It’s no secret that Memphis has given the world some of its more iconic hits and musicians. Whether it’s the blues, R&B, rap, rock-and-roll, or that signature soulful sound, Memphis is a home where melodies are made. A big part of that legacy is Stax Records, where big names such as Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding recorded their biggest hits. And as an extension of that legacy today, in the heart of South Memphis at 926 McLemore Avenue, there sits a gem that routinely cranks out the brightest musicians of tomorrow: Stax Music Academy.
Adjacent to the home of the legendary Stax recording studio (what is now the Stax Museum of American Soul music) is a program that nurtures young, talented musicians in all the proficiencies they will need to have a successful music career, from music theory to songwriting to dynamic live performance. “Since its inception as the only music school in the world focusing on the legacy of Stax Records and the Memphis Sound, the Stax Music Academy has continuously taught its students about the influence that music from our neighborhood has had internationally,” Pat Mitchell-Worley, Executive Director of Stax Music Academy says. “We build better musicians through our program. Stax Music Academy also stands out because of our youth development curriculum that offers social and emotional learning to give students the skills to cope with the emotional and psychological demands of not just music careers but also life.”
As an exceptional music program, the academy boasts a high number of its students receiving college music scholarships as well. “This year we saw 67% of our graduates receive college music scholarships. Our program is demanding enough that most of our graduates test out of the first-year college music theory classes. As a result, we are the only Berklee City Music Network member in the area,” Mitchell-Worley says. “Due to the Stax name and our history of music excellence, we attract world-class music professionals who lead masterclasses and workshops. This year alone we welcomed Snarkpuppy’s Michael League, Old Town Road co-writer Jozzy, French jazz favorites Moutin Factory Quintet, Justin Timberlake, and Timbaland just to name a few. Our students and alumni have performed across the country and internationally. We consider our campus to be the ‘Global Capital of Soul,’ and incorporate that ethos into what we teach every day. We have an elite group of alumni active in the music sector because of our demanding program.”
It’s there in South Memphis that some of today’s talent got their start, and in honor of Black Music Month, we did a roundup of some of Stax Academy alumni to see where they are now and how they’re applying all that they learned. Read on below.
Derek Renfroe’s time at Stax Music Academy provided a solid foundation on which to build a thriving music career. He graduated from the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and went on to become the first Stax Music Academy graduate to intern at Stax Records owner Concord in Los Angeles. He’s produced and toured with artists at festivals including Lollapalooza, Free 6lack Tour, and Coachella. Praise by Newsweek for his live arrangements, he is currently working on songs with Spencer, Remi Wolf, Rotana, Felly, and Alina Baraz & Chloe Tang.
Evvie McKinney has made a splash both here in Memphis and with a national audience. She was the winner of the first season of the Fox Network television show “The Four,” and went on to be named iHeartRadio’s 2018 “On the Verge Artist.” McKinney has also been signed to the Motown Gospel label. Most recently she appeared on Stax icon Booker T. Jones’ 2019 LP Note by Note providing vocals with Joshua Ledet on Jones’ remake of “Cause I love You,” the first song Jones played on at Satellite Records, which later became Stax Records.
As the first Stax Music Academy graduate signed to Stax Records via Concord as keyboardist for the band Southern Avenue, Powell is a shining example of a Stax Academy success story. Southern Avenue’s self-titled debut on Stax was released in 2017, hitting #6 on Billboard’s Top Blues Albums Chart, reaching #1 on the iTunes Blues Chart, and prominently sitting in the Americana radio Top 30 for nearly 6 months. In part thanks to his contribution as an impressive keyboardist, Southern Avenue received the Blues Music Award in 2018 for “Best Emerging Artist Album.”
An attendee of the University of Memphis, Morehouse College, and the New School for Jazz, Whalum is a major success story of Stax Music Academy: he is the trombone player and a touring artist with Bruno Mars. Whalum played on UpTown Funk, which was the number one record in the world, won GRAMMY’s for “Record of the Year” and “Best Pop Duo/Group Performance.” The video for UpTown Funk, which was recorded here in Memphis, was viewed over a billion times. Whalum has performed with Mars on the MTV EMA’s, MTV VMA’s, Billboard Music Awards, Canada’s Much Music Video Awards, the GRAMMY’s, and the Super Bowl XLVII Halftime Show. In a nod to where he got his start, he also served as Artist in Residence for Stax Music Academy.
A beloved artist here in Memphis and beyond, Kirby has seen much success as a songwriter. Kirby is a songwriter for Jay Z’s Roc Nation, a recipient of ASCAP’s 2018 Women Behind the Music Award, and has songwriting credits on songs by Kanye West, Rihanna, Demi Lovato, and Paul McCartney. She is the first Stax Music Academy graduate to serve on the Soulsville Foundation Board of Directors and established and funded the “Song A Day Songbird” scholarship in 2019 to provide tuition assistance for Stax Music Academy students who create original music.
Following his time at Stax Music Academy, Kris Thomas went on to capture the attention of people across America by rising to the Top Ten on NBC’s hit show The Voice in 2015. He is the lead singer at B.B. King’s Blues Club in Orlando and is currently pursuing a career as a solo artist.
Dwayne “Mononeon” Thomas, Jr.
A unique character with soul and style, Mononeon is a Stax Music Academy alum who makes a splash wherever he goes. He attended the Berklee College of Music and is the former bass player for Prince, where he was both a recording artist and live performer at Paisley Park. “Before I started playing with Prince, he hired me to play in Judith Hill’s live band. After working with Judith, Prince invited me back to Paisley Park to play with him in late 2015 till early 2016. Me and Prince played about six Paisley Park After Dark shows and eventually recorded together – one of the songs he released while he was living was “RUFF ENUFF” in January 2016 (Prince on guitar and keys, MonoNeon on bass, Kirk Johnson on drums and Adrian Crutchfield on vocoder/sax).” He is also the former bass player for Ne-Yo and has 19 solo albums to his credit, as well as YouTube videos with Cardi B and others.