Inspired by Sam Phillips, a Memphis radio technician who had started producing a few years earlier (and made a huge sum of money on Elvis Presley), Jim Stewart founded Satellite Records. A banker by day and country fiddle player by night, Stewart knew that he could never make it as professional musician. However, he felt he could be the next best thing - a producer - despite having no experience or knowledge of the recording industry. Satellite cut its first record in October 1957, “Blue Roses”, a country song with low production quality. In order to get a better sound, Stewart needed better equipment, and, in order to get better equipment, he needed money. He approached his older sister, a music-loving bank clerk named Estelle Axton, for help and she mortgaged her house to buy an Ampex 350 console recorder for the studio. In 1960, Estelle refinanced her house again to fund the studio’s move west from Brunswick, Tenn. to a former movie theatre on McLemore Ave. in Memphis. The company was renamed Stax, a combination of the first two letters of Stewart and Axton’s last names. Like everything Stax, the theatre’s conversion into a recording studio was a do-it-yourself project. The cavernous room was partitioned and a control room was created where the screen had been. The floor’s slant helped deaden the sound, a way of trying to control the room’s acoustics on the cheap that would ultimately become a signature part of the Stax sound. In need of immediate cash flow, Axton turned the theater’s concession stand into the Satellite Record Shop. The shop paid the rent, but it also helped her develop an ear for which records would sell and why. Her welcoming nature made the shop a natural hang out. Neighborhood residents would come in, chat with Axton, play records and eventually find their way into the studio. Some groups, like Steve Cropper’s band The Royal Spades, got their foot in the door by knowing Stewart and Axton, while others just walked in, hoping to record. The new studio’s first single, a duet between Rufus and Carla Thomas called “Cause I Love You”, became a local hit through radio airplay and the 40,000 copies it sold regionally drew the attention of Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler. Wexler offered Stax a deal - a contract for a master - lease agreement on all Rufus and Carla discs and handshake deal for first refusal rights on the distribution of all Stax releases. With the deal, Atlantic took over Stax’s distribution, making it easier to for the label to get their records into stores. In 1962, Redding arrived at Stax as a chauffeur for Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers from Macon Georgia, who had come to Stax to record an instrumental on the heels of the success of “Green Onions”. When he was allowed to sing after Jenkins’ session had gone badly, the room stood still. Redding - and Jim Stewart - had no idea how quickly he would become the label’s biggest star. Stax had plenty of records to distribute in the early 1960s. The new studio had cut records by Carla Thomas, the Mar-Keys, Booker T. and The MGs, Rufus Thomas, William Bell and Otis Redding. The label also released songs by Sam and Dave, who were “on loan” to the studio as part of the deal with Atlantic Records. While Stax was busy recording, the country had started changing. In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of his dream for racial equality from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Though racial tension was brewing in Memphis and around the country, the studio had always been integrated, a group of like-minded people creating music and growing a business through community, collaboration and skill, regardless of skin color. The studio’s releases were doing well, but Axton, who had been managing Stax’s promotions from the record store counter, wanted more listeners. She organized the label’s first promotional trip, sending some of the label’s brightest stars - Carla Thomas, the Astors, Booker T. and the MGs, Rufus Thomas, William Bell, Wilson Pickett, the Mad-Lads and the Mar-Keys - to Los Angeles for two weeks of radio and TV appearances. The California trip also included a concert, a two-night affair at the 4-5 Ballroom in Watts, hosted by DJ Magnificent Montague in front of a packed house that greeted the bands chanting his signature catchphrase, “burn, baby burn”. The bands were well received, but none of the Stax crew knew about the racial tension brewing Watts, or the meaning “burn, baby burn” would take the next day when the Watts Rebellion began. Some of Stax’s artists were stuck in L.A., and others saw the smoke from the fires set during riots from their plane back to Memphis. With Stewart behind the boards in the control room and Axton managing the store, Stax needed someone to promote the studio’s output to the masses full time. Al Bell, a stylish