Stax

Posted: January 13, 2013 in Memphis Music

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Middleton, TN is a small town east of Memphis, not a hundred miles along the southern Tennessee border. It lies at the crossroads of Tennessee highways 57 and 125, due south of Jackson, TN and north of Elvis’ hometown of Tupelo, MS. Jim Stewart (July 29, 1930) followed the path of his married sister Estelle Axton (September 11, 1918 – February 24, 2004), twelve years his elder, from their family farm in Middleton to the university and banking jobs in the big city of Memphis.

By the mid-1950s, Estelle was working for Union Planters bank and Jim had a day job with First National Bank while playing fiddle in country-and-western bands at night. Taking notice of Sam Phillips‘ success with Sun Records, Stewart began to record country-and-western music in a relative’s garage using recording equipment borrowed from his barber. Stewart created his Satellite label and released “Blue Roses” by disc jockey Fred Bylar in 1958. He asked his sister Estelle to take out a mortgage on her house to help purchase recording equipment and they became business partners, moving from the garage to a storehouse in Brunswick, TN on the outskirts of Memphis.

chips-momanA recording session involving guitarist Chips Moman in this Brunswick storehouse was the catalyst that would begin a rapidly evolving network of collaborations involving some of the most influential, creative and iconic Memphis musicians of all time. A change of musical direction for Satellite and for the Memphis music scene was about to occur. Moman had recently returned from a California recording session with rockabilly pioneers Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, but was involved with a Satellite session for the black rhythm-and-blues group the Veltones and the tune “Fool For Love,” which was picked up for national distribution by Mercury Records. Moman and Estelle Axton’s son Packy would spur the change from Satellite’s country-and-western and pop recordings to Rhythm and Blues under the renamed Stax label — “Stax” being a combination of the first two letters of Jim and Estelle’s last names.Stax-Soulsville

In 1960, Chips Moman scouted the abandoned Capitol movie theater on East McLemore and College streets back in Memphis and helped Jim Stewart convert it into the famed Stax recording studio. Moman recorded the first Stax hits by Rufus and Carla Thomas, William Bell, and the Mar-Keys over the next several years. Despite his pivotal role in establishing the musical direction of Stax and recording its first hits, Chips left in 1962 after a monetary dispute with Stewart and started his own successful American Sound Studio.

MarkeysThese early hits were noticed by New York-based Atlantic Records and its vice president Jerry Wexler. Because of the distribution deal struck with the national label, the early Stax hits began to sell larger numbers and score on the Billboard charts. One of the bigger hits was “Last Night” by the Mar-Keys, a band that included Estelle’s son Packy Axton, Steve Cropper, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Don Nix, Charlie Freeman and Terry Johnson. Steve Cropper took over the duties vacated by Moman’s departure and Stax began to employ a seminal mix of talented Memphis musicians. Drummer Curtis Green, bassist Lewie Steinberg, horn players Floyd Newman, Gene “Bowlegs” Miller, and Gilbert Caple, were soon augmented by the young neighborhood keyboardist Booker T. Jones, drummer Al Jackson, horn players Andrew Love and Wayne Jackson, and songwriters Isaac Hayes and David Porter. The prodigious Stax musical output throughout the sixties was generated by these musicians along with various others.

The role of co-founder Estelle Axton in the early Stax success should not be underestimated. Her brilliant idea of converting the candy counter of the old movie theater into a record shop to generate some extra income turned into an inspired resource for the Stax creative team. Not only were they in touch with what kind of music was currently selling, but also local musicians were drawn to the record shop and test pressings of recordings were often played for customers’ response. Estelle became a mover in Memphis music even after Stax folded.

To Be Continued

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