Caring for records and music memorabilia at Stax in Memphis is akin to preserving an important slice of American music history.
There are more than 300 albums at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, located in the same building as the record label of that name, in business from 1959 to 1975. By the time the company went under, it had forever influenced the American sound and our culture.
This is where Otis Redding got his start, after he was hired as a driver but convinced producers to let him sing. This is where Isaac Hayes started crooning to the ladies, way before he was the voice of Chef on “South Park.” And this is where Curator Levon Williams tells that story, using album art and other memorabilia.
Levon was willing to share tips with us on how to display and how to store record albums at home, to commemorate our own personal histories. For example, before you throw your special edition recording on the wall in the den, Levon recommends removing the record first and storing the vinyl in an archival sleeve. Otherwise its weight can cut through the cardboard or leave a record-shaped impression.
Vinyl record album covers are also sensitive to light, which can degrade the cardboard and make it fade. At Stax, there are no windows, and there are special filters over the light fixtures. At home, if you want to frame your records, museum glass can also filter out the damaging UV light. And if you are not going to display your albums, store them upright in a cool, dark place away from moisture. You can use L-shaped polyester sleeves and an archival-grade storage box for extra peace of mind.
Levon loves his own personal collection of more than 2,000 records and can’t decide which is his favorite. Not so with the Stax collection, he says. The most interesting album cover, without a doubt, is “Hot Buttered Soul,” Isaac Hayes’ second solo record released in 1969 that today is recognized as a landmark soul recording. It was almost never made because his first record sold so poorly. The album—displayed here with a promo sticker—signaled a change in times, from when black artists were not depicted on albums.
It’s not just about the album art, however. For those of us who actually remember buying new record albums and who still own them, we know that listening to vinyl can also be worth the higher maintenance required. To purists, it sounds better because records play back music in analog, closer to the way it actually sounded live. CDs and MP3s are digitized versions and distort.
Vinyl records produced after 1950 can last a long time if you avoid scratches and keep them away from heat. This is how to clean a record album to avoid damage from dust: brush in the direction of the grooves with record cleaner liquid and a cleaning pad. Anti-static guns can also help.
In its short time, Stax—founded by a white bank teller and his sister—produced some influential recordings, "Soul Man," "Dock of the Bay," "Green Onions," "Midnight Hour," "Respect Yourself," and the theme from the movie “Shaft.” The label also made recordings of Sam & Dave, Booker T. & the MG's, Rufus and Carla Thomas, the Staple Singers and even Richard Pryor.
The museum is located at 926 E. McLemore Avenue in Memphis. The most popular exhibit there is Hayes’ gold-plated, peacock blue Cadillac—with shag carpet, of course.
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by Ann Griffith