Stax Records was launched in 1957 in Memphis, Tennessee, by Jim Stewart, a bank clerk by day and country fiddle player by night, in partnership with his sister, schoolteacher Estelle Axton, under the name Satellite Records (it would change its name in 1961 to avoid legal trouble with another local label of the same name). Stax - a portmanteau of Stewart and Axton's names - was originally a vehicle by which Stewart would record and produce country records, but after striking up a friendship with local disc jockey Rufus Thomas, who had recorded R&B for Sam Phillips at Sun Records in the 1950s, quickly became best known for releasing many essential southern soul records. Throughout its life, it also had a number of sub-labels including Volt (R&B records), Ardent (rock music), and Partee (comedy albums), often founded to get around post-payola restrictions enforced informally by radio stations.
In its early years as Satellite, the label produced a few hit singles, including "Gee-Whiz (Look At His Eyes)", a national top 10 pop hit for Rufus Thomas's daughter, Carla, then struck big in 1961 with the instrumental dance hit "Last Night" by the Mar-Keys, a band founded by Estelle Axton's son, saxophonist Charles "Packy" Axton, which included several musicians who would become indispensable to the label's success in its heyday: guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn and trumpeter Wayne Jackson. "Last Night" caught the ear of Atlantic Records vice-president and record producer Jerry Wexler, who quickly signed Stewart to a distribution partnership and soon sent his artists to record at the Stax studios in Memphis.
The arrival of a local student and musical prodigy named Booker T. Jones led to the formation of the Stax house band, Booker T. & the MG's, comprising Jones on organ and piano, Cropper on guitar, Al Jackson Jr. on drums and Lewie Steinberg (later replaced by Duck Dunn) on bass. Together with the Memphis Horns (a revolving cast of brass players but mainly focused around mainstays Wayne Jackson and saxophonist Andrew Love), Booker T. & the MG's became the southern equivalent to rival label Motown's famous Funk Brothers band, playing on literally hundreds of R&B records, most famously their own instrumental hit "Green Onions", and forging the "Stax Sound". Stax's unique sound derived partly from the unusual layout of its studio, which was based in a former theatre with a cambered floor, creating an acoustic anomaly which created a big, deep, raw sound. Adjoining the studio was a record shop operated by Estelle Axton, who promoted the label's music through the store and used her access to the latest records to identify what would make a hit; the store became a popular hangout for local teens, some of whom would later become Stax signees.
In 1965, a third figure arrived at Stax who would become vital to its success, a young disc jockey named Al Bell, a friend and colleague of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. who believed fervently in the idea of a major record company which could be owned and run by black and white businessmen as equal partners. Bell was credited by many members of the Stax team for helping to turn Stax into a true business and foster a common identity for a label with his innovations and determination. Later in the decade, he would buy out Estelle Axton's share in the company to become co-owner with Jim Stewart.
In its first period of success, Stax's biggest star was Otis Redding, who was their first major album-seller and a powerful live performer who headlined the label's groundbreaking European package tours in 1967, becoming a globally famous star. Through Atlantic, the Stax studio also played host to the dynamic soul duo Sam & Dave, who became a vehicle for one of the label's most productive and talented songwriting and production teams, the partnership of Isaac Hayes and David Porter, who together produced hugely successful crossover hits including "Hold On! I'm Coming!", "Soul Man", "Soothe Me", "I Thank You" and more. Wilson Pickett was also brought to Memphis by Wexler and recorded several major hits co-written with Steve Cropper, but his bad behaviour in the studio culminated in his banning by Jim Stewart, which in turn led to a cooling of Stewart's relationship with Jerry Wexler.
