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From the Stax Vault, a Jewel that is 24-Carat Black

Next year, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music celebrates its 20th Anniversary. It’s a chance to reflect on how the record label put Memphis artists such as Booker T and the MGs onto America’s permanent playlist.

But some of that music from the 1960s and '70s is still being discovered. Technically, re-discovered.

On Thursday, an event at the museum pays tribute to a 1973 album that remains almost completely unknown to the general public. But to critics and historians, it’s a masterpiece.

The band is called 24-Carat Black, a Cincinnati group with no real connection to Memphis except that Al Bell, who headed Stax, thought their first and only record would make a great addition to his new subsidiary label, called Enterprise.

"It was the place for stuff that didn't fit under that Stax umbrella, and didn't fit the Stax sound, so to speak," says Jeff Kollath, director of the Stax Museum.

Enterprise was named after the "Star Trek" ship, the Enterprise — fitting, in some ways, because of the label's continuing mission to offer a glimpse into the future.

The record is called "Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth," a dense and complicated concept album.

"It's almost a perfect vehicle for the state of America at that time," Kollath said. "1973-1974 in this country was pretty much a low ebb in terms of how Americans felt about their country."

The Music of 24-Carat Black was the brainchild of Detroit composer and arranger Dale Warren. In 1972, Warren wanted to represent the hardships of inner city life through music.

"This was Dale's baby, his concept album," says Princess Hearn, who became the group's lead singer at age 17. "He trained us. It was like a boot camp. Up all night and sleep all day."

Hearn and Warren would soon be married. But she says the honeymoon was brief — for both the marriage and the band.

24-Carat Black called it quits after three grueling years on the road. Hearn divorced and started a new career as a receptionist at a big real estate company in Cincinnati. Dale Warren died in 1994.

The record might have faded into complete obscurity. But Hearn says Warren predicted its comeback.

"When Dale was writing this music, you know he was like, 'This music is going to stand the test of time, for generations and generations," Hearn says.

When the hip hop generation rediscovered "Ghetto: Misfortune's Wealth," it started getting sampled by rappers such as Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z and Naughty by Nature among others.

Jeff Kollath says that 50 years later, the music and the message still resonate.

"There's there's so much to unpack with the record; it's complicated," he says. "It's almost like Dale Warren foresaw the future with this record. In 30 years, someone is going to take this record and deconstruct it."

The closest 24-Carat Black may ever get to regrouping is this Thursday at the Stax museum. There’s a free listening party and panel discussion with three of the original members. And also writer Zach Shonfeld. His 168 page book about the album is a real testament to how one Stax record has found an entirely new groove.

Reporting from the gates of Graceland to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, Christopher has covered Memphis news, arts, culture and politics for more than 20 years in print and on the radio. He is currently WKNO's News Director and Senior Producer at the University of Memphis' Institute for Public Service Reporting. Join his conversations about the Memphis arts scene on the WKNO Culture Desk Facebook page.