Stax Records

Memphis’s great soul music recording company was founded in 1960 by siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton. Aspiring to break into the music business, Stewart, a bond salesman, convinced his schoolteacher sister to mortgage her home for $2,500. Their company, originally called Satellite Productions, began with an Ampex recorder in a rented store in Brunswick, just outside of Memphis.

In 1960 Axton and Stewart moved their operation to Memphis, renting a former movie house, the Capitol, on East McLemore Street for one hundred dollars a month. In the space they combined a record shop, run by Axton, and a recording studio. The sloping theater floor with carpeted walls and heavy bass U-8 movie theater speakers would create the distinctive sound of Stax recordings.

Soon Wayne “Chips” Moman, a producer and musician, joined the two and began producing the sessions. In 1961 a local high school band, the Mar-Keys, recorded “Last Night,” which went to number two on the pop charts. The success of the recording brought the threat of a lawsuit from a similarly named record company so Axton and Stewart donated the first two letters of their names to create Stax.

Booker T and the MGs, a racially mixed band, recorded Stax’s first mega hit, “Green Onions,” and became the studio band, featuring the incomparable work of keyboardist Booker T. Jones, legendary guitarist Steve Cropper, and bass player Donald “Duck” Dunn. Stax would produce such notable internationally significant artists as Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Wilson Pickett, William Bell, Johnnie Taylor, and Sam and Dave.

The height of the label’s influence on American popular music came between 1965 and 1968 and included two now legendary tours of England by the Stax/Volt Revue and the appearance of Otis Redding at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. During the early 1970s the theme for the movie Shaft by Isaac Hayes became the fastest selling album in Stax’s history and won an Academy Award for Hayes, who was also a prolific songwriter for other Stax artists.

Not only did Stax have an interracial sound through its house band, but Stax was a racially integrated company as well, with Al Bell, an African American, as national sales director. The riots of the late 1960s, though, led Stewart temporarily to shut down Stax, a white-owned business in the midst of an African American neighborhood.

At the same time, Stewart learned that Warner Brothers had bought Atlantic Records and now owned all masters recorded at Stax. Stewart, and Bell made a deal with Paramount and in 1970 repurchased the company in an effort to save the label. In 1972 Bell bought out Stewart, though he remained as chief executive.

Though most of the original Stax talent had left during this chaos, the Staple Sisters, Johnnie Taylor, the Soul Children, and others continued to record hits. The once-flourishing company came to an end in 1975-76 when Stax landed in bankruptcy court and Al Bell was indicted for fraud.

Suggested Reading

Rob Bowman, Soulsville, USA: The Story of Stax Records (1997); Peter Guralick, Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom (1986)

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Stax Records
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date April 13, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018