The First Lady of Stax: Estelle Axton
The name Stax Records is synonymous with soul music. But did you know that the legendary label of black artists like Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Wilson Pickett, and Isaac Hayes was co-founded by a white woman who began her career as a school teacher? In the late 1950s, Estelle Axton began investing in Satellite Records, a small label started by her brother Jim Stewart, a former bank clerk. The early studio, originating in Stewart’s Memphis garage, primarily catered to country and rockabilly artists. But times were tough and equipment was scarce. So, in 1958, Estelle decided to take a risk: she convinced her husband to mortgage their house so she could buy a $2,500 Ampex 300 tape recorder for her brother’s studio.
After operating for several years in Brunswick, Tennessee, Stewart moved the operation back to Memphis — into the former Capitol Theatre, located in a predominantly black neighborhood. This ushered in the start of a whole lotta sensational soul music. Stewart forged a friendship with DJ and singer Rufus Thomas, who, together with his daughter Carla, recorded Satellite’s first regional hit, “Cause I Love You.”
Upon learning of a California-based company with the same name, Stewart and Axton renamed their label Stax, a combination of their names. In 1965, Stewart signed a national distribution deal with Atlantic Records, and the hits kept coming.
Thanks to the unusual layout of the studio (the sloping floor of the one-time movie theater contributed to the distinctive Stax sound), the brilliance of A&R man Steve Cropper, and the talent of the studio’s house band – the racially integrated Booker T. and the M.G.’s – Stax Records would go on to become a premiere recording studio specializing in soul, R&B, funk, jazz, and gospel music.
And what did Estelle contribute to the scene? Plenty. Despite her lack of musical training, she had a keen ear and helped choose and develop the label’s artists. She provided inspiration, advice, and encouragement to writers and artists, and demonstrated shrewd marketing sense. She also ran the well-stocked Stax record shop, which became a popular hangout and offered employment opportunities for local youths. Stax artists and staff members affectionately addressed her as “Miz Axton” or “Lady A.”
Said Booker T. Jones: “She just loved music, loved people. She was always bringing us up there [the record shop], having us listen to records. She kept us in touch with the music industry. I doubt there would have been a Stax Records without Estelle Axton. She encouraged the entire Stax roster from her little perch behind the counter.”
Estelle sold her interest in Stax in 1970 and later formed Fretone Records, which released Rick Dees’ 1976 novelty song “Disco Duck” (later released by RSO Records). She went on to establish the Memphis Songwriters Association, which fostered the education and advancement of local area songwriters. And, along with her friend Cordell Jackson, she founded the Music Industries of Memphis (later named the Memphis Music Association) to maintain and promote her city’s role as a musical mecca.
Estelle Stewart Axton died on February 24, 2004, at the age of 85. She has the distinction of being the first woman to establish a major record company, paving the way for future woman-owned labels like Olivia Records, Wise Woman/Urana, Righteous Babe, and Redwood Records. Thank you, Lady A.
Here’s part one of the documentary “Respect Yourself: The Story of Stax Records,” which describes Estelle’s role in the legendary record company.
© Dana Spiardi, Feb 25, 2014
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