Stax Museum and Sam Phillips Recording announce new partnership today on what would be Phillips’ 100th birthday

Iconic Memphis studios aim to enhance their legacies with restored vintage Stax recording console at Phillips

Photos by Nathan Black. 

 JANUARY 5, 2023 MEMPHIS, TN – Two of Memphis, Tennessee’s most prolific, iconic, and groundbreaking recording studios announced today that they  are partnering to continue their legacies that changed the world in the 1950s and 1960s with music by such artists as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Ike Turner, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, the Staple Singers, Sam & Dave, the Bar-Kays, and hundreds more.

The Stax Museum of American Soul Music is now sharing a vintage Stax Spectra Sonics recording console with Sam Philips Recording after the two studios spent decades changing the course of local, national, and international music and pop culture forever.

They made the announcement today, January 5, 2023, which would have been Sam Phillips’ 100th birthday.

After a more than 40-year journey, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music has obtained the Spectra Sonics mixing console used in Stax Records’ Studio B during its heyday. Memphis music veteran Scott Bomar, now the studio manager at Sam Phillips Recording, has fully restored the console and it is in now use  as the main recording board at the legendary studio. Sam Phillips Recording is still operated by the family of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, who is credited with first recording African American blues musicians and then discovering Rock and Roll.

Built in the late 1950s and opened in 1960 on Madison Avenue just down the street from Sun Records (now Sun Studios) in a former Midas Muffler Shop, the three-story Sam Phillips Recording has also undergone a complete remodeling and restoration in recent years. However, it still contains furniture, carpets, wallpaper, artificial plants, light fixtures, a bar, and other items from when Sam Phillips outgrew his space at Sun and built his new, state-of-the-art recording studio, which cost upwards of $750,000 in 1960. Sam Phillips’ office on the third floor, with a jukebox built into his original desk, is still intact.

The original building that housed Stax Records was demolished in 1989 and the site, just a few miles away from Sam Phillips Recording at 926 E. McLemore, is currently home to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, Stax  Music Academy, and The Soulsville Charter School.  Concord, the current owner of Stax Records, purchased Fantasy Records in 2004, which had purchased Stax from bankruptcy in 1977. Concord works closely with the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Stax Music Academy.

Following Stax Records’ forced involuntary bankruptcy in 1976, the Spectra Sonics console was auctioned on the courthouse steps in Memphis in 1977 and was purchased by Barry Shankman and Leonard Lubin, two Memphis music businessmen who bought much of the Stax equipment for their BR Toad recording studio here in the city. The Studio B console eventually found its way to Sound City Recording in Shreveport, Louisiana, a funk and soul recording studio with whom Stax had a relationship. Later renamed Southern Star Studio, it remained in use there, mainly for local and regional acts, until mothballed to make way for the digital recording craze in the 1990s. It made its way back to the Stax Museum archival collection in early 2018. When it arrived, talks about its eventual home at Phillips between Bomar, Stax Museum Executive Director Jeff Kollath, and Sam Phillips’ son Jerry Phillips ensued.

“We got a phone call out of the blue in 2017 from Jimmy Johnson down at the studio in Shreveport saying he had the Stax console from Studio B and wanted to know if the museum was interested in having it back,” says the museum’s Kollath. “We were very interested but had to do some authenticating first so I went down and looked at it, photographed it, and sent the photos to some former Stax engineers who all said it was likely the Stax console.” Kollath adds that at one point the late Stax engineer Ron Capone, who was a friend of the crew at Sound City, had visited and had deemed it the console from Stax.

“But the proof call came down to two red buttons,” Kollath explains.

In the early 1970s, Stax Records was pushing to open a division to record country music. They had hired someone to manage it and they were conducting press interviews about it, but they were also running advertisements.

“The console in Studio A and the matching one at Ardent both had certain lights on it that were white, and then we saw the advertisement for the new country interest. It’s of a stereotypical cowboy or country singer with his cowboy hat pulled down over his eyes and his cowboy boots resting on the console and his boots are right next to the buttons, which are red in the ad. And it was studio B. So that was how we put all that together.”

For Bomar, the move was a natural.

The Emmy-winning and Grammy-nominated producer, engineer, bass player, and film composer has been obsessed with the Memphis Sound of Sun Records, Stax Records, Hi Records, and other labels since childhood. He first recorded at Phillips in the early 1990s with his band Impala and has always dreamed of being more involved there. His formation of the Bo-Keys in 1998 coincided with the Soulsville Foundation’s founding that same year and the grand opening of the Stax Museum in 2003. Bomar says the museum’s progress has mirrored the journey of the Bo-Keys. He has employed former Stax and Hi Records artists such as Ben Cauley, Skip Pitts, Willie Hall, Howard Grimes, and others while re-kickstarting the careers of singers such as Don Bryant of Hi Records fame and working with legacy artists such as early Stax icon William Bell.

