The roster of American musicians was impressive: Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd, Booker T. and the MGs. They arrived in Europe in 1967, bringing with them the powerful, soulful Memphis Sound. Ahead was a tour with stops in London, Paris and elsewhere.
These artists from the Stax Records music studio captivated audiences with their music born from blues and gospel — a mesmerizing sound created from the black experience in the U.S. last century.
Fifty years later, a group of young musicians educated at Stax Music Academy are newly bringing the music of Memphis back to Europe. They are set to perform at festivals and music halls in England, France and Ireland from July 9 until July 22, joining Stax legends Mavis Staples and William Bell for a couple of shows.
The teenage musicians are eager to follow in the footsteps of their influential predecessors. Created in 2000, their academy is an after-school program for youngsters from some of Memphis’ poorest neighborhoods who learn how to dance, sing and play instruments. They pay nothing to attend.
“Just to be able to say that I was part of this upcoming overseas tour, being able to sing songs by Otis Redding and William Bell, it’s monumental not only for Memphis, but for Stax,” said Johnathon Lee, a 17-year-old academy vocalist. “To know that Stax music is still relevant today, and to know that was done in 1967, that’s monumental as well.”
Before it went bankrupt, Stax Records in Memphis generated some of America’s most memorable soul music of the 1960s and 1970s, including songs like Redding’s “Dock of the Bay,” Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man,” Floyd’s “Knock on Wood,” and Booker T. and the MGs’ “Green Onions.” Driven by tight horn and rhythm sections and strong-voiced singers, the Memphis Sound had a raw, emotional quality to it. Some Stax songs were energetic and raucous, others smooth and sexy.
Stax had a sister record label called Volt, so when they put together the 1967 trip, it was called the Stax/Volt European Tour.
The tour came at a time when Stax was having trouble getting its music aired on larger U.S. radio stations because of racial issues during the civil rights era, said Al Bell, who at the time was the music label’s national promotions director. So, when the Stax musicians hopped off a plane in London, they were surprised by the welcome they received.
“It stunned us. We didn’t know how to act,” Bell said. “All these white people in the airport and everywhere, hollering about Stax, calling the artists’ names.”
In Paris, fans “were going crazy” over the Stax musicians, especially Redding, Bell said.
“If there was ever a question in my mind about our music being acceptable to the masses and to whites, Paris, France, removed that completely from my mind,” he said.
Bell said Europeans told him that they viewed the music as an art form that comes from the African-American culture.
“And I’m saying, what?” Bell said, laughing. “We hadn’t even thought about having a `culture,’ let alone our music being considered an art form because it came out of slavery.”
When they returned to Memphis, the Stax artists used the momentum from the successful tour to churn out hits.
“When we came out of Europe, you couldn’t tell us nothing,” Bell said. “Writers got to writing, producers got to producing. You couldn’t get the musicians out of the studio.”
Some of the momentum stalled when Redding was killed in a plane crash in December 1967.
Bell later ran Stax before the company was forced into involuntary bankruptcy in 1975. Bell was indicted on bank fraud charges related to the company’s demise, but was acquitted.
The glory days of Stax Records are gone, but the Stax Music Academy is going strong. About a dozen teenagers ranging in age from 15 to 18 will be on the Europe tour, and they’ve spent hours rehearsing in the academy’s studios.
It will be the first time Lee will travel out of the country, and he’s looking forward to staying in new places and eating foreign foods. He called the trip “a big deal.”
“I’m a little nervous, but I’m excited,” Lee said. “I’m ready to venture out.”