William Bell was one of the first young men from South Memphis to walk over and investigate the Stax Records studios as they were being built in the old Capitol Theatre in South Memphis. Although perhaps never as big a star as Isaac Hayes or Otis Redding, Bell is deserving of acclaim for his success as a songwriter, as a performing artist and as the owner of his own independent record label, Wilbe Records. He generally is the last performer to appear at each year’s Soulsville Street Festival in South Memphis, and frequently performs with the Bo-Keys in various locations. William Bell is truly a living legend of Memphis music.
The Mad Lads were yet another Memphis vocal group with South Memphis ties, and they recorded a number of singles and a handful of albums for Stax Records before lead singer John Gary Williams (who was a member of the Memphis Black Power group known as The Invaders) was arrested and charged with being involved in a sniping incident against the Memphis police in late 1968. Later, Williams launched a solo career, and recorded one very elusive self-titled album just as Stax was falling apart in late 1974. Over the years, Williams has put together a number of reconstituted Mad Lads groups, and is now the subject of a forthcoming documentary called I See Hope: The John Gary Williams Story , which is currently in production. The annual appearance of the Mad Lads at the Stax to the Max festival is a big deal to the largely South Memphis crowd that attends.
Memphis was an exception to the rule that Black vocal groups were a largely Northern phenomenon, as the city had a number of great Black doo-wop and soul groups from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. One of the city’s favorites was the South Memphis group known as the Temprees, who recorded for the Stax subsidiary label We Produce in the early 1970’s, and who captured a bit of attention with their soulful reading of the rock/pop standard “Dedicated to the One I Love.” As they are South Memphis native sons, their appearance at the Stax to the Max festival stage is always a huge affair. This year the crowd tried to storm the stage and had to be held back by security, and all this despite the fact that they haven’t had a record out since 1976!
Memphis contemporary soul band The Bo-Keys have been actively involved in preserving the unique legacy of Memphis soul music, and are an annual featured act at the Soulsville Street Festival in April. They frequently appear with soul singer Percy Wiggins on vocals, and they began their set at Stax to the Max with him this year before blues singer John Nemeth (who recently cut a new album in Memphis) came on stage to perform some of the songs from his latest release.
The Memphis-based Daddy Mack Blues Band is one of the city’s best and most highly-acclaimed blues bands. Their traditional roots-oriented style sets them apart from many other Memphis blues bands, and they are immensely popular in Europe. They were the second act of the day to perform at the Stax to the Max Soulsville Street Festival, and they got a lot of love from the enthusiastic crowd. Unfortunately, as they performed, a big plume of black smoke began to rise from a fire off to the north behind the stage. Soon sirens were sounding from every direction, and all of this proved to be an unwelcome distraction from their performance.
The last Saturday of April in Memphis is always one of the biggest days of the year for festivals and events, including the On Location: Memphis International Film and Music Festival, the Southern Hot Wing Festival, the Vollentine Evergreen Art Walk, and the Stax to the Max Soulsville Street Festival. The latter, which is free, is an annual outdoor party and concert, featuring many of the best living veterans of Stax, usually including William Bell, John Gary Williams and the Mad Lads, the Temprees and the Memphis revivalist band the Bo-Keys. Held on the back parking lot of the Stax Museum and the Stax Academy, crowds can run into the thousands.
In the crowd at the Stax to the Max festival, I ran into a number of Memphis rap legends, including Playa Fly, producer Drumma Boy and up-and-coming Memphis artist and promoter Cortez “Godfellow” Currie. There is a direct correlation between the legacy of Stax and Hi Records, and the hip-hop scene in Memphis from the 1990’s to the present, whether that is obvious or not.
One of the better-kept secrets in Memphis is the Soulsville Street Festival, also known as Stax to the Max, a celebration of the South Memphis neighborhood around Stax and the legacy of great music that came from it.
The stage set up on the back parking lot behind the museum and Stax Music Academy featured a series of performances from local and out-of-town school groups, as well as former Stax artists The Astors, The Temprees, The Mad Lads and William Bell. In addition there were children’s crafts and recreational activities and food vendors, and a crowd of several hundred turned out on Sunday, after the event was postponed from Saturday due to rain.