The Stax Legacy

The active life of Stax Records was short, about a decade. The impact of Stax Records lives on. James Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton changed their small country-music-oriented Satellite Records to Stax (Stewart + Axton = STAX) and set up shop in an old Memphis movie theatre in 1961. The label became the sweaty, soul-drenched counterbalance to the slick, choreographed music coming out of Motown’s “Hitsville U.S.A.” Stax called its recording studio “Soulsville U.S.A.” Stax introduced the world to Rufus and Carla Thomas, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Albert King, Sam & Dave and many others. The house band, Booker T. & the MG’s, backed up most Stax artists and also produced hits of their own.

The label’s biggest star, Otis Redding, died in a plane crash in 1967, along with several Stax musicians. Disadvantageous distribution arrangements with Atlantic Records and later CBS brought Stax to the financial brink. By the mid-seventies, Stax was insolvent and ceased operations. Its headquarter building was eventually demolished. Fantasy Records acquired the bankrupt Stax and its post-1968 library – Atlantic owned most of the older recordings – and used the label for re-issues, no new music. Concord Records bought Fantasy in 2004 and reactivated the name. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats and Ben Harper are currently on the Stax label.

A rebuilt “Soulsville U.S.A.” is now the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. On the same block is the Stax Music Academy. The Academy offers after-school and summer music programs for grades six through twelve. Their various ensembles – Jazz, rhythm & blues, funk, and contemporary jazz – perform around the area, and the country. They also operate the Soulsville Charter School offering a college-prep curriculum with a strong music program.

Penzey’s and Jefferson Davis and Memphis

The Tennessee legislature is digging in on its determination to punish the city of Memphis removing statues glorifying Confederates Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest. The state House of Representatives refused to reconsider taking back $250,000 allocated to the city for its bicentennial celebration. It also stiffened penalties for violations of the so-called “Tennessee Heritage Protection Act.”

Republican Rep Andy Holt stated, “My only regret about this is that it’s not to the tune of millions of dollars,” adding the state has been “very generous” to Memphis. He argued taking down the statues, “is wrong because it removes history, which is what ISIS does.”

A GoFundMe account by University of Memphis graduate Brittney Block has raised more than $69,500 to offset the loss of the money.

Bill Penzey, CEO of Penzey’s Spices, who makes a habit of infuriating right-wingers, sent the following in an e-mail to customers last week:

You may have heard the news last week that the Republican-led Tennessee State House voted to cut $250,000 in funding to next year’s Memphis Bicentennial celebration as a punishment for the city of Memphis legally removing two Civil War-themed statues. Seriously. This whole thing where, in parts of America, and Penzeys own backyard is no exception, that racists feel free to be openly racist because only those on the receiving end of racism should pay its price has to end.

If you are upset with the removal of a 1964 statue putting Jefferson Davis on a pedestal you aren’t fooling anyone. The idea of looking up to the leader of the terrorist organization responsible for the deaths of over one million Americans in their quest to keep race-based enslavement legal is not an idea for this century or any other for that matter. The time where politicians can claim to be American while doing their best to destroy American values has to be at an end. No more free passes.

We here at Penzeys, for a long time now, have really liked Bicentennials and really disliked racism, so this seemed a natural spot to try and pitch in to help make up for a slice of this quarter million dollar shortfall. Even though there’s not much money in selling $4.45 Ozark Seasonings for $2, and Memphis is technically just east of where the Ozarks begin, in the spirit of tastiness knowing no borders, we will donate $1 for each $2 1/4-cup Ozark sold during the length of the run of this offer.

Through yesterday we’ve sold 14,978 $2 Ozarks so we are already committed to $14,978 in Memphis Bicentennial support. As of yesterday we still had 14,584 1/4-cup Ozarks pre-positioned in our stores, and 6,000 at the ready in our warehouse.

Meanwhile, Memphis officials say they had no idea the Legislature had offered or removed the money until it happened. Even though they acknowledge the funding would have been helpful, they never asked the state to provide it and weren’t counting on it.

Memphis Unfriends Nathan Bedford Forrest

Not wanting to be left out of the furor about statues and other monuments honoring Confederate heroes, the Tennessee legislature in 2016 passed the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act, requiring a two-thirds majority of the Tennessee Historical Commission to “rename, remove, or relocate any public statue, monument, or memorial.” This would include the removal of statues honoring those who committed treason in their effort to preserve slavery.

Nathan Bedford Forrest’s other business

The Nathan Bedford Forrest Monument, a statue in Forrest Park of Nathan Bedford Forrest mounted on a horse, celebrated a Confederate cavalry leader, best known for the “Fort Pillow Massacre” of captured Union – mostly black – troops. After the War, he became the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Memphis is a blue dot on the deep red map of Tennessee. In 2013, the City Council had voted to change the name of Forrest Park to Health Sciences Park. (They also renamed Confederate Park to Memphis Park and Jefferson Davis Park to Mississippi River Park.) After the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act, became law, they sold the parks to a non-profit organization, who then removed the statues of Forrest and Jefferson Davis.

