|An interview with Tim Sampson of the Soulsville Foundation
The legacy of Soulsville
|By Jonathan Gramling
Part 2 of 2
Tim Sampson, the communications manager for the Soulsville Foundation — the umbrella non-profit that runs the STAX Museum, the STAX
Music Academy and the Soulsville Charter School — is into it. Sampson has been with the foundation — first as a consultant and then as an
employee — since a group of people got together about a decade ago to purchase the field where the STAX recording studio once stood.
During its heyday in the 1960s, STAX was producing hit after hit that seemed to peak with ‘(Sitting on) The Dock of the Bay’ by Otis Redding,
released four days after his death in Madison. And then, on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis.
Memphis and STAX Records would never be the same.
Memphis polarized along racial lines and Euro-Americans fled to the suburbs further impoverishing the urban area, exasperating and accelerating
the urban decay. While money continued to flow through STAX Recording, the economic benefits did not necessarily trickle down to the people
outside. Racial tensions increased and that affected the interracial esprit de corps that existed inside. “Most people think STAX was just a Black
recording studio,” Sampson said. “Toward the end it was.”
In order to get STAX pointed in the right direction once more, Jim Stewart brought in Al Bell, a popular Washington, D.C. DJ. “Most of them will
say that they could have never survived as long as they did without Al Bell and his marketing expertise and his connections in the Black music
industry,” Sampson said. “He’s the one who signed the Staple Singers. He had always wanted to sign the Staple Singers to a record label. They were
gospel singers before they came to STAX. They went from gospel music to protest and folk music.
Mavis actually dated Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan loved the Staple Singers and loved Mavis. They recorded his music and he recorded their music.
They performed together. She calls him Bobby. She says ‘Oh, Bobby and I dated.’ She said that he wanted to marry her and she wouldn’t do it
because at the time, she just didn’t think it would be possible for a Black woman and a White man to be married at that time and not be miserable from
all of the outside crap that went on.”
In order to get as much record playing time as possible and promoting multiple images, STAX and other recording companies would produce
records with different labels. “If they had all of those different label names, it didn’t look like the disc jockeys were playing favorites and playing way
too much STAX music and not enough of something else,” Sampson said. “Enterprise was the label that Isaac recorded all of his stuff on. It was
named after the spaceship in ‘Star Trek,’ which was Al Bell’s favorite television show. Also if they had a gospel label, it opened them up to record a
whole lot of another genre and try to make money that way and be successful in gospel, comedy, spoken word and some country. Shirley Brown with
Woman to Woman was a huge hit.”
But it never quite seemed the same. Employees, particularly Euro-American employees, had to be escorted into the building. Security was beefed
up and some of that security packed guns. They had to put a barbed-wire fence up behind the studio. And as the company started experiencing
success once more with Al Bell and hits like Isaac Hayes’ ‘Shaft,’ its employee base ballooned to 200 employees. And the company tried to diversify
into other entertainment areas like movies and Broadway plays. It grew too large, too quickly with some questionable business deals. While STAX was
booming, it was also financially vulnerable, waiting for a fall.
“It just whirled out of control,” Sampson said. “They lost everything. Two things happened. Their bank had been Union Planters who had always
loaned them money and got the money back. But anyone who wanted to buy a car or whatever and worked at STAX, they would just go there, sign a
piece of paper and the bank would give them money. But the president of that bank left and the man who came in and took over said ‘You owe us all
of the millions of dollars. We want it all right this minute. We’re calling in all of the loans.’ And at the same time that was happening, they had cut a
deal with CBS Records. That CEO left and the new one who came in didn’t care anything about STAX and wouldn’t distribute the products. So all of
the albums they were trying to sell were sitting in the warehouses. And the local business community — the bank and everyone — there was a lot of
racism involved. They said ‘Oh, that company has gone all Black. We don’t care what happens to them.’ And STAX was trying to invest in Broadway
musicals and sports teams and the solid gold Cadillac’s. They were spending money right and left that they shouldn’t have been spending. It was just
one of those companies that got real big and then went bust.”
STAX went into bankruptcy in late 1975 and by 1981, its master tapes had been sold and the building was sold to a church for $10. While a soup
kitchen was housed in the studio for a time, it remained largely vacant until it deteriorated to the point where it was razed in 1989 to make way for a
community center that was never built. Then, in 1988, a miracle happened. “An anonymous philanthropist decided it would be a great idea to build a
museum and a school here to help revitalize the neighborhood, build a shrine to STAX, and put something in the community that would help it a lot,”
Sampson said. “They formed a non-profit board and started looking at the possibility of doing that. They brought in a real estate developer from Texas.
He came in and started doing all of the work, buying all the property. First, they bought the original site of STAX, which was a field covered with
garbage, whiskey bottles and needles. There were crack houses on two sides of it. Next door where the school is was a big old apartment building with
no windows and full of garbage and rats. Across the street were partial remnants of buildings. It was just nasty.”
Over the next five years, the Soulsville Foundation would raise enough money from public and private sources to build the STAX Museum, the
STAX Music Academy and the Soulsville Charter School. “It’s very, very much the same kind of vibe that STAX had,” Sampson said about the
schools. “It’s a real open door policy. We don’t turn kids away. Our academy is Black and White. Everyone who came to work at STAX would tell you
that STAX was their university because they didn’t get a formal education. Some did. Booker T. Jones has about five PhDs in music. They learned
while they were in the studio. So our kids are kind of doing the same thing. It’s a little bit more structured. We’re giving them the same chance all of
these neighborhood kids had at STAX. Now they have the same chance at the STAX Music Academy. It’s a charter school with a big time academic
program. None of it is to make them professional musicians. It’s not like a Fame Academy. It’s all about mentoring the kids, giving them positive goals
and teaching them how to focus and have something positive to do. And it is all designed to get them ready to go to college and be good, successful
adults, whether they go into music or law or medicine or whatever. All of it is designed to keep them safe, encourage them and boost their self-
On some levels, the Soulsville Foundation is giving back to the McLemore Avenue community for what it gave to the world of music. And while
the purpose of the foundation is to uplift the community, you never know if lightning will strike twice in the community. STAX Two anyone?