Photos courtesy Stax Archives, Axton Family, and Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries

Jim Stewart

July 29, 1930
Middleton, Tennessee
Memphis, Tennessee
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Estelle Axton

September 11, 1918
Middleton, Tennessee
February 25, 2004
Middleton, Tennessee
Black and white portrait of Jim Stewart

When he founded Satellite Records, Jim Stewart had no thought of recording the funky African-American hits that would soon come spilling out of the studio and the label he’d later rename Stax Records. Jim was a white country fiddle player from the rolling foothills 75 miles east of Memphis, where Appalachia was a strong influence.

In Memphis in the late 1950s, people had witnessed the success Sam Phillips had with Sun Records and Elvis Presley, as well as a number of record labels which embarked in his wake. Jim started Satellite Records after his barber explained the basics of music publishing (a country singer covered one of the barber’s songs, and money arrived in his mailbox twice a year thereafter). Beginning in 1957, Jim’s Satellite label released a handful of records — country, rockabilly, and sappy pop — but the one that got the most attention was by a West Memphis black vocal group, the Vel-Tones.

Photo courtesy Stax Archives
Black and white portrait of Estelle Axton

Jim’s early partners had bailed after the first couple of failures and when he needed a new recorder, he turned to his sister, Estelle Axton, older by ten years. Estelle liked to dance, and had a taste for the new sounds. She enjoyed shopping at the record store, and earned small change on the side by selling new releases to her co-workers at the bank. She borrowed money against her home to finance Jim’s recorder, and became co-owner. After recording in garages and old stores, they rented a south Memphis neighborhood movie theater that had succumbed to television’s ascension. Estelle established the Satellite Record Store where the theater’s popcorn machine used to be.

Photo courtesy Stax Archives

The success of Jim and Estelle’s record company had as much to do with their attitude toward people as it did with their business acumen or their taste in music: in this time of institutionalized and virulent racism, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton saw all God’s creatures as created equal.

Otis Redding, Jim Stewart, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Booker T. © API, Bill Carrier, API Photographers, Inc.

When neighborhood residents entered, their skin color wasn’t a factor. And what a neighborhood they’d moved into! Rufus Thomas came in first, bringing his daughter Carla. Jim and Estelle welcomed the opportunity to record them, and the success of their 1960 duet, “’Cause I Love You,” gave Satellite the hit that had been so elusive.

Jim, meanwhile, had fallen hard for Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say,” and when Rufus and Carla’s record led to a phone call from Atlantic Record’s Jerry Wexler, who’d produced Ray’s hit, Jim was thrilled to make a distribution agreement. Carla, still in high school, returned to cut another hit, “Gee Whiz,” which let Jim show off his talent for string arrangements.

Listen Now:

Respect Yourself - The Staple Singers

Before 1960 was out, Estelle pushed Jim to release an instrumental by her son Packy’s band, the Mar-Keys. That song, “Last Night,” was deep rhythm and blues (with a modern touch) and it became the label’s biggest hit yet. When “Last Night” reached the west coast, another Satellite label notified Memphis of the name conflict, and “Stax” was formed from the first two letters of the siblings surnames, evoking “stacks” of records. A door had opened, a wind was blowing, and the siblings, by refusing the safe harbor of prejudice, sailed through to create the preeminent southern soul label.

Listen Now:

Soul Man - Sam & Dave
Special Collection, University of Memphis Libraries

At Stax, Estelle ran the front of the house - the record store - and Jim ran the back - the studio. Many of the label’s stars first came in as her customers - Booker T. Jones, William Bell, and Albert King among many (in the early years, she also employed Steve Cropper). Her store would serve as both a respite from the studio, and perhaps more importantly, as a library and research facility for the songwriters and musicians.

