We are here in Memphis, Tennessee and have hit the ground running. The occasion is the 20th annual Blues Ball, thrown by Memphis’s doyenne of doyennes Pat Kerr Tigrett to raise money for local charities. This year, R&B legend Sam Moore is the honoree for Lifetime Achievement, and he will be performing on Saturday night in front of 2,500 formally attired Memphians.
Tigrett’s annual event is a magnet for all of Memphis’s famed musicians, and this year is no exception. Expected tomorrow night are the creme de la creme of Stax-Hi Records-Sun Records including Jerry Lee Lewis, Al Green, Ann Peebles, Carla Thomas, Marvell Thomas and so on.
When I was here filming “Only the Strong Survive” in the summer of 1999, the lot where Stax Records once stood was an empty field of weeds. The neighborhood had gone to hell in a handbasket. It was pretty bleak.
But a couple of years later thanks to brothers Andy and Staley Cates, Stax was re-born. They raised the money to build a museum and charter school and music academy on the property. A whole campus has risen around it since then, and Stax is now a focal point for the community. It’s quite an achievement.
This morning Sam and his wife Joyce were invited over for a private tour. The museum replicates the facade of Stax and the Satellite Record shop in the front. Inside, there are dozens exhibits detailing the history of soul music. They’ve also reproduced the original studio where Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, the Staples Singers and so many other Stax acts recorded their landmark hits. When we walked into the big room, a whole gang of us, Sam immediately gravitated to the spot where he sang with Dave Prater. He pointed to a spot just behind him.
“You had to be careful and not back up while you were singing.” he said. “There was a curtain here”– he motioned to the spot. “If you backed up you heard a lot of bottles fall and clink together. Those were Otis’s whiskey bottles. We knew he’d been in here the night before!”
What we also got was something very special: a show put on by the music students at Stax. They performed a medley of Stax hits, from “Soul Man” to “Knock on Wood” and a few others. These were fourteen to eighteen year olds. They were just outstanding, and a concrete example of the possibilities of renewal and growth where once everything seemed lost and abandoned.
Meantime, all anyone seems to do in this town is eat or talk about eating. It is still the barbecue capital of the south. After all the ribs and bread puddings I hope I will fit into my tuxedo on Emmy night!