Students at Stax Music Academy Grow and Flourish

Under the guidance of Stax music legends, local high-schoolers find themselves working with the legends of McLemore Avenue.

The Stax Music Academy Alumni Band performs at B.B. King’s on Beale.

Photograph by Ronnie Booze

Memphis’ Soulsville experiment is something that should fill every Memphian with pride. What was the most tragic vacant lot in musical history has grown into a vibrant community based on education, history, and music.

The Soulsville Charter School and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music amount to some of the debt the city owes the founders and creators who formed Stax in the 1960s and ’70s. The third institution, the Stax Music Academy, is making its presence felt throughout the city as high-schoolers find themselves on the major stages of Memphis and in recording studios and workshops with the musicians who made history on McLemore Avenue.

One of those original Stax contributors is songwriter Bettye Crutcher. Her life is a perfect example of how much Stax and its music touched the world. She wrote a string of hits in the late 1960s and released a solo album, Long as You Love Me, in 1974. That album suffered the fate of many great but under-promoted records that were produced as the label unraveled. But Crutcher, who now lives in Nashville, was at the top of the songwriting game.

“The way that I came to know that I was making a dent in the industry, I went to New York City and I received an award the same night that John Lennon received an award,” she says. “Somebody came up to me and asked if I wanted to meet John Lennon. I’m going whoa! Yes! They said he wants to meet you. I said, ‘Little old me?’ He and Yoko sat down with me. He knew my catalog. Do you know what that meant to me? I said, ‘I can’t believe that you all listen to Stax music way over in England.’ He said, ‘We always pay attention to Stax music.’ When I came back to Memphis you ought to know I was 10 feet tall.”

Crutcher’s songs were major hits for Johnnie Taylor and have been recorded by the Staple Singers, Joan Baez, Paul Weller, Sammy Davis Jr., and the Allman Brothers just to name a few. She spent the month of June teaching a songwriting course at the Stax Music Academy. We caught up with her as the course came to a close.

“It has been insane,” Crutcher says. “Marvelously insane. These kids are so rich in talent. Most of them are so eager to learn. They love to show off! Once they get it, they want you to know they got it.”

The course required each student to write a song and also that students write in collaborative groups. Each group, named after a city, had to write, arrange, record, and perform the song. The winner, St. Louis, performed “Love Confusion” at the Levitt Shell in early July.

“I set up a system whereby they would have components in their songs that would make them good songs,” Crutcher says. “So we talked about how to build from the foundation to the roof. When you get a good foundation, you just have to stay with it. Stay with the content. One of my little tips to them is to remember the cause, the ‘why.’ What is the solution to it? What are we going to do about it? So they have taken this and run with it. It is not just a solution to a writing problem, but a solution to a life problem.”

Four alumni of the Music Academy explained what they took away from Soulsville and what they are bringing back.

“It’s a microcosm of the next stage of the musical world,” says guitarist Derek Renfroe, a White Station student who went through the Academy’s SNAP! summer program between his sophomore and junior and senior years. He’s a student at the University of Southern California studying jazz performance. “The reality is that it’s a competitive field. Everyone is constantly working on their skills, honing them, and trying to become better. You have a smaller version of that in this school. There might be five guitarists or five drummers. You have to go home and practice and work on it. You have to go out and play in other places. In the real world, you’ll be able to go out and do the exact same thing. It makes you more prepared. Each of our experiences has shown that we’re go-getters and doing it ourselves. That’s what we learned here.”

The four alumni were home from college and working a summer job as musicians in the Stax Academy Alumni Band, which plays twice weekly at B.B. King’s Blues Club on Beale and also at the Museum of American Soul Music during their summer break. The Alumni Band is a way to keep gaining experience and to network as students move into college life. The skills they learned at Stax Music Academy helped them get into college in the first place.

“In my auditions going into college, my voice was just so different because of the music that I sang here,” Shelbie Pittman says. “My technique was just different. So I stood out a lot.” Pittman graduated from Overton High School and is a student at Murray State University in Kentucky. She values the bonds that this place creates. “This program has grown so much since I was here four years ago. It’s exciting to see what it’s continuing to become. I felt like family when I came back here.”

The Academy runs an after-school program during the school year and a summer program.

“In the time that I went here, I needed it most,” Renfroe says. “In getting your portfolio ready for college applications, it made me realize that this is what a program looks like, here’s how you put on a show, here’s how you treat people professionally. I wrote one of my college essays about an experience that these people here gave me: playing with Steve Miller at Live at the Garden. That was one of the cruxes of my application. I was 15 or 16.”

Lots of amazing experiences take place at Stax Academy: Crutcher wrote a song for the students to perform, and she was surprised by the response. She shared the chorus and a verse:

I say, I say
If I’m not worth waiting for
You’re not worthy of my love

Boy it’s not that I don’t love you
Heaven knows I really do
I’ve got big plans for my life
I know you’ve got some plans too
When I look into your eyes
I’m so weak I’m mesmerized.
But one thing that keeps going over in my mind
I’ve got to take my mother’s advice:

I say, I say ...

“The girls, I wasn’t sure they’d like this song,” Crutcher says. “You heard the content. I couldn’t believe these kids loved it because of the things they listen to all of the time. You know what the girls told me? ‘Ms. Crutcher, I’m so glad you wrote this song. I’m so sick of all these songs that call girls witches and bitches.’ It just rocked me to see how much they loved it. I didn’t think they would love it so much.”

Crutcher is not the only Stax legend giving back to the Music Academy. Steve Cropper — the guitarist, writer, and producer of much of the Stax catalog — gave a guitar clinic during the last week of this summer’s program. He led students through several of his iconic guitar parts, discoursed on writing and recording, and invited songwriting legend David Porter to visit the group. For this writer, it was the experience of a lifetime. For the Academy students and alumni, it was just another day in Soulsville.

“I think anybody that has run across this place is one of the luckiest people in the world,” says Andrew McNeill, a graduate of Horn Lake High School and a student at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Baye Slappy, a graduate of The Soulsville Charter School and a student at Wiley College in Texas, sings for the Alumni Band. He is a startlingly good soul singer and fronts the alumni band along with his female counterparts. For him, the academy opened up a new world to which he wants to contribute.

“This was a transition for my entire life. I used to stay in South Memphis before they tore down the Claiborne homes. Coming from that setting to this euphoric setting did a number on my head. I was always looking over my shoulder because that was the norm for me. I’ll always come back here to invest in the students and invest in the program that invested in me.” 

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