Editor's Note: Founded in 1973, The Recording Academy Memphis Chapter is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2013. GRAMMY.com has published a special content series paying tribute to the Chapter and the surrounding region's rich musical legacy, which encompasses the deepest roots of American music and the birthplaces of blues, jazz, ragtime, Cajun, zydeco, and rock and roll.)
And The GRAMMY Goes To Memphis, a new exhibit commemorating the 40th anniversary of The Recording Academy Memphis Chapter, is bringing the glamour of Music's Biggest Night to the renowned Stax Museum of American Soul Music. The exhibit, which opened Oct. 26, features 19 golden gramophone statuettes from various local GRAMMY winners, dating back to 1966 and the first GRAMMY won by a Memphis-based act, gospel greats the Blackwood Brothers.
But the exhibit is worth much more than its weight in gold, highlighting the work of hundreds of musicians and engineers at dozens of recording studios that made the Memphis Sound such a dominant force in the '50s, '60s and '70s, resulting in the city being granted a Recording Academy Chapter in 1973.
Some of those greats were present for the exhibit's opening night, including GRAMMY-winning musician/songwriter/producer Steve Cropper and songwriter/producer David Porter, two of Stax's most accomplished alumni; Wayne Jackson of the legendary Memphis Horns; and Deanie Parker, a songwriter in Stax's heyday. GRAMMY-winning Memphis music historians David Evans and Robert Gordon were in attendance, as was producer/engineer Knox Phillips, a key force behind the efforts to land Memphis its Chapter. Families of Stax co-founder Estelle Axton and GRAMMY winner Charlie Rich attended, as did music industry luminaries such as Sub Pop Records co-founder Jonathan Poneman and GRAMMY-winning engineer Neal Cappellino.
And The GRAMMY Goes To Memphis was designed by graphic designer Ben Powers, and created by a team that included Memphis Chapter Senior Project Coordinator Lucia Kaminsky. It marks the first time a Recording Academy Chapter has mounted a museum exhibit to chronicle the recording history of its city and region as well as the development of the local organization.
"It's all about celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Chapter," says Memphis Chapter Senior Executive Director Jon Hornyak, who initiated conversations regarding the exhibit in 2012 with Stax Museum Director Lisa Allen. "We started talking about the [Chapter's] 40th anniversary, and [Lisa] said it would also be the museum's 10th anniversary. And we said, 'Hey, why don't we do an exhibit together?'"
"It's a natural fit," says Levon Williams, Stax Museum curator of collections/registrar. "Stax Records was one of the pillars of the Memphis music community and part of the reason The Recording Academy created a Chapter here was because of the Stax legacy."
The GRAMMY exhibit bookends the museum's story of that legacy. After an introductory film, visitors begin their tour by stepping into the white neon glow of the sign that first hung outside the Memphis Chapter's second-floor offices at 168 Beale Street. The sign faces the museum's gospel section, which showcases four very important GRAMMY Awards, including the Blackwood Brothers' 1966 GRAMMY for Best Sacred Recording (Musical) for Grand Old Gospel and Elvis Presley's 1967 GRAMMY for Best Sacred Performance for How Great Thou Art.
Visitors then travel back to the golden age of the Memphis Sound through such priceless artifacts as Isaac Hayes' magnificently tricked-out Cadillac and holy-grail instruments such as Booker T. & The MG's Donald "Duck" Dunn's session-weary Fender bass.
The exhibit saves its largest multimedia displays for the final two rooms. On one wall, four GRAMMY-related films play on a loop. Two tell the story of the actual awards, how they're built and how the GRAMMY Award got its name, while another showcases memorable Memphis and Mid-South GRAMMY moments. The fourth details stories behind some of Memphis' most important records — Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats' "Rocket '88," Presley's "That's All Right" and Otis Redding's "These Arms Of Mine," told by GRAMMY Living Histories subjects Sam Phillips, Cropper, Scotty Moore, and Ike Turner, among others.
It's fitting Sam Phillips is prominently featured. Just as musicians such as Presley and Turner inspired other artists, Phillips' admirers, including Stax co-founder Jim Stewart, opened studios hoping to replicate Sun Records' world-changing success.
Both Sun Records and Stax are profiled via the interactive iPad display Studio City: The Rooms That Made Memphis, which features rare photos and stories about prominent local studios, including Willie Mitchell's Royal Studios and Chips Moman's American Sound Studio, as well as influential but lesser-known operations such as Cropper's post-Stax Trans-Maximus (TMI) recording studio and Jim Dickinson's family-owned Zebra Ranch studio.
In the final room is a wall of GRAMMY statuettes won by various local artists as well as a Chapter timeline and artifacts from regional music awards the Chapter has produced, including a wonderful folk art portrait of the Queen of Memphis Soul, Carla Thomas, by painter George Hunt. The center of the room is dominated by two unique Gibson guitars — B.B. King's signature Lucille model, and a stunning blond ES-335, autographed by every artist who participated in the Chapter's 40th anniversary concert in July at Levitt Shell in Overton Park, the largest event ever held at the historic venue.
"This exhibit gives us the opportunity to talk about 40 years worth of impact that Memphis music has had on the international music community," says Williams. "So many of our musicians here at Stax came from this neighborhood and this exhibit expands that neighborhood into the larger Memphis community."
(The And The GRAMMY Goes To Memphis exhibit is open now through Oct. 31, 2014, at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis. For more information, visit www.staxmuseum.com.)
(Larry Nager is a Nashville-based writer, musician and documentary filmmaker. A proud former Memphian, he is the author of Memphis Beat (St. Martin's Press) and the writer and co-producer of the film Bill Monroe: Father Of Bluegrass Music. He has been a member of the Memphis Chapter for more than 25 years.)