This lesson will explore how Memphis, set against this backdrop, was one musical city that would change how America viewed race relations. The 1960s Soul music recorded in Memphis was a blend of black and white styles, combining elements of Country, R&B, Gospel, and Pop. And Memphis musicians like Elvis Presley, and later the Mar-Keys and Booker T. and the MGs, became powerful examples of a national trend wherein art and culture challenged racial norms. One turning point occurred in 1957, when siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton founded Satellite Records and soon changed their company’s name to “Stax.” Stewart and Axton, both white, established their headquarters on McLemore Avenue in a predominantly black Memphis neighborhood. They made a decision to open their studio and offices to any person with talent, regardless of skin color; like Presley’s refusal to hide his love for African-American culture, these were bold moves in a city that was still widely segregated.
The musicians who performed and played on Stax recordings were no strangers to the effects of a city divided by skin color. In the mixed-race ensemble Booker T. and the MGs, all of the musicians had graduated from segregated Memphis schools. But music brought them together across institutionalized color lines. When Booker T. and the MGs released their breakthrough hit “Green Onions” in 1962, there were still many restaurants in the South where the band could not sit down together for a hamburger – even with a hit song at No. 3 on the Billboard Pop singles chart.
In this lesson, students embark on a “walking tour” of Memphis, using the city as a case study through which to view complex race relations and integration issues that affected communities across the U.S. While plotting points of historical interest on a map, students consider how artists such as Elvis, the Mar-Keys, and Booker T. and the MGs resisted social norms through their music and performances. Listening to oral history from Stax owner Jim Stewart, students explore how an integrated record label operated in the middle of a segregated community and was able to create a unique and powerful Soul sound that signaled a shift in race relations in America.