former DJ with a gift for sales, was hired as Stax’s promotions man. The success of Stax’s early hits and California tour also gave Jim Stewart the financial security he needed to finally quit his day job at the bank. Though Stax’s songs had become popular in Europe, many of the artists who recorded them had never been outside of Memphis, Tenn. In 1967, Al Bell, Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd, Carla Thomas, the MGs and the Mar-Keys took off on Stax’s first European Tour. European fans went crazy for Stax in the same way that American teenagers had when the Beatles first came to America. In Europe, skin color didn’t matter - audiences saw the music as authentic and the people who made it as stars. The label’s success in Europe translated to the U.S., landing Otis Redding an invitation to perform at the Monterey Pop Festival in the middle of the Summer of Love. The festival, which featured primarily psychedelic and rock music, is remembered for the legendary performances of two of its acts: Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding. Backed by the Mar-Keys, Redding delivered an incredible, energetic set that was adored by the thousands of flower children in attendance. Redding was back in the studio in in late November of 1967 to record “Dock of the Bay” before setting off on a quick three-night tour of Nashville, Cleveland, Ohio and Madison, Wis. with the Bar-Keys. Just moments after being cleared for landing in Madison, the band’s private plane - hindered by a low battery that affected the instrument panel - careened out of the sky and into a frigid lake, killing Otis Redding, guitarist Jimmy King, drummer Carl Cunningham, saxophonist Phalon Jones, organist Ronnie Caldwell, valet Matthew Kelly and pilot Richard Fraser. Trumpeter Ben Cauley was the only survivor. Memphis’ racial tension came to a head when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis after speaking to the city’s striking sanitation workers (the Lorraine had been a regular gathering place for Stax employees, both black and white). When citizens rioted in the streets after King’s murder, Stax’s building was left untouched, but the studio’s atmosphere as a creative respite with no regards for race was forever altered. Atlantic Records (Stax’s distributor) was sold to Warner Bros. in 1967. Jim Stewart made several attempts to negotiate a new distribution deal after the sale, first to join Atlantic in its buyout and then directly with Warner Bros. When neither offer was to Stewart’s liking, Stax asked Warner for their master tapes back. Warner refused, citing a clause in Stax’s original contract that gave Atlantic “all right, title and interest, including any rights of reproduction, in all Stax's Atlantic-distributed recordings between 1960 and 1967. Warner also took control of Sam and Dave, who had been “on loan” to Stax as part of their original deal with Atlantic. BY THE END OF 1968, STAX WAS LEFT WITHOUT ONE OF ITS MOST SUCCESSFUL ACTS AND NEARLY ALL OF THE SONGS THE LABEL HAD RECORDED. THOUGH STAX LOST THE RIGHTS TO NEARLY ALL OF THE SONGS THEY HAD RECORDED WHEN THEIR DEAL WITH ATLANTIC RECORDS CRUMBLED IN 1968, THEY STILL HAD THE TALENTED MUSICIANS, SONGWRITERS AND PRODUCERS WHO HAD MADE THEM. AND, THEY HAD A NEW LEADER WITH A BIG PLAN FOR THE LABEL. After Estelle Axton left Stax in 1969, Al Bell was promoted to vice president. He quickly realized that Stax needed more than hits if they were going to survive as an independent label. They needed to rebuild their back catalog, and fast. Without songs, the label would lose its relationships with distributors and the funds it needed to survive. In 1969, Bell steered Stax into a prolific period of recording that united Stax’s creative forces in the common goal of getting the label back on its feet. During the Soul Explosion, 30 singles and 27 albums were recorded in eight months. Al Bell approached Isaac Hayes, a long-time Stax songwriter and studio musician, about recording an album as part of the Soul Explosion, promising him total artistic freedom. With 27 other albums set to be released and no pressure to create a radio-friendly hit, Hayes recorded “Hot Buttered Soul”, a sexy, sprawling four-track epic that included the songs “Walk On By” and “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic". Despite it’s lack of singles (every song on the record clocks in over five minutes), “Hot Buttered Soul” sold more than 3 million copies in 1969. Hayes’ success, combined with the success of records like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” made labels more comfortable with Black artists releasing full albums, and it solidified Hayes as Stax’s biggest new star. With its success as an independent label, Stax was able to expand and record albums outside of the McLemore Ave. studio for the first time. However, the prosperity brought