Stax Records - Memphis, TN
The Early Years
Stax Records is known as home to musical artist such as Otis Redding, Johnnie Taylor and Isaac Hayes. Also, it is known for the role it played in the birth of Southern style soul music. Although Stax is known for its southern soul music, the label was founded by two Caucasian entrepreneurs, Jim Steward and Estelle Axton.
Originally known as Satellite Records, Jim Steward started the label in 1957. Later in 1958, he recorded his first country single "Blue Roses." The song went no where. Next year, his sister Estelle Axton joined him in the music business. After moving the company to Brunswick Tennessee, Steward was exposed to R&B music. In Fall of 1959, Satellite Records recorded its first R&B tune by the Veltones. The name of the song was "Fool For Love." Although the song didnt sell very well, Steward begun to see the markerting potential of R&B music. In 1960, the decision to move back to Memphis was finalized. For the next recording studio, an old movie house in south Memphis would now be home for the Satellite label. Around this time Steward met with a local disc jockey named Rufus Thomas. In addition to being a DJ, Thomas was an experienced R&B singer who had a previous hit song at the Memphis based Sun Records.
Satellite becomes Stax Records
As a result of their meeting, Thomas and his daughter Carla would record Satellite's fist hit R&B song. The name of the song was "Cause I Love You." Following a distribution agreement, it was distributed nationally by Atlantic Records. To date, this was the biggest hit for the Satellite label. For now on, the majority of Stax recordings will be R&B. In early 1961, Carla Thomas had another hit song called "Gee Whiz." The song was #5 on the Billboard Charts and it was the another national hit for the company. Later In June 1961, Satellite signed a local band known as The Royal Spades, but they renamed their group to the Mar-Keys. This group had a crossover hit with the single "Last Night."
With the growing success of the label and Steward knowing of another Satellite Records in California, he decided to rename the company to avoid legal complications. A combination of the owner's last name was used (Jim Steward and Estelle Axon). Therefore, the name " Stax Records" was adopted.
From Regional to National Attention
By 1962, with the influx of talent such as Booker T. & the M.G.'s,William Bell and Otis Reddings, Stax was in a position to become a nationally respected R&B label. Redding's first song, "These Arms Of Mine," was released in October 1962. It was a crossover hit song. Although Stax enjoyed success with many of their artist, Otis Redding was the first artist to make the charts with each release. In other words, each of Redding's singles were hits.
By 1965, Jim Steward made another record deal with Atlantic Records and around this same time, Isaac Hayes and David Porter began to establish themselves as Stax's new songwriting team. In addition to the hits by established artist, 1965 saw the debuts of Stax artists such as Sam & Dave and The Mad Lads. Atlantic Records made arrangements to allow Wilson Pickett to record at the Stax studio. Although Pickett's songs such as "In the Midnight Hour" were released on the Atlantic label, the recordings were one-hundred percent Stax.
Break from Atlantic Records
In early 1966, Jim Steward was growing tired of Atlantic Records taking advantage of his company. Consequently, Stewart stopped all non-Stax recordings sessions at Stax Records. Also, during this same period of time, Stax and all its subsidiaries were quite successful. Many of the well known artist such as Otis Redding, Sam and Dave and Albert King were doing well.
When Atlantic Records was sold to Warner Bros. in 1967, it activated a renegotiation clause in the contract between Stax and Atlantic Records. Unknown to Jim Stewart, he had previously signed away his legal rights to the Stax master recordings for all the Atlantic distributions. Because the executives at Warner Brothers refused to return ownership of the masters to Stax, Steward choose to sell the company to Paramount Pictures. Also in early December 1967, Stax lost its biggest star Otis Redding in a plane crash. Therefore, the Stax label had to continue without the best of its catalog and it best musical artist..
After the negotiations, Al Bell would assume the responsibilities of vice-president and Steward would remain, but on a limited and less involved basis. Following a disagreement, on Bell's vision for Stax, Estelle Axton left the company.
Stax the independent Label
With new hits by Johnnie Taylor, William Bell and Booker T. and the MG'S, Stax did well with out Atlantic Records. On the Enterprise subsidiary label, producer Isaac Hayes would released his triple platinum album "Hot Buttered Soul." Also, during this time, the company enjoyed success when the Staple Singers moved from Gospel to R&B. However, because of poor management by Paramount, sales weren't good. So in 1970 Bell and Stewart bought the label and Stax was an independent label for the next two years.
With new talent such as Frederick Knight, The Soul Children, Jean Knight and The Emotions, the company was giving Motown some stiff competition. Around this same time, the company begun accepting non-Stax production again. Elvis Presley recorded three albums at Stax in 1973. Of the three albums, four of his singles made the top twenty.
Bankruptcy and Stax Records in Limbo
Al Bell purchased Jim Stewart's remaining interest in Stax in 1972 and negotiated a distribution agreement with CBS Records. At the time, CBS President Clive Davis felt he could use Stax to compete with Motown. A national distribution deal was worked out, but shortly after signing, Davis was fired. Without Clive Davis, CBS was no longer interested. As a result, Stax's profits were cut and CBS refused to distribute the product as promised, for fear of hurting their own R&B artists. Although CBS wasn't interested in Stax, it was fearful to release the label. CBS was concerned that Stax could become a fierce competitor.
In 1974, the last big hit from Stax was from Shirley Brown. The title of the song was "Woman to Woman." Although this hit helped to delay bankruptcy proceedings, by 1975 all that was left was Stax Records. Al Bell tried to avoid bankruptcy with some bank loans and failed. Jim Stewart, returned from retirement and mortgaged his mansion in an attempt to stop bankruptcy too. In the end, the bank decided to foreclosed. Consequently, Steward lost his home and fortune. During the proceedings, Bell was arrested for fraud, but was acquitted and released in fall of 1976. In 1977, Union Planters bank sold the Stax name and its master tapes to a holding company. Later the same year, the Stax masters and the name "Stax Records" was sold to Fantasy Records.
Stax Resumes Operations and the Stax Museum
In November 1977, David Porter was selected by Fantasy Records to run Stax Records. In addition to new talent, Porter re-signed former artist too. Porter was also responsible for overseeing unreleased material too. Porter left Stax in 1979 and for next twenty-three years, the label focused primarily on re-releases. In 2004 Concord Records bought Fantasy Records. In late 2006 Concord reactivated the Stax label.
Although Stax was forced into Bankrupcy in December 1975, the headquarters was not sold until 1981. The Union Planters bank transferred ownership of the property to the Southside Church of God in Christ for ten dollars. In 1989, the original Stax building was demolished. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music was built on the same site and was opened in 2003. The museum features the history of soul music and of course the Stax label. Although the original building is gone and some of the original musicians have passed away, the unique soulful sound of Stax Records will live on for years to come.
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