Booker T. Jones performs at Stax, before the milestone

By ADRIAN SAINZ, Associated Press

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) – Dressed in a blue suit, black hat and multicolored socks, master keyboardist Booker T. Jones leaned away from the Hammond B3 organ, tilted his head back and worked the keys and pedals as he played the funky, familiar hit “Green Onions” for a nodding, toe-tapping crowd at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.

The intimate performance by Jones and a tight backup band on Wednesday was part of an event at the museum in Memphis, Tennessee, which previewed its 20th anniversary celebration slated for 2023.

Built on the site of the former Stax Records, the museum celebrates the influential soul music born from the studio where Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MGs, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Carla Thomas, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave and d others recorded some of the most memorable songs in American popular music.

“Here in this space, you’re on hallowed ground,” said Pat Mitchell Worley, president and CEO of the Soulsville Foundation, which oversees the museum.

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Jones’ rousing renditions of “Hip Hugger,” “Time is Tight,” “Soul Limbo” and the 60-year-old “Green Onions” followed a video announcing events celebrating the museum’s opening two decades ago. They include a year of free student excursions, a concert series featuring performances by national artists, and a mobile “pop-up” vehicle that will transport Stax music, merchandise and more to places like Austin’s SXSW, Nashville’s Americana Fest and Orleans’ New Essence Festival.

A native of Memphis, Jones, 77, said he felt lucky to have been able to develop his musical talent just blocks from his home in Stax. Jones said he felt “an opening” when he entered the Stax Building.

“I guess you can say there are places on Earth, some more conducive to art than others,” Jones told reporters before his performance. “It’s a place for art.”

The museum is a major attraction in Memphis, where Graceland, Sun Studio, Beale Street, and the Memphis Rock N’ Soul Museum also offer tourists the music created in the Mississippi River city.

Stax favored a raw sound born of black church music, blues and rock ‘n’ roll. It featured tight rhythm sections, powerful horn players, and vocalists who could be sexy and soulful in one track, loud and powerful in another.

Some of Stax’s musicians grew up near the studio, which moved to the old Capitol Theater in 1960. They called it “Soulsville USA”—a name that stuck to the surrounding working-class neighborhood now called Soulsville.

Jones was a member of Booker T. and the MGs, a biracial quartet that served as the recording studio’s house band, supporting many of the studio’s hitmakers. With the multiracial Memphis Horns, they laid the groundwork for songs that became to soul music what Motown was to rhythm and blues.

“Working at Stax was like giving a daily sermon to the world, being open with loving emotions to others no matter who they were or looked like,” said David Porter, who wrote hits like “Soul Man.” by Sam & Dave.

Stax Records was hugely successful until the late 1960s. But Redding and four members of the Bar-Kays died in a plane crash in 1967, and the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 intensified racial division in Memphis and across the country.

By the mid-1970s, Stax was bankrupt due to financial troubles and legal issues. The building that housed the studio was demolished.

The museum opened in May 2003. It offers self-guided tours and includes a film detailing the studio’s history, exhibits chronicling the origins and development of Memphis soul music, listening stations, and memorabilia such as than Hayes’ flashy Cadillac car.

Next to the museum is the Stax Music Academy, an after-school program where teenagers from some of Memphis’ poorer neighborhoods learn to dance, sing, and play instruments. The Soulsville Foundation operates the museum, academy, and a charter school.

Porter, who co-wrote “Hold On I’m Comin” after partner Isaac Hayes called on him to hurry up while Porter was in the bathroom, is among several Stax ambassadors for the anniversary. Others include guitarist and songwriter Steve Cropper, former Stax Records executive and owner Al Bell, and singer-songwriter Eddie Floyd of “Knock on Wood” fame.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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