a shift in mood as Stax leadership started running the studio like a business, employee handbooks, schedules and all. Though the label was producing hit records, the studio started to feel less and less like a community center and more like an office. The intense creativity of the early 1970s was not limited to Stax. Outside of the studio, African-American culture was bursting as the result of the Black Pride movement. Marvin Gaye released the politically-charged record “What’s Going On” and Jean Knight had a hit with “Mr. Big Stuff”, and Earth, Wind & Fire recorded the soundtrack for “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song”, which is now regarded as the first Blaxploitation film. Al Bell was on a mission to extend Stax’s reach coast-to-coast, and the seventh annual Watts Summer Festival (commemorating the 1965 Watts Rebellion) provided the perfect stage. Bell sent a significant portion of the Stax roster - Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas, Johnnie Taylor, the Bar-Kays and others - to play a festival show at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Aug. 20, 1972. The nationwide release of a documentary and live recording of the concert gave Bell the national reach he was seeking, with the record selling more than 500,000 copies just weeks after its release. Stax followed the success of Wattstax with releases from the Staple Singers, Little Milton, the Soul Children. Ardent Records, one of Stax’s subsidiary labels, put out Big Star’s “#1 Record”, the first by the now-legendary Memphis power-pop band. Outside of the control room, though, the threads holding Stax together had started to unravel. Johnny Baylor, Stax’s formidable private security agent, was detained at Memphis International Airport with $130,000 cash in his briefcase. Though Baylor claimed the cash was his, the incident caught the attention of the IRS, who began to investigate the company. Stax’s distribution deal with CBS collapsed in 1972, meaning that, while the label had songs, they had no way to get them into customers’ hands. Unable to sell records, Stax fell deep into debt. In December of 1975, federal marshals marched into the studio and ordered everyone vacate the building within 15 minutes. The building was seized and the company forced into involuntary bankruptcy after three creditors who had worked with Stax (possibly acting under the influence of the bank) sued the label for unpaid debts totaling $1,900. The bank took everything, including the master tapes, and Al Bell was escorted from the building at gunpoint. The label that become the community and livelihood of so many suddenly ceased to exist. With Stax forced into involuntary bankruptcy, the building shuttered and Al Bell mired in lawsuits, the master tapes and the rights to release new records under the Stax name were sold at auction to Fantasy Records. Fantasy Records hired longtime Stax songwriter David Porter to help relaunch the Stax label. Between 1977 and 1979, Porter and Fantasy executive Bill Belmont reissued past Stax recordings and released new music under the Stax banner. However, the revival was short-lived, as listeners’ tastes had begun to shift away from soul and funk towards disco and rock. The studio sat vacant until 1981, when Union Planters bank sold it to the Church of God in Christ for $10. COGIC’s plan to use the building as a community center was never realized, and the building was razed in 1989. A historical marker was dedicated in June of 1991, but the lot where Stax once stood remained empty. Though the building was demolished, the music lived on. The Stax Complete Singles Box Set, which contained all of the Stax and Volt singles retained by Atlantic Records, was released in 1991, and the book “Soulsville USA: the Stax Records Story” was released in 1997. In 2004, Concord Records purchased Fantasy and revived the Stax label, releasing new records by Stax stars and reissued some of the label’s classics. By the late 1990s, the once-vibrant predominantly African-American neighborhood that surrounded Stax had fallen into economic and social decay. Not wanting to see Soulsville, USA’s incredible history swallowed by blight, a group of community leaders, philanthropists and former Stax employees formed the Soulsville Foundation to revitalize the area, provide mentoring and music-focused educational opportunities for neighborhood children, and open a museum to tell the Stax story. The Soulsville Foundation is the parent organization for the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, the Stax Music Academy and the Soulsville Charter School.
“The mission of the Soulsville Foundation is to preserve, promote, and celebrate the many unique cultural assets of the Soulsville, USA neighborhood in Memphis, while supporting the development of new educational and community-building opportunities.”