The description ‘legendary’ tends to get bandied around a lot in the mostly preposterous world of popular music. But there are exceptions to any rule and one such is the European tour put together by Memphis-based Stax Records in 1967.
Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and Eddie Floyd were among the, ahem, legendary names on that tour and the electrifying shows are still referred to with awe by anyone lucky enough to see these fantastic artists in their prime. But that was by no means all those shows achieved.
Although Redding and the rest were greeted like conquering heroes on this side of the pond, back home in Memphis black people were still excluded from any sort of power and privilege, with violence and brutality meted out to anyone who resisted white dominance. Stax, which arrived in the midst of the civil rights movement, may have been the exception, where black and white musicians together created some of the greatest music ever made. But it was a revelation to these great artists to find themselves in cities and whole countries, where they were treated with respect and revered for their creativity. The historical significance of what that tour achieved can’t be understated and many credit the tour as the moment soul finally broke through worldwide. Sorry to shock, but it really wasn’t The Commitments or The Blues Brothers.
“Racism was so rampant in Memphis at the time that the black and white artists, who were like family inside the doors of Stax Records, were not able to stay in the same hotels, eat in the same restaurants, and even go to the zoo on the same day,” says Tim Sampson, communications director of the Soulsville Foundation, the non-profit organisation running the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Stax Music Academy.
Today, Stax’s legacy is documented through the academy and museum and, 50 years on, students in the Stax Music Academy are going to follow in the footsteps of Redding and co. Celebrating the original tour’s 50th anniversary, Stax alumni are visiting Manchester’s Band On The Wall and Gateshead’s Summertyne Festival, as well as London, Bordeaux and many more cities, recreating history while starting careers of their own, thanks in large part to the efforts of UK-based fans David Henderson and Heather Hendren.
“The 1967 Stax/Volt Tour was revolutionary in that it was really one of the first times all of the singers and musicians got to perform together on stage instead of in the recording studio,” points out Henderson, who organises music-based trips to the Southern United States along with partner Heather. “Other than Otis Redding, who had travelled to the United Kingdom the previous year, none of the others had been to Europe and had no idea how popular their music was, so it came as a shock to them when they were all treated with great respect, both black and white, and surprised to find out how enthusiastic the white European fans were. They just didn’t have any idea. I think it emboldened them to be even more creative once back in Memphis.”
Sampson says: “We still hear from people all the time who were at those original 1967 concerts and have never forgotten them, like it was a Holy Grail experience for them. Stax was a very small, ‘mom-and-pop’ label started by Jim Stewart and soon joined by his sister Estelle Axton. They just wanted to be in the music business because they loved it and they just wanted to make good music. They didn’t care about colour or class or anything like that. I think they almost accidentally went into the entire project with a nod to authenticity because they weren’t polished like the Motown producers. They just wanted the artists to be themselves and genuine. They wanted young people to have the opportunity and support to make it. I think that’s what made Stax so special.
“Now we always try to keep that legacy front and centre and use that legacy of giving young people opportunities every day at the Stax Music Academy and our Soulsville Charter School, a university prep school. We recruit kids through the Shelby County Schools system, through churches, community centres, and at our large performances. We try to target the most underserved children, but we’re not limited to that. We have added audio and engineering classes so we can serve kids who aren’t as musically or vocally talented, and we have waiting lists now for those. They’re producing records and working sound at our live events.
“Our intention is to simply prepare the students for college and any field of study they wish to pursue, but we do get them ready for a higher education in music if they want to. Some of them now are working as record producers, some are session players, some are working in digital music distribution. One of our graduates, Kris Thomas, made the top 10 on the television show The Voice and he is now lead singer in the band at B.B. King’s Blues Club in Orlando, Florida.”
He adds: “We have always kind of been planning for a European Tour but this plan became real with some friends and supporters in England, David Nicholson and Heather Hendren. They have been promoting Memphis and Stax professionally for years and have been as enthusiastic about the Academy as we are. They decided to make this happen and now all sorts of people have gotten on board to support us. It is a tremendous challenge in that this will be the first trip outside the United States for all these students, except one, and our schedule is going to be hectic. But we have taken students in the past to Australia, Berlin, Italy, New York City, Washington and other places so we know a little about the process.”
“It absolutely changes everyone’s lives – the kids, their instructors on the trip, myself. You see a child change overnight when they discover there is more to life than their own city. They are fascinated by other cultures. They feel a stronger desire to be successful because they want to travel more. Their self-esteem is boosted beyond belief when the audience reacts to them so positively. They learn so much more about life when they travel than they do when at home. It is nothing short of amazing.”
You can see the next generation of Stax 50 years on from the original 1967 tour at the Band On The Wall, Manchester, on July 9, 2017, and the Summertyne Festival, Gateshead, with William Bell, on July 21 and 22.