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Updated on January 16, 2012


The story of how Stax Records came to be is a very interesting one. Here was a guy who wanted to be a part of the music industry, realized that he didn't have the talent to make it as a musician; so he found some people who could, and recorded them instead. He not only made it into the music business, he also founded one of the first integrated record labels and helped to created the sound that is known now as "Memphis Soul".

Jim Stewart started out as a bank teller/fiddle player from Middleton, Tennessee. Though he worked for Union Planters bank, Stewart had dreams of becoming a professional fiddle player. He played locally in some small bands and radio stations, but little success materialized from those endeavors. Still, Jim Stewart wanted to be a part of the music business. Since it was apparent that he would not become a recording artist, he decided to find people who had talent, and record them. From that thought, Satellite Records was created.

Satellite records (named after the Russian satellite, Sputnik) started in a garage in Brunswick, Tennessee with borrowed equipment, as a country and western music label. The garage had acoustical problems, so they soon relocated to an old store house. The store house also had problems with acoustics; and there was a train that went by regularly, making it impossible to record.

Thinking that better equipment might alleviate the problem with the acoustics, Stewart knew that he needed to have an Ampex recorder (top of the line at the time); but he did not have the money to purchase it. Stewart asked his sister, Estelle Axton, if she could talk her husband Everett into refinancing their home and loaning him the money to make the purchase. After long consideration, Estelle and Everett Axton placed a second mortgage on their home and Stewart got his Ampex recorder. Unfortunately, this did not solve the acoustic problem.

The next idea was relocation. Stewart wanted to purchase an old church, or a theater to house Satellite Records. The reason he wanted these types of structures was because they generally have high ceilings, and this would help him attain the sound he was trying to achieve. He had one problem.....NO MONEY! So he went back to the well. Once again he asked his sister Estelle to remortgage her home so that he could purchase a new studio.

Estelle Axton had better plans this time. She told him that she would do it, but she wanted to be a partner, 50/50. Stewart agreed.

There was a property for sale at 926 East McElmore Avenue, the old Capitol Theatre in Memphis. Impressed with the property, Stewart and Axton made the purchase. There was a concession stand in the front of the theater that Estelle Axton turned into Satellite record shop.

The first artists to record at the new studio was an R&B group called The Veltones. The Veltones recorded "Fool In Love", and attracted Mercury Records for distribution. "Fool In Love" was only a modest hit, so Mercury pulled out of their distribution deal. So now Stewart and Axton had a new studio without acoustical problems, but no artists.

Rufus Thomas, a local disc jockey, former vaudevillian actor, and M.C., came to Satellite Records with a song he had written with his daughter Carla. The song was called "'Cause I Love You", and it was a hit! This attracted Atlantic Records for distribution and started a long relationship between Satelite Records and Atlantic.

"'Cause I Love You" also attracted the attention of a California based record label, also called Satellite Records. To avoid legal trouble, Stewart and Axton quickly changed the name of their label to Stax. Stax is a portmanteau of the last names of Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton. Prior to the name change, another Satelite group called The Mar-Keys had released a song called "Last Night". Some members of The Mar-Key's later became Booker T. and The M.G.'s, the Stax house band (also the Blues Brothers band, from the movie The Blues Brothers) as well as Stax recording artists.

Often compared to Motown Records, there are many differences. Motown Records was black owned and operated, yet recorded music that had pop appeal. Berry Gordy wanted it that way in order to insure bigger audiences and higher record sales.

Motown also had a very polished sound.

Stax was white owned and operated, yet the sound that they were after was pure rhythm and blues. Jim Stewart wanted it that way because it insured him high record sales, and he was located in the center of the black community and surrounded by talent.

The Stax sound was not polished, and was never intended to be. In fact, they often recorded errors; because it was very expensive to re-record. The old theater had sloped floors. This gave their recordings a sort of warped sound; this is defined as "The Memphis Sound"

Stax artists included:

Booker T. and The M.G.'s

Rufus and Carla Thomas

The Bar-Kays

Otis Redding

Albert King

Little Milton

Isaac Hayes

The Staple Singers

Johnny Taylor

The Dramatics

The Temprees

Jean Knight

Richard Pryor

Bill Cosby

Mel and Tim

Moms Mabley

Shirley Brown

The Soul Children

and many, many more

Jim Stewart was just a guy who wanted to be a part of the music industry. He started out wanting to produce country and western music and shifted to R&B, a genre he knew ABSOLUTELY nothing about, and he made it work.

There is so much more to this story, and I will cover it in later blogs. This is just a summary of the beginning of a music movement.

If in Memphis, visit the Stax Museum!!!!

More to come....

Talk to you soon!




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