Now, at the helm of Phillips Recording Studio with the original Stax Records console in use, he feels he has found his way back home.

“I can’t think of any other studio where you can record in such an iconic room on such an iconic recording console,” Bomar says. “It’s like a dream come true for me. I really fell in love with the sound of it because it’s clean, but it’s not too clean. It’s got a little bit of a vintage sound, but it’s also modern at the same time. That’s the beauty of it. It could be from 1968 or it could be from 2068. It’s just totally timeless.”

Once the Stax Museum purchased the console and the agreement was worked out to move it to Sam Phillips Recording, Bomar and technicians Ronnie Kittell and Matt Brown spent almost every day for a year restoring it to its original state. That meant taking it apart, cleaning it, locating hard-to-find replacement parts, and other tedious work to restore it to its original condition – not different or with anything added, but with the same sound it would have had when it was new at Stax Records.

When it was located and used at Stax Records in the late 1960s and ‘70s, two of the main artists who “grew up” in Studio B were original Bar-Kays bassist James Alexander and post-1967 reformed Bar-Kays and Stax session drummer Willie Hall of Blues Brothers fame. Both were barely out of high school when the plane carrying Otis Redding and all of the Bar-Kays except Alexander crashed on December 10, 1967, killing everyone except Bar-Kays trumpet player Ben Cauley, the lone survivor of the crash. Alexander was only 17 years old when he had to identify the bodies.

They describe Studio B as being up a flight of stairs at Stax, and with a crisper, tighter sound than Studio A. They spent many nights in Studio B as young musicians learning, rehearsing, growing, practicing, and playing on recordings for their own Bar-Kays albums, but also recording with artists such as Isaac Hayes, who cut his four-song 1970 The Isaac Hayes Movement album in Studio B. According to Alexander and Hall, his cover of The Beatles “Something” took a staggering two weeks to arrange.

They also share stories about recording in Studio B with the likes of Rufus Thomas, Shirley Brown, Delaney and Bonnie, Kim Weston, and a band named The Knowbody Else that later gained fame as Black Oak Arkansas.

According to Alexander and Hall, one memorable night they spent in Studio B was April 4, 1968. “It was the night Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated not far away. There were national guard soldiers on the roof of Stax and there was a curfew, so we spent the night there.”

Sam Phillips’ Sun Records and Stax Records have always shared a colorful history. In fact, Stax Records founder Jim Stewart was so impressed with the music Phillips was recording that he decided to open his fledgling Satellite Records in his wife’s uncle’s Memphis garage in 1957 while maintaining his day job at Union Planters Bank and his part time gigs at night playing fiddle in a country swing band. After moving his operation to an abandoned theater on McLemore Avenue in South Memphis, one of the first million-selling hits recorded there was Booker T. & the M.G.s’ “Green Onions,” which guitarist Steve Cropper has said he took to his friend Scotty Moore at Phillips to master the record on the studio’s Neumann lathe. Stax and Sun both recorded some of the same artists early on, including Rufus Thomas, Little Milton, and various session musicians.

With all of this rich history between the two labels and the console now in use, Phillips’ son Jerry Phillips is excited about the partnership and having both seasoned artists and a new crop record with it.

“We’ve gotten a lot of interest, you know, just from word getting out. We really haven’t said too much about it because it has been being refurbished for almost a year now,” he says.

Phillips says he had become burned out from the music industry until around 2015, when his daughter Halley convinced him to get back in the game by restoring the Phillips recording studio and bringing in new blood. He was hesitant about the Stax console at first, but then became convinced it was a magical idea. He has already used it to record some of his own music.

“I think it’s going to be good for Memphis,” he states emphatically. “I think it’s going to be good for us. I think it’s going to be good for the Stax legacy, the Phillips legacy, and the Sun Legacy. It’s almost like we are starting a new chapter in the recording industry as far as I’m concerned, because it’s putting new blood into my veins to be excited again about recording.”

“To have this happen formally in 2023,” Kollath adds, “is something very special. To have great people like Scott and Jerry working on this is an honor for the Stax Museum. The idea that something that was so integral to Stax Records is now back in our community providing opportunity 50 years later for our artists and young people to make new music is incredibly exciting.”