Stax festival a showcase for community, students

Courtesy of the Soulsville foundation
Soulsville CEO and Grammy-winning saxophonist Kirk Whalum leads the students of the Stax Music Academy at the “Stax to the Max” street festival.

Courtesy of the Soulsville foundation Soulsville CEO and Grammy-winning saxophonist Kirk Whalum leads the students of the Stax Music Academy at the “Stax to the Max” street festival.

Community has long been a key watchword for Kirk Whalum and Mark Wender.

In 2010, when the pair took over the operation of the Soulsville Foundation — the organization that oversees the Stax Music Academy, Stax Museum of American Soul Music and The Soulsville Charter School — one of their priorities was to help foster a renewed connection between Soulsville and the city of Memphis. That ambition resulted in the “Stax to the Max” street festival, which returns for its third year on Sunday (The festival was originally scheduled for Saturday, but was moved to Sunday because of expected thunderstorms).

The free concert event drew some 3,000 people in its first year, and more than doubled that number to 8,000 in 2012. This year, some 10,000 are expected to descend on the Soulsville campus in South Memphis, at the corner of McLemore and College, Wender says.

The Astors — known for their hit “Candy” — will reunite after more than 40 years.

The Astors — known for their hit “Candy” — will reunite after more than 40 years.

For some, “Stax to the Max” has offered an opportunity to get a firsthand look at what Soulsville now represents: a mix of music history, academic achievement, and creative and economic possibility.

“We look at it as being the hub of neighborhood redevelopment and education reform, the base of our musical history and heritage. So there are a lot of things that somebody could sink their teeth into,” says Wender, Soulsville’s CEO. “We know that a lot of Memphians may not have come to Soulsville before for whatever reason. But this gives them that reason. And once somebody comes to the campus, they’re hooked. Once they get here and see everything that’s going on, they just say, ‘Wow!’”

For the residents of the neighborhoods surrounding Soulsville, the event also has become a civic rallying point. “They’ve really bought into it,” Wender says. “We’ve been working with a lot of neighborhood organizations, like Community Lift, to get input and volunteers so this thing can spread. We feel that we could go the way the Cooper-Young fest has evolved. That (‘Stax to the Max’) could grow into being a whole street fair up and down McLemore.”

“Stax to the Max” will also be a big day for the Stax Museum, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. During the 2012 festival, more than 2,000 people visited the museum, which will again offer discounted tickets on Saturday ($2 per person).

The event also features one of three annual signature performances by the students of the Stax Music Academy, which continues to flourish as both a musical and academic hothouse. Since 2008, every Stax Music Academy senior has been accepted to college. The neighboring Soulsville Charter School, which is about to have its second class graduate, is enjoying similar success.

“We’re batting 1,000 percent. Every single senior the last two years from the charter school has been accepted to college,” Wender says. “We’re really proud of all that.”

Musically, the “Stax to the Max” festival has boasted some special performances. The inaugural edition featured a rare set by legendary Stax songwriter David Porter, and last year’s event brought first-generation Stax star William Bell together with modern Memphis R&B combo the Bo-Keys.

This year, Bell, who recently wowed an audience that included President Barack Obama at the White House’s tribute to Memphis soul, returns to headline a Stax revue. The program will include appearances by a number of vintage Stax vocal groups, including the Mad Lads and Temprees. Perhaps the most surprising entry is the Astors, who will reunite to perform for the first time in five decades.

Formed in 1958, the group of Orange Mound residents and Melrose High students was part of the earliest days of the label, providing background vocals on records for Rufus and Carla Thomas. They recorded some stellar sides of their own for the pre-Stax label Satellite, as The Chips (named for their producer Chips Moman). But it was as the Astors that they would find their greatest fame in the mid-’60s on Stax proper, with songs like “Candy” (penned by Steve Cropper and Isaac Hayes).

The group — Curtis Johnson, Eliehue Stanback, Sam Jones, Richard Harris and, later, Johnson’s brother Harold — split in the late-1960s after a couple of band members went into the Army. Curtis and Harold formed Brothers Unlimited, recording a lone LP for Capitol Records in the early ’70s. Curtis would go on to work as part of Mercury Records’ Memphis branch for a time, before delving into gospel music promotion. Though his brother Harold passed away in 2003, the surviving Astors will reunite for their first live appearance since 1969 to perform “Candy.”

“It’s been somewhere about that — 43 or 44 years since we’ve been on stage together,” Curtis Johnson says. “We didn’t expect this. I tried to talk Tim (Sampson, Stax’s communications director) out of it, told him we haven’t performed together in so long. But we started singing a cappella, and it sounded good.”

Johnson has attended each of the past two “Stax to the Max” events as a fan. On Sunday, he’ll be back as a performer, returning full circle to the place where he started his career some 50 years ago.

“We’re really excited about being a part of ‘Stax to the Max,’ excited about them wanting us to be a part of this,” Johnson says. “The fact that we were there at the beginning and to come back now to be part of Stax so many years later, to see what’s happening with the museum and the schools. It’s amazing we’re still around to see something like this.”

Stax to the Max Festival

Sunday, 1 p.m. at the Soulsville Complex, 926 E. McLemore. Admission to the festival is free. No coolers allowed, but lawn chairs are encouraged. Free admission to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music 1-5 p.m. For more information, go to staxmuseum.com or call 901-942-7685

1:40 p.m. Swingtime Explosion

2:45 p.m. Vic High School R&B Band from Victoria, British, Columbia

4 p.m.: Stax Revue: featuring William Bell, Toni Green, and Kirk Whalum, with special appearances by the Temprees, the Mad Lads and the Astors, backed by the Garry Goin Band.

5:25 p.m. Monophonics

6:35 p.m. Stax Music Academy

Arts groups including Prizm, Southern Word, Heal the Hood, Opera Memphis, Ballet Memphis, Collage Dance, New Ballet and Women’s Theatre Festival will also perform through out the day.

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