But he was restless. The store had found its niche and no longerfelt like a challenge, and he was getting burned out on the otherprojects. That's when a friend told Willmott he was trying toacquire the site of the old Stax Records studio, where countlesssoul classics by the likes of Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MG's,and Albert King had been recorded. Stax went bankrupt in the 1970s,and the studio was later demolished to create a parking lot, to theprofound embarrassment of Memphis music fans. Now Willmott's friendwanted to create a soul-music museum on the site - and he wantedWillmott to be the founding curator.
"It was one of those easy, life-changing questions," he recalls."It took me about three seconds to say yes."
Willmott sold his stake in the store to a partner (the storeremains an essential stop for music fans visiting Memphis) andspent the next several years acquiring the memorabilia that wouldform the museum's permanent collection, a process that ofteninvolved cajoling suspicious R&B artists into parting withtheir precious instruments, stage costumes, and other artifacts.For the most part, he was successful, but one prize had eluded him:Isaac Hayes's gold-plated, TV-equipped Cadillac, known colloquiallyas the Shaftmobile.
"We finally heard from a Memphis police sergeant who'd bought thecar at auction 20 years earlier and was willing to sell it to usfor $20,000," he says. "So I made the arrangements, picked up thecar from him, and started driving it back to our storage unit. Thatwas great - everyone was honking and waving at me. But it startedoverheating and smoking, and that was pretty much my worstnightmare: A white boy in south Memphis having to get towed in theShaftmobile."
Fortunately, the car just made it. Today, it's a centerpieceattraction at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which openedin 2003. The museum is a wonderful, state-of-the-art facility, asfun as it is educational, and it's the culmination of Willmott'slove affair with his hometown's music scene.
"No matter what else happens to me," he says, "I can always say Igot to give something back to Memphis."
WILLMOTT LEFT the Stax project once the museum opened, took alittle time off, and then set his sights on a new project.
"As I researched the museum, I learned all sorts of new thingsabout Memphis music, things most other people didn't know about,"he explains. "Plus, we had all these other new attractions in town- the Cotton Museum at the Memphis Cotton Exchange, the GibsonBeale Street Showcase. I realized there was a story to be told thatcould tie all these things together."
That's how the tour operation started. You want Elvis? Willmott cangive you an Elvis-centric tour. You want Stax? He can show youwhere all the artists lived and tell you endless stories aboutthem. "But most people want the broad spectrum," he says.
And that's what they get - and not just in terms of music history."I know where the good food is, which bands are playing, where toavoid traffic tie-ups, all of it," says Willmott. "Basically, I'mgoing to show you the kinds of things I'd want you to show me if Iwere visiting your city."
But of course, none of us would be able to show him where Aretha Franklin was born.