black entertainment districts like Paradise Valley and 12th Street, and live music could be heard any night of the week across the city. (You can take an audio tour of Hastings Street in Paradise Valley through a mysterious recording by the "Detroit Count" on this rare blues record
In this vibrant atmosphere, a young Berry Gordy developed his Motown label in the late 1950's. Motown grew to be one of the most successful independent labels of all time and was a huge inspiration to the artists and aspiring business men and women in Detroit and beyond. Soon, many mom-and-pop labels sprang up in imitation of Motown's startling success. And the talent was there to support them.
But first and foremost was Motown. Comprised of two modest-looking houses on West Grand Boulevard, Motown's Hitsville U.S.A. studio churned out an epic number of hit records between the late 1950s to the early 1970s, when Gordy relocated most of Motown's operations to Los Angeles.
The houses look much the same today as they did during Motown's heyday, thanks in part to the establishment of the Motown Museum on the premises in 1985. When Motown Records moved to L.A., Berry Gordy's sister Esther Gordy Edwards stayed behind and worked to preserve the company's legacy in Detroit. The Motown Museum now is celebrating its 30th
anniversary and sees 50,000 visitors a year.
"Musical tourism is a big part of what we do," says Deanna Majchrzak of the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The Motown Museum, a partner of ours, in particular is huge in bringing in an international market. It's one of Detroit's biggest tourist draws."
Inside the museum, you can see the label's humble beginnings in Gordy's small apartment next to the studio. There is Michael Jackson's trademark sequined glove and black fedora and the studio's Steinway baby grand piano, which was recently renovated courtesy of Sir Paul McCartney.
Inside the magical Studio A, referred to as the "Snake Pit" by Motown veterans, people are often transfixed as they stand where Marvin Gaye sang "What's Going On," or look over to the piano that Stevie Wonder played. It's hard to describe the feeling the studio conveys unless you've been there. Notes are hanging in the air and the music is alive.
United Sound Systems
Imagine Keith Richards, Ron Wood, and Aretha Franklin walking in to the United Sound Systems (located about a mile away from Hitsville) to record a version of "Jumping Jack Flash" 29 years ago. Did they stroll in the front door in broad daylight, or did they slip in through the back late at night, vanishing into the studio from a blacked-out limousine? Did anyone see them and wonder, was that Keith Richards? Maybe they saw Whoopi Goldberg filming this sequence for her comedy Jumpin' Jack Flash?
Founded in 1933, United Sound Systems Recording Studio
's legacy is just as impressive as Motown's, if not as regularly celebrated. Hidden behind the building's modest exterior are treasure troves of music history. In Studio A, George Clinton and Funkadelic recorded "One Nation Under a Groove" and Anita Baker recorded her 5x-platinum hit album "Rapture." Upstairs in Studio B, John Lee Hooker recorded his first hit, "Boogie Chillen," in 1948 while stomping on a wooden board. Jazz greats like Miles Davis and Charlie Parker and soul artists like Isaac Hayes, Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John, and many more all cut records there.
United Sound Systems
That's a lot of history for one building. In fact, as an active recording studio, United Sound is still making music and history in Detroit. (Local punk band Timmy's Organism just recorded a new album on 2-inch tape in Studio A.)
If you're not ready to cut a record at United Sound, tours are available by appointment. Sign up for one and you will notice that Studio A is a beautiful room with hardwood floors and intricately painted sound baffling panels. The walls are lined with donated gold and platinum records, testaments to the sound that made United Sound a desired destination for performers and producers. There are plans to turn part of the two-story structure into a small museum. (George Clinton donated his 1920's Chickering baby grand piano, which was renovated on the reality show American Restoration
But United Sound's future is in question.
When Paradise Valley was demolished in the early 1960s to make way for I-75, many significant sites in Detroit's musical history were lost, including Joe Von Battle's record shop; once again, a freeway threatens an important Detroit musical landmark. According to a 2004 environmental impact study by the Michigan Department of Transportation, United Sound Systems sits within an area slated for demolition to accommodate the widening of I-94, a freeway located just south of the studio.
United Sound's owners and supporters have worked to obtain historic designation to prevent destruction of the site.
"The Detroit City Council just voted unanimously to give the studio historic status, so the City Council has been very supportive of what we do here," says Richards. Unfortunately, even with the designation, the future of the building is still unknown.
Carleton Gholz, a consultant for the studio as it sought historic district status, is president of Detroit Sound Conservancy
, a collective dedicated to increasing awareness of Detroit's musical heritage. The group hosts tours
that visit neighborhoods across the city and venues and sites including United Sound Systems.
For Gholz, the openness of United Sound to artists of various genres is fitting. The Sound Conservancy's tours aren't specific to soul music and take in the many facets of Detroit's music, including techno, rock, and jazz.
"I'd like to look beyond specific genres of music to find collaborators in supporting preservation and awareness of Detroit's musical legacy," says Gholz.
A first step in the preservation of that legacy would be saving the United Sound Systems.
Michigan Audio Heritage Society Museum
Brad Hales is another passionate supporter of Detroit and Michigan music. As owner of People's Records
, Hales has amassed an incredible collection of photographs and ephemera beyond the music found on Detroit's many soul labels, which he also collects vigorously. He started the MAHS (Michigan Audio Heritage Society) Museum
within the Trinosophes
gallery and art space to not only display some of his collected material, but also for archival preservation.
The museum is a labor of love for Hales and his supporting staff.
"We had a small matching grant from the Knight Foundation, but most of what's in the museum has been from collecting ephemera over the years at People's Records or on my own. We want to help tell the story here of the unheard artist," says Hales.
The museum hosted a show featuring the underground Detroit Jazz collective and label Tribe, created in part by the recently deceased Marcus Belgrave. Hales plans on printing a book of rare photographs of Detroit musical notables, including many lesser known artists whose memory has stayed alive through the music they recorded. One potential project Hales would like support for is a small, low-watt AM radio station with world class programming devoted to playing Michigan music.
Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame
LaMont "Showboat" Robinson dreams on a larger scale. The owner of the Harlem Clowns
basketball team would like to bring his Official Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame Museum
to Detroit. The plan is for a museum similar in scope to Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but featuring soul, gospel, jazz, and R&B performers.
"Of all the cities that want the R&B Hall of Fame, we want Detroit because Detroit is the music capital of the world. Motown was the greatest independent music label of all time, and Detroit's musical scene is worthy of so much respect. Paradise Valley, the jazz history, the 20 Grand, John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin, David Ruffin, the Temptations..." says Robinson.
Robinson has already created a Hall of Fame honor roll and already inducted many R&B greats. A 2015 induction ceremony is scheduled for October 4 at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, with potential inductees including Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Jerry Butler, and many more. Robinson has received letters of support from Mayor Duggan and the Ilitch family (owners of the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Red Wings sports franchises) and is currently looking to find a home in Detroit.
LaMont "Showboat" Robinson
Robinson's Hall of Fame would be an impressive addition to the city's institutions.
"If someone wanted to bring a sports hall of fame to the city, then the governor and the state would be all over that. I want to bring the R&B Hall of Fame to Detroit. With all the abandoned buildings around, there has to be room for this. And we're going to make it happen," says Robinson.
This feature was produced in collaboration between Model D and its sister publication High Ground Memphis.
Detroit photos by Doug Coombe.