Memphis - I’m watching a dozen pre-teens light up a classroom as they groove, shimmy and euphorically chant their way through the classic Bar-Keys song Soul Finger.
As well as being blown away by the raw talent on display, I can only think that school was never like this for me. An earnest hymn during a stilted assembly was as close as we got to singing, and the school really didn’t encourage public displays of rhythm.
As I’m about to learn, though, things are done differently here at the Soulsville Charter School, an establishment that lives up to its name.
I’m here to take part in the anniversary celebrations at the Stax Museum of American Soul, marking 10 years since it opened its fabulously decorated doors to the music-loving public.
Located just outside central Memphis, the museum has welcomed millions of visitors, all fans of the legendary sound that defined an era and a record label that produced some of the biggest talents of the day and which, I would find out, remains responsible for some of the biggest talents of tomorrow too.
On May 2, 2003, the museum welcomed the public to an impressive, state-of-the art facility celebrating the city’s greatest soul record label.
At the neighbouring historic theatre, The Orpheum, a Soul Comes Home concert sounded the fanfare with iconic performers such as Booker T and the MGs, Mavis Staples, William Bell and Al Green. An instantly, fantastically popular institution had been born in some style.
The museum, even if you’re not a particular fan of soul music, is a joy. The diversity of the exhibits and the formats in which they’re presented are inclusive, celebratory and educational.
If the history of civil rights is of interest to you, the story of the Stax label is an inspiring one – it was one of the few companies, let alone record labels, that in times of segregation had black and white employees treated equally.
If you’re a music buff, then the trivia and artefacts to be found will have you in nerd heaven. If you like celebrity excess and fashion, pose for photos in front on Isaac Hayes’s gold-plated Cadillac.
There are original album artworks and dozens of film clips showing everything from news reports to concert footage.
There are the incredible, flamboyant costumes and the personal audio testimonies of many of the label’s most famous stars. They tell you the story behind the records and reminisce on what it was like to be recording in such volatile times.
The names and the music (I highly recommend taking around the free MP3 player for a fantastic guided soundtrack) are all too familiar.
Otis Redding, Booker T, Al Green, Rufus Thomas – the label brought soul music to the world, famously being the first soul label to take its artist roster to London and the UK in 1967.
Sadly, that same year, its biggest star, Otis Redding, died in a plane crash and financial complications meant the label ran into troubles.
By 1975 it was forced to sell its rights and master tapes. Stax had already made music history, though, and in 1998 plans for the museum were presented and the Stax Academy (which would later enable the construction of the Soulsville Charter School) was created.
Memphis is undeniably a music city, and can boast more than its fair share of musical pilgrimage sites.
Elvis fans have Graceland, of course, and Sun Studios, which pay homage to the talents of Elvis Presley as well as Johnny Cash and, more recently, U2.
Beale Street, though somewhat commercial these days, still has plenty of live blues, and artists such as local legend BB King are honoured and occasionally still play. Blues music is an intrinsic element of this part of the world, and Memphis the perfect jumping-off point to follow the much-vaunted and touching Mississippi Blues Trail.
Back at the Soulsville Charter School, the pre-teens class have wowed everybody with their tribute to the Stax catalogue. The kids take normal subjects as well as their extra-curricular courses in performance, musicianship and singing. It’s an approach that is paying off in spectacular ways.
Communications director Tim Sampson tells me about the academic success against a backdrop of underprivilege. “Last year we had 51 seniors, all accepted to college with a combined $3.8-million in scholarships,” he says.
“This year we have 37 seniors, all accepted to college with $8.6m.”
The school gets results against the odds, and if the extraordinary anniversary concert is anything to go by, it will produce stars of the future. In the audience, former Stax musicians are in tears or applauding wildly.
But the school would not exist without the phenomenal story of the Stax record label. The museum – as relevant and impressive now as it was when it opened a decade ago – is its legacy and its testament.
And if you’re willing to look beyond Elvis on your musical pilgrimage to Memphis, you’ll find an inspiring story like few others. – Daily Mail