Estelle Axton and Jim Stewart founders of Stax Records. >
- is a former record company executive and producer who co-founded Stax
Born July 29, 1930 and on a farm in Middleton, Tennessee, Stewart moved to Memphis in
1948, after graduating from high school.
He worked at Sears, at First National Bank, and
then was drafted into the United States Army. After serving for two years, Stewart returned
to his job as a bank clerk in Memphis in 1953.
Stewart was a country fiddle player from Middleton, Tennessee. He moved to Memphis with
musical ambition, joining the Canyon Cowboys while making his living as a bank employee.
His sister Estelle, who worked for another bank in Memphis, became an equal partner with
Stewart in the Satellite label, launched in 1957 on the model of fellow Memphis label Sun
Records. The fifth release on Satellite, ''Gee Whiz'' (1960) by Carla Thomas, became a huge
national hit (number 5 rhythm and blues, number 10 pop) in 1961 after it was leased to
When the Mar-Keys’ instrumental “Last Night” became a national hit in 1961, it was
discovered that there was another label with the same name in California. To avoid
litigation, the Memphis-based Satellite became Stax (deriving from the names STewart and
By this time, after a tip from local producer Chips Moman, Stewart and Axton had taken over
an old movie theater at East McLemore and College streets in Memphis. Neighborhood
musicians began hanging around 932 East McLemore Avenue, including organist Booker T.
Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald ''Duck'' Dunn and drummer Al Jackson, Jr.
Thus, Stax acquired a peerless house band that also came to include the renowned Memphis
Horns (Andrew Love, Wayne Jackson and Joe Arnold).
Stax signed such artists as Otis Redding, who recorded for the sister label Volt from 1962
until his death in 1967. A distribution deal with Atlantic Records resulted in the larger, New
York-based company sending some of its premier soul acts to record at Stax. (That same deal
also gave ownership of Stax’s master recordings to Atlantic, which became a sticking point
when the deal came up for renewal in 1967.) Stewart, who was involved in many aspects of
the company’s operation, also brought to the label local songwriters Isaac Hayes and David
Porter. Hayes and Porter became Stax’s equivalent to Motown’s Holland-Dozier-Holland
songwriting team. In 1965, Stewart made a key hire, appointing Al Bell - a popular black
deejay from Washington, D.C. - Stax’s national sales director.
Stax thrived during the 1960s and early 1970s, generating an awesome string of soul and
rhythm and blues hits with their bread-and-butter artists, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Carla
Thomas, Booker T. and the MG’s, while breaking such acts as Eddie Floyd (''Knock On Wood'',
''Raise Your Hand''), Johnnie Taylor (''Who’s Making Love''), the Staple Singers (''I'll Take You
There'', ''Respect Yourself''), Jean Knight (''Mr. Big Stuff''), the Emotions (''So I Can Love
You''), Mel and Tim (''Starting All Over Again''”), the Soul Children ''I'll Be the Other Woman'')
and William Bell (''I Forgot to Be Your Lover''. Even comedian Richard Pryor was a Stax artist,
having been signed to the label’s Partee subsidiary. House songwriter and sideman Isaac
Hayes became a star in his own right with a series of albums released on Stax’s Enterprise
subsidiary, including the number 1 Shaft soundtrack.
Jim Stewart sold his interest in Stax to Al Bell in 1972, and the company continued until
forced into bankruptcy in 1976. Interest in the label and its legacy were rekindled in the
Nineties with the release of three massive box sets, comprising 28 CDs between them, that
include every single released on Stax and its subsidiaries.
In April 2001, further recognition of Stax’s legacy came in the form of a groundbreaking for
the Stax Museum of American Music and the adjoining Stax Academy and Performing Arts
Center on East McLemore Avenue in Memphis. “It’s been a long time coming,” guitarist Steve
Cropper noted with understatement.
The label begun by Jim Stewart back in the late Fifties is finally being recognized as a
priceless institution that contributed substantially to America’s musical culture.
When Jim Stewart was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, he sent his two
granddaughters to the induction ceremony to accept the award on his behalf.
- was the co-founder, with her brother Jim Stewart, of Stax Records. Born
on September 11, 1918 in Middleton, Tennessee, Estelle Stewart grew up on a farm. She
moved to Memphis as a school teacher, married Everett Axton, and was working in a bank
when, in 1958, her brother Jim Stewart asked for help to develop Satellite Records, which
he had set up to issue recordings of local country and rockabilly artists. She convinced her
husband that they should remortgage their house and, in 1959, joined Satellite as an equal
partner. The following year, Axton and Stewart turned the Capitol Theatre, in a black
Memphis neighbourhood on McLemore Avenue, into a recording studio and record shop, and
began making hit records with predominantly black artists.
Satellite was forced to change its name after it was discovered that a Los Angeles label
already owned the title, and it changed its name to Stax, taking its name from Axton and
Stewart's surnames. Axton was actively involved with selecting and developing the artists on
the label, who included Rufus Thomas, Otis Redding, Booker T & the MGs, and Isaac Hayes.
She sold her interest in the company in 1970. After the non-compete agreement expired,
Axton formed Fretone Records whose biggest hit, "Disco Duck" by Rick Dees was licensed for
distribution to RSO Records. In December, 2006, The Recording Academy announced that
Estelle Axton would be honored with a Trustee's Award as part of the upcoming Grammys.
Estelle was the founder of the Memphis Songwriters Association in 1973. The Memphis
Songwriters Association was formed in order to foster the education and advancement of
local area songwriters. There was a focus on the development of the songwriting craft with
the intentions of producing commercially viable songs and improving performance skills.
MSA has consecutively maintained membership for over 35 years. Estelle's formation of the
Memphis Songwriters Association led to the motivation of many local songwriters and
singer/songwriters publishing their original material. Some of these songs and artists met
with some surprising success. Unfortunately, historical records are fragmented and scarce,
however, there is a number of MSA alumni that could still tell the stories.
Estelle went on, with friend and founder of Moon Records, Cordell Jackson to work with the
Music Industries of Memphis, later named the Memphis Music Association to assist in the
development of local Memphis music as a global force once again. Their collaboration and
guidance helped launch the first Memphis Demo Derby, the brainchild of PR Director Brett
Hamilton, which was designed to present and showcase any and all Memphis musical talent
to A&R reps, studio heads, producers and the like. The event was such a huge success, it
continued for several years. Joe Savarin, founder of the Handy Awards, and Wanda Freeman
of Tenant Laboratories lent a hand in spite of public opposition. The MMA was the umbrella
organization for all Memphis music and still exists today.
The Memphis Songwriters Association is still consistently holding meetings, songwriter
workshops, open mics, song critiques, and singer/songwriter showcase events to this day.
Estelle Axton died of natural causes on February 25, 2004 at the age of 85.
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