By Heather Zsido
Stax Records was founded by brother and sister, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axon in 1957 in Memphis, Tennessee. Neither one had ever dreamt they would be the creators of one of the most well known rhythm and blues label.
Estelle and Jim were both born in a town known as Middleton, Tennessee. They were both raised with a passion for music, Estelle played the organ and Jim played the guitar and fiddle. Estelle, twelve years senior to Jim, moved to Memphis in 1935 to get her teaching certificate and later worked as a teller at Union Planters Bank. Jim followed Estelle to Memphis after he finished high school, and worked as a bank teller at First National Bank. After joining the Army in 1953, he put his fiddle playing skills to use, playing in a band for the Special Services. Upon returning from the Army, he joined Western swing bands around town while attending Memphis State in hopes of becoming a professional banker.
Stewart began to record a few songs, sending them out to labels in surrounding cities. The only one that took the time to listen to his music was his barber, Erwin Ellis, who owned Erwin Records. Ellis loaned Stewart his recording equipment and gave him tips on how to run an independent record label. Stewart took his newfound knowledge and began recording in his wife’s uncle’s garage, releasing his first single known as “Blue Roses” in 1958. After finding his new passion in recording, he asked for some financial help from his sister, Axon. She willingly agreed, taking out a second mortgage on her house in order to purchase some new recording equipment. With their new equipment and a place to record- the garage- Axon and Stewart began the works of what they called, Satellite Records.
In 1959, Stewart moved to Brunswick, Tennessee, moving Satellite Records from a garage to an old storehouse. While in Brunswick, he was introduced to music known as rhythm and blues by staff producer Chips Moman. He fell in love with the soulful sound and went on to release his first rhythm and blues song, “Fool for Love,” by The Veltones. The single was later picked up by Mercury Records. Unfortunately, “Fool for Love,” was not a huge success for Satellote Records. However, while working on “Fool for Love,” Stewart was introduced to a Memphis disc jockey by the name of Rufus Thomas, who later convinced him to move back to Memphis.
After his move back to Memphis, Stewart rented out an old theatre. The theatre, known as the Capitol Theatre, was located at 926 East McLemore Ave. Stewart rented it for $150 a month, and turned the auditorium into a recording studio. In the meantime, Axon turned the concession area into a record shop, so they could earn some money to help pay for the rent.
Once the theatre was changed into Satellite Records, the first people to record in the studio were Rufus Thomas and his daughter, Carla. They recorded and released a song called, “Cause I Love You” in 1960. The song was picked up for distribution by Atlantic Records. Atlantic distributed the recording nationally, making “Cause I Love You” Satellite Records’ first big hit.
After their success with “Cause I Love You,” Satellite Records made a distribution deal with Atlantic Records, and Stewart decided to make his label predominately rhythm and blues. The first single to be released nationally through Satellite’s label was “Last Night,” by a group called The Mar-Keys. Once this recording was released, a complaint arose from another label in California who also had a label named Satellite Records. Stewart agreed to change the name of his label to Stax- the ST for “Stewart” and the AX for “Axon.” Stax Records was on its way to the top.
Stewart had many people helping him along his journey. Not only did he have the help of his sister, Estelle, but he also had a very successful man known as Steve Cropper become his personal assistant and Artist and Repertoire (A&R) director in 1961. In 1965, Stewart hired Washington disc jockey, Al Bell as his national sales director, who broadened Stax’s list of artists.
Al Bell and Jimmy Stewart
Stax Records really did not start off with too many artists, but the ones they did enlist made an impact on numerous other artists. The elusive sounds of artists ranging from Booker T. and the MG’s, to Carla Thomas drew many artists to the label. The artist that had the most success was none other than Otis Redding. Although Redding was not on the actual Stax label, he was on Volt, one of Stax’s many subsidiary labels. Volt was Stax’s sister label. Redding was not on the label long before he was killed in a tragic plane crash in 1967. His single after his death, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” became his biggest hit. Redding is still very well known to this day.
Another artist, named Isaac Hayes, also had some major success for Stewart. Hayes was on a subsidiary label as well, known as Enterprise, where he recorded a triple platinum album, Hot Buttered Soul. Not only did he record a major hit album, but he was part of the Stax house band, “Big Six,” along with his songwriter, David Porter.
After the death of Otis Redding, the deal with Atlantic was to be renegotiated. Atlantic decided against making another deal with Stax Records and took all the masters that belonged to Stax Records prior to 1968, forcing Stewart to sell the label to Gulf and Western. The decline of Stax Records was saddening to Stewart and Axon, as well as everyone else involved in the label. However, in 1970, after seeing diminishing success from Gulf and Western, Stewart and Al Bell bought back Stax Records.
In an unsuccessful attempt to compete with Motown records, Stax Records once again seemed to be on the demise. Bell made a deal with CBS Records and in 1972, bought out Jim Stewart. Bell’s plan eventually backfired, which led to financial decay and the final closure of Stax Records in 1976.All the masters produced after 1968 were left to Fantasy Records of San Francisco.
Although Stax Records is no longer a running label, their music hasn’t died. For approximately six years after the label closed its doors, David Porter, the songwriter for Stax, brought numerous artists back in for additional recording. Many songs were revised and released, some of them making it to the top of the charts. One major hit was The Bar-Kays “Holy Ghost,” which made it to #9 in the R&B charts in 1978. Once Porter left Stax, the music released was delayed a few years, but it still didn’t die. For nearly two decades, Atlantic and Fantasy Records released numerous reissues of their masters from Stax Records, which kept the music from that era alive.
Although Stax Records is no longer a thriving studio, it still lives on today. During the process of the reissues, the Stax Records building was torn down and rebuilt to create a replica of the one Stewart had used for his recordings. It still stands in the same place and is now the only soul music museum to exist in the world. It not only has the legends from the Stax Records era, but also includes the music icons that we are very familiar with today such as Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Ike and Tina Turner, to name a few.
The music of Stax Records still lives on. What Stewart and Axon did was create music so passionate that anyone could fall in love with it. The music recorded in that studio had a sound of its own. Historian Rob Bowman said, “the sound is so distinct that many fans can often tell if the music was recorded in the Stax studio within the first few notes.” This duo had no intentions of making this label all that it was, but succeeded in creating a company that will be remembered for years to come.
“The success of Stax Records was perhaps an accident. Many factors were involved with the success of Stax.” – Steve Cropper