By 1967, Stax was riding high on the strength of its crossover success, with Otis Redding gaining steady popularity with white audiences after a well-received performance at the Monterey Pop Festival. Unfortunately, it would be Otis's last major live performance, as he died in a plane crash later that year along with all but one member of the Bar-Kays, another Stax instrumental group being groomed as successors to Booker T. & the MG's. Exacerbating this disaster was the severing of Stax's distribution deal with Atlantic, which came to an end when the latter was sold to Warner Bros. in 1968, activating a clause Stewart had insisted upon nearly 10 years earlier which stipulated that the agreement would terminate in such circumstances. Unfortunately, Stewart had not realised that the deal gave Atlantic exclusive rights to all of Stax's recordings produced during their partnership, which wiped out the label's back catalogue almost overnight. Since they were technically signed to Atlantic, Sam & Dave (the biggest stars associated with the label after Otis) were withdrawn from Memphis to record at Atlantic's headquarters in New York.
Stax was subsequently purchased by Gulf+Western Industries, which put it under the same umbrella as Paramount Pictures, who evidently had little idea of what to do with their new acquisition, compounding the decline in the label's fortunes. Despite their setbacks, Stewart and Al Bell retaliated with an initiative called the "soul explosion" beginning in 1968, which aimed to flood the marketplace with new singles and albums to rebuild the label's catalogue and cultivate new stars quickly. One of these albums was a major success and made a star out of its artist: Hot Buttered Soul by Isaac Hayes. Hayes had attempted to record without much success some years earlier, but now Stax was desperate and allowed him free reign in the studio. The result was a series of expansive recordings combining funky rhythms with lush orchestrations and Hayes's stretched-out free-wheeling raps and smooth, deep vocals. Also in 1968 came the release of "Who's Makin' Love" by Johnnie Taylor, the company's highest-selling single to date. Invigorated, in July of 1970, the label was re-purchased by Al Bell and Jim Stewart, beginning a second golden age centred around Hayes, Taylor and others including the Staple Singers, the Soul Children and a reformed Bar-Keys.
Bell's determination to achieve economic empowerment within the African-American community through Stax saw the label expanding its involvement in civil rights activism, contributing to education programmes and social justice activities and working closely with unions throughout the south. Bell's Pan-African views led him to organise Stax shows and recordings in the Caribbean and Africa, achieving great acclaim in the process, but often costing the label more than it was able to make. The pinnacle of Stax's success in this period came in 1972 with Isaac Hayes's receipt of an Academy Award for his "Theme from Shaft" (becoming the first black artist to receive the award) and the Wattstax benefit concert in Los Angeles, which drew an audience of nearly 100,000 to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
However, despite its great success, trouble was brewing beneath the label's surface. Internal friction arose in no small part due to the influence of Bell's associate, Johnnie Baylor, a northern record producer with rumoured connections to organised crime who ultimately became implicated in financial irregularities which spread to the label. At the same time, Isaac Hayes's massively generous contracts (which infamously included, among other things, the use of a gold-plated limousine paid for by the company) quickly grew out of proportion to the revenues his records were able to generate for the label. Meanwhile, in 1972, Stax had signed a distribution deal with CBS Records. Under the deal, CBS would pay Stax for every record it delivered, regardless of whether or not it sold, which was not tested previously. However, after the agreement was signed, the head of CBS, Clive Davis, was fired. This resulted in CBS altering the original deal which ended up lowering the income of Stax would receive on their records by as much as 40%. The loss of income led to a bankruptcy judge declaring its bankruptcy on January 12, 1976. In 1977, the label was sold to Fantasy Records, who have since reactivated Stax; the reincarnated label reissues albums made between 1968 and 1975 as well as releasing new material.
In 2004, Fantasy Records merged into Concord Records, forming Concord Music Group. Concord owns the post-1968 Stax catalogue; while Atlantic continues to own the Stax records that they released (1959-68).
Stax Records performers, past and present, with TV Tropes pages:
- Big Star (Ardent)
- Bill Cosby (Partee)
- Isaac Hayes (Enterprise)
- Richard Pryor (Partee)
- Otis Redding (Volt)