story by Tim Sampson, Communications Director Soulsville Foundation | photos courtesy of Soulsville Foundation
The Stax Music Academy Alumni Band was so popular that B.B. King’s Blues Club on Beale Street hired them, making them the only live music in a club during the day on the iconic street.
At first glance, the recreation of the original Stax Records recording studio in the Stax Museum is, well, like a museum. It’s a large room with a sloped floor because the original studio was a converted movie theater. On display are instruments that were used to create the great hits that came out of Stax by the likes of Booker T. & the MGs and the Memphis Horns. But on Tuesdays in June and early July, something magical happens and the room comes to life as students of the Stax Music Academy Alumni Band fire up the sounds of Stax and other soul music with rollicking, high-energy concerts that are reminiscent of the days when hits like “Soul Man” and “Hold On, I’m Comin’” were recorded at the very spot.
Formed in 2013 as a way to engage Stax Music Academy graduates who were in college but home on summer break, the Stax Music Academy Alumni Band was so popular that B.B. King’s Blues Club on Beale Street hired them to perform on other days of the week, making them the only live music in a club during the day on the street. They’ve been playing at the museum and at B.B.’s ever since and that first experimental band idea – and Stax Music Academy graduates in general – has turned into a much larger family of former students over the past seven years.
They’ve opened for Al Green. They’ve performed before hundreds of thousands of people at festivals throughout the country put on by The National Council for the Traditional Arts. In 2018 they performed in Nashville for 3,000 employees of Kohl’s at that company’s annual meeting, a gig that so impressed Kohl’s that they made a $50,000 donation to the Stax Music Academy. When British soul sensation Beverley Knight was preparing to star in the London run of MEMPHIS the musical and came to Memphis to soak up the vibe, she performed a set with the band at B.B. King’s to a packed house and media from all over the world.
“This idea all began as a way for us to keep up with the students once they graduated, but also as a way to give them paying jobs as musicians,” explains vocal director Kortland Whalum. “We thought it would also really enhance the museum experience for tourists from all over the world to walk into that studio and see live music being recorded again. From there it just took off and became an entity we had no idea would be so successful and so in demand.”
In order for students to participate in the new version of the band each year, they still must audition via video in advance of the summer and express their desire to continue performing and honing their craft. Once the auditions are judged, the band is formed. Performances at the Stax Museum begin each Tuesday from 2 – 4 p.m. in early June and run through early July. Performances at B.B. King’s normally take place Mondays and Fridays 12:30– 4 p.m. with three separate sets. For this summer’s official schedule, visit staxmusicacademy.com.