As if to prove there is nothing too petty for a Republican-controlled body, the Tennessee legislature voted to rescind its previous authorization of $250,000 granted to the city of Memphis for its bicentennial celebration in 2019.

When Antonio Parkinson, a representative from Memphis – a Democrat and African-American – called the vote vile and racist, he was cut off by boos from fellow lawmakers.

MLK and Penzey’s

Penzey’s began in 1957 as a husband-wife coffee and spice shop in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Twenty-nine years later, William and Ruth Ann Penzey’s son, William, Jr. began the company’s mail-order business. The company has grown and today has retail stores throughout the country.

Penzey’s Spices recognized the fifty-year anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr’s murder by being closed. Here is text of e-mail Bill, Jr. sent to their customers.

In the early evening of April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was taken from us by the forces of racism. For Penzeys, April 4, 2018 just doesn’t seem like a day for business as normal, so we are giving our people a paid day off and closing our stores and call center for the day. I apologize for the inconvenience this will surely cause our customers, but in a time where the same forces that took Dr. King have re-emerged to take control of the highest offices in our country, this just does not seem like the year to look the other way.

At the heart of cooking is the belief that when we care about others the world becomes a better place, that through kindness and compassion better futures can be set in motion. Even if this new wave of racism stopped today there would still be a great deal of healing to be done and Cooks would once again be the ones to do it. As a Cook, your kindness and compassion really are the glue keeping this world together. Right now our country and the world needs what you do more than it has in a long time.

All forms of hate are destructive, but there is something particularly soul-crushing about the hate that is racism. That it should be surging once again in the 21st century 50 years after Doctor Martin Luther King’s murder is tough to take. If there’s any silver lining to today’s racism, it’s that those with power and privilege who choose to fan the flames of racism know they can no longer do it openly. In King’s time it was those fighting racism that needed to be ever vigilant. These days, at least for now, it’s those promoting racism that realize their need for discretion because they know that so many would see their views as monstrous, especially the young.

Today as we remember the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s murder, with how incredibly sad that day was, there will be the urge to say that this is just about Memphis and just about 50 years ago. Please resist that urge. With the open racism that has taken hold of the modern Republican Party, this anniversary is very much about today, and very much about all our back yards. Especially ours.

At Penzeys our locations straddle both Milwaukee and Waukesha counties here in Wisconsin. Milwaukee is a wonderfully rich in diversity community. Waukesha is where most all the families who felt the need to flee that diversity ended up. Both communities are full of kind, decent people, but Waukesha still has a smaller contingent crossing all classes that are very much there for the racism. Mostly it’s kept out of sight, but at times you catch glimpses and it’s never pleasant to see.

So many have worked so hard in Waukesha to move things forward, and they are making progress every day, but there are still those fighting to keep out diversity in any way they can. A few months back, Memphis brilliantly orchestrated the removal of two confederate war statues from city parks. The next night our family attended a Waukesha school event where we witnessed the extended family who sat down in front of us share their disgust at the statues’ removal. They kept their voices low, but their anger radiated. I just don’t get how people with so much privilege can see goodness in being so hurtful to those facing so many obstacles. Change needs to come now.

Ever since our Cooking Trumps Racism email and Facebook post after the presidential election, I’ve received tens of thousands of emails from people sharing their experiences and thoughts on racism. Somewhere in reading those letters it occurred to me that maybe there’s a quicker way forward on racism. Up until now it’s only been those on the receiving end of racism that end up having to pay its considerable costs. As long as those doing the racism pay no price it’s going to continue. What if instead of turning a blind eye to those doing racism we took a conservative approach and asked those responsible to pay the costs of their actions?

One thing I’ve noticed about Cooks over the years that I think plays into why they have more positive outcomes in their lives, is that Cooks tend to be optimists. As a Cook myself, I look at the recent student-led activism in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting and see in the leadership of this new generation such hope. Not just for pragmatic gun control, but for the environment and for all forms of discrimination as well. This whole not accepting Fox’s apology until they take responsibility for what they’ve done seems to be a blending of the best of both the liberal and conservative traditions. In these young people I see so much hope for the future.

And once again, sorry to everyone who takes time out of their day to visit one of our stores or calls our call center only to find we are closed. What Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has meant to all that is good about this country is too much to not try to, in some way, show respect. Please, if you can today and in the coming days, give thought to Dr. King and all those who sacrificed so much to move equality forward in America. They paid so much to make this country great. Now is no time to slide back off the Mountaintop. Now is the time to reach for the summit.

The Lorraine Motel

lorraineMotelI’ve visited Memphis several times in the past few years. Beale Street has lately been spiffed up to be more attractive to tourists, Disneyfied, if you will. Sun Studios and Graceland draw crowds. W.C. Handy’s home on Beale, though not as grand as Elvis’s, is still open to visitors.

On Mulberry Street, less than a mile from Mr. Handy’s home and the $350-a-night Beale Street Westin Hotel, is the National Civil Rights Museum, formerly the Lorraine Motel. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered there on April 4, 1968.

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