Photo courtesy Center for Southern Folklore
Photo courtesy Center for Southern Folklore

Fashionably dressed and smoking her Parliament cigarettes, Estelle “mothered” the talent, keeping them abreast of what titles were selling, how the trends were moving, and playing them songs she thought would inspire them. She coached David Porter as a songwriter, signed Albert King as an artist, and pushed to bring Al Bell into the company as a promotions man.

In the studio, Jim had the string-player’s fine ear (Estelle said he played fiddle until he went to college; then he played violin). Jim set his own high standard for the label’s recordings, and many musicians lamented that he drove them too hard — until they heard his final, thrilling results.

Musicians knew they were doing well when they’d see Jim snapping his fingers or dancing in the control room. He produced and supervised many of Stax’s hits.

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Green Onions -
Booker T. & The M.G.'s

Stewart and Axton’s company came to include Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Booker T. and the MG’s and many other great performers, and featured Isaac Hayes and David Porter among its writers.

In early 1968, when Stax was parting ways from its Atlantic partnership, they learned that the Atlantic contract Jim had signed - signed but not read - actually gave Atlantic ownership of all their released masters. The previous December, Otis Redding and many of the Bar-Kays had been killed in a plane crash, and in April of ’68, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis at Stax’s home away from home, the Lorraine Motel. An era seemed to have ended.

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(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay - Otis Redding
Special Collection, University of Memphis Libraries

They revivified the company. They sold their stock to the Gulf & Western conglomerate, and promoted Al Bell, who’d been instrumental in the company’s expansion. Bell’s star rose, and Estelle sold her stake in the company, signing a 5-year non-compete clause.

She bought an apartment complex that did well, and then launched Fretone Records in 1973, soon scoring a runaway #1 hit with “Disco Duck.” She retired from music, sold her apartment complex, and spent the last years of her life working as a cashier at a cafeteria, greeting every customer as if they were a star. She died in 2004 at age 85.

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I'll Take You There - The Staple Singers
estelle Photo courtesy Axton Family
al-jim-isaac Special Collection, University of Memphis Libraries

With his new partner, Jim Stewart grew Stax to unimagined heights. Their successes included Isaac Hayes, whose “Theme From Shaft” won a Grammy and an Oscar, and who released four gold records over the next five years; Johnny Taylor, who helped define the sound of the black street from 1968 until well into the 1970s; the Staple Singers, with their career highlights, “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There”; and the WattStax concert and film.

In this second period, Stax’s sound was no longer as readily identifiable as in its first; rather, it was simply the sound of hits.

Records, films, stage plays, radio and television - Stax was growing in every direction. Jim Stewart sold his ownership to Al Bell in 1973, and when the company began to falter a year later, Jim used his personal fortune to try and save it. Between bank debts and a distribution disagreement with CBS Records, Stax fell and Jim lost everything.

The musical legacy of siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton is solidly established, and with it, so is their open-door and open-heart philosophy, an example of open-mindedness and humanity whose time had come.

Black and white portrait of Jim Stewart Black and white portrait of Jim Stewart
Special Collection, University of Memphis Libraries

What Others are Saying

  1. Thanks a million for giving honor to some very special pioneers and individuals in the music and broadcast community.

    Mark Stansbury
  2. After reading the Gordon’s book about star I can only think Mr Stewart was greedy and I pray for him and his family. You reap what you sew and your deception of Chip Moman sounds more like a cheesey banker than a producer

    Paris Humphrey
  3. Estelle Axton belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with her brother.

    Roger Green
  4. I have been a Stax fan for over 50 years as well as a Memphis Music buff. It would be nice to have many more sound grabs from the musicians on this site. The Memphis way of making and creating music in the fifties, sixties and seventies was a demonstration of true art. The egalitarian way of creating the fabulous sounds from Sun, Stax, Hi and American gave many young people a start and a significant role in the music business. Without that Memphis approach they may had ordinary say jobs and there’s nothing wrong with that but, in truth, the Memphis way brought out talents they may never have used. Let’s hope Memphis can re-make itself.

    Terry Reilly

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