When Stax went bankrupt

When Stax went bankrupt, in 1975, the label's catalog was sold at auction and its South Memphis studio was boarded up and abandoned. When the building was finally torn down, in 1989, the bricks ended up in Memphis flower beds, in living rooms, and in the local record stores, which sold them to tourists for ten bucks a pop.

"It was a dirty, low-down thing that happened," Deanie Parker told me when I visited the new Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which opened two years ago on top of the old studio's footprint. "All of us had to make a fast exit, and we didn't go by choice. The Southside Church of God in Christ - a Holiness church - bought the building for ten dollars. They said it would be a soup kitchen. Promised the community that no more sinful music would be made on this spot. And then, over the community's objections, they demolished it."

Parker, who started at Stax in '64, spent years trying to get the museum built. Memphis's city fathers hadn't raised a finger to preserve the original building - they suggested something closer to the beer-drenched Beale Street tourist center, a la Muddy Waters' sharecropper shack, which had already been taken off its foundation and sent on a tour of House of Blues clubs

Bricks or no bricks, what Memphis ended up with feels reasonably authentic. The first exhibit is an old African Methodist Episcopal church, imported board by board from Duncan, Mississippi (it's the church Parker's grandparents attended). The last exhibit - a fur-lined Cadillac which once belonged to Isaac Hayes. If that's ain't the story of American music....

So, with the exception of Deanie Parker's "My Imaginary Guy," the songs I'm posting are raw, unmixed selections from the Stax studio vaults: Off-the street audition tapes, radio spots, and song sketches by established Stax artists. Hope is, they'll give you an intimate glimpse of the studio's inner workings, or a sense of the kinds of music that filtered into the place.

In February, 1950, jazz critic and Metronome columnist Leonard Feather played Billie Holiday a series of cuts by Sarah Vaughan, Wynonie Harris, Count Basie, and nine other artists. "This is Ruth Brown, and you don't have to play it," Holiday said upon hearing the fifth track. "I know all about that. I can't stand copycats, and this girl copies Miss Cornshucks note for note. She looks a little better but she hasn't got a damn thing; I just don't like her. I'd like to get 'em both together with a good piano player and have 'em both sing; if Cornshucks' So Long isn't twice as good, I'll eat my hat. When Cornshucks sings this style, she means it. Sure, I copied Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong - but not note for note; they inspired me.... I don't care if she hates me for saying this, it's my opinion!"

As it happens, Ahmet Ertegun, who built the Atlantic Records empire on the back of Ruth Brown's earliest successes - including her 1949 recording of "So Long" - had recorded Little Miss Cornshucks in 1943, whilst his father was serving as Turkey's wartime ambassador to Roosevelt's White House: "When I was 19 or so, I went to a nighclub in the northeast black section of Washington and heard a singer whose name was Little Miss Cornshucks," Ertegun recalled. "I thought, 'My God!!!' She was better than anything I'd ever heard. She would come out like a country girl with a bandana around her head, a basket in her hand, and so forth, which she'd set aside fairly on in the show. She could sing the blues better than anybody I've ever heard to this day. I asked her that night if she would mind if I made a record for myself. We cut 'Kansas City' along with some other blues and she also sang a song called 'So Long.' She had such a woneful sound and I remember just thinking, 'My God! My God!' And I didn't have a record company, I just made those records for myself."

Cornshucks, who was born Mildred Cummings in Ohio in 1923, was remarkably influential in her day (e.g., another Atlantic artist, LaVern Baker, started her career as an imitator named "Little Miss Sharecropper"); by the time of her death, in 1989, she was entirely forgotten. So for those of you who who haven't heard her - as I hadn't, until Ertegun mentioned her in the course of an interview for my book - I'm including her take on "Try A Little Tenderness," which Otis Redding remade, brilliantly, some years later (see below). But instead of including Ruth Brown's version of "So Long" - the one Holiday eviscerated in Metronome - I'm posting a version LMC herself cut in the wake of Brown's success. Beneath it, you'll find yet another version, by Big Maybelle (who recorded the original "Hound Dog"). Released by Savoy in 1957, the song seems to have made its way to Liverpool, where Lennon/McCartney liked it enough to include the chord progression, the arrangement, even echoes of the lyric (or, at least, the subject matter), in their own "This Boy." It's the only time I've been able to catch the Beatles stealing so brazenly, and I can only imagine what Billie might have said.