The Soulsville Foundation’s Stax Music Academy (SMA) has launched its 4th annual #MusicMustContinue fundraising campaign.
But this year- there is a twist.
SMA received a $50,000 donation to create the Brenda Berger O’Brien Memorial Scholarship Fund to assist families who qualify for financial assistance. The fund will match all #MusicMustContinue donations up to $25,000 for 2023. #MusicMustContinue is an annual fundraiser that allows SMA to offer deeply discounted tuition and to invite all young people interested in music to participate in some of our endeavors.
The donation is from the family of the recently passed Brenda Berger O’Brien, who was the lifelong Pancho’s Mexican Restaurants & Cheese Dip owner/president, as well as a songwriter, producer, philanthropist, friend of the Memphis music community, and longtime Stax Music Academy supporter.
Mrs. O’Brien passed away at her home in Boca Raton, Florida on May 6, 2022. She was 81.
Mrs. O’Brien’s parents, Morris and Clemmye Berger (above), founded one of the most famous music venues in the South in 1943, the Plantation Inn Nite Club across the river in West Memphis, Arkansas. It became well known throughout the South as a gambling hall-turned supper club and one of the few nightspots in the region that allowed white patrons to listen to live music by Black artists.
It was, according to the late, legendary music producer Jim Dickinson, where all Memphis music got its start. Mrs. O’Brien, who grew up above the club, met and befriended an array of blues, soul, and rock and roll artists there like Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Wayne Jackson of The Memphis Horns, Ben Branch, Willie Mitchell, Isaac Hayes, Floyd Newman, Gene “Bowlegs” Miller, Phineas Newborn, Sr., and his sons Calvin Newborn and Phineas Newborn, Jr.
It was at that same location that they built one of the first Mexican restaurants in the South, Pancho’s, in the 1950s after their original Pancho’s was destroyed shortly earlier.
A longtime resident of Boca Raton, Mrs. O’Brien first visited the Stax Music Academy in 2011 while working on a video for her song “Two Kings,” which she had co-written with country legend Pam Tillis. She made a donation to the Stax Music Academy so that students could perform as a gospel choir in the video. Coincidentally, Tillis was joined on the song by Kris Thomas, an R&B singer O’Brien had found on the Internet. He also happened to be a Stax Music Academy graduate who would make it to the top 10 on The Voice in 2015.
Mrs. O’Brien again hired Thomas and made a donation to SMA for students to perform on her 2014 anti-bullying song “Remember,” which was produced in Pompano Beach, Florida by Rob Roy and team, and at Memphis’ Royal Studio by Willie Mitchell’s grandson Boo Mitchell. The song also featured The Voice 2021 runner-up Wendy Moten, Isaac Hayes’ youngest son Kojo Hayes, and many others. The following year Mrs. O’Brien, Thomas, Moten, and students and instructors of the Stax Music Academy hosted an anti-bullying concert rally in Heber Springs, Arkansas.
In 2016, Mrs. O’Brien established the Berger Family Foundation Scholarship Fund at the Stax Music Academy to assist one young person with tuition costs for six years. Her passion for assisting deserving young students with much-needed tuition funding was a testament to her love of children and her love of music.
At the time of her passing in May 2022, she had just released a memoir titled I Believe, and was planning a launch party that was to feature live music by 926, the Stax Music Academy Alumni Band.
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This article was written by Tim Sampson.