As 1968 began, things at Stax Records were uncertain to say the least. The label had been born in 1957 as Satellite Records, the brainchild of founder Jim Stewart, who was joined a year later by his sister Estelle Axton. Initially Satellite artists recorded in Stewart’s garage in Memphis. The records were mostly country, rockabilly, or pop because that’s what Stewart liked.
In 1959, Satellite Records moved to Brunswick, Tennessee, and Stewart was introduced to Chips Moman, who in turn introduced Stewart to the world of Rhythm & Blues. Before long, Satellite had it’s first R&B release, the Veltones “Fool in Love.” The record was picked up for national distribution by Mercury Records, but Satellite remained primarily in the country and pop music business.
Moman convinced Stewart to move the company back to Memphis. There Stewart found the former Capitol Theater at 926 East McLemore Avenue and moved his company into it lock, stock, and barrel. The first artists to record there were Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla. Their record, “Cause I Love You,” became a hit and was picked up for national distribution by Atlantic Records.
That was the beginning of a distribution deal between Satellite and Atlantic that gave the New York company distribution rights to all of Satellite’s releases. Maybe it was the Rufus & Carla hit, maybe it was the move back to South Memphis, or maybe it was the influence of Atlantic Records, but from that point on, Satellite (and later Stax and Volt) became a label known for R&B and southern soul music.
In 1961, Carla Thomas released “Gee Whiz” on Satellite. It was clear that the record was going to be a hit, so Atlantic reissued it on their own label, and it became a national smash. Thomas would continue to record at the Satellite facility in Memphis, but her records were released on Atlantic from that point on.
In that same year, the Royal Spades showed up at Satellite. They changed their named to the Mar-Keys, and released a single called “Last Night” that raced to the #3 spot on the pop chart. It was the first single that Satellite distributed nationally, without help from Atlantic or any other label. That’s when another company called Satellite Records found out about the Memphis label, and insisted that Stewart and Axton change the name of their company. In September, 1961 they did, combining the first two letters of each of their last names to form Stax Records.
Beginning in ’62, Stax became a juggernaut, recording hit after hit in the old movie theater. A house band that included guitarist and Stax A&R director Steve Cropper, bassist Lewie Steinberg, drummer Curtis Green, horn players Floyd Newman, Gene ‘Bowlegs’ Miller, and Gilbert Caple, joined later by keyboard player Booker T. Jones and bass player Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn, played on most of the early Stax hits.
Many local musicians wanted to be part of the action at Stax. Among them was Isaac Hayes, and he auditioned for a gig there in 1962. Unfortunately he didn’t get the job. Two years later however he was firmly ensconced with the Stax house band, along with his songwriting partner David Porter. Cropper, Dunn, Jones, Hayes, Porter, and drummer Al Jackson, Jr. became known as the Big Six, and between them they produced nearly everything that came out of Stax through 1969.
Otis Redding released his first Stax single in 1962. “These Arms of Mine” turned into a big hit for Redding, and it was the beginning of his legendary career at the label. Although the label featured many other hit makers, it was Redding who became the rock on which the label’s success was built.
In 1965 Stewart signed a formal distribution deal with Atlantic, but in one of the great tragedies in music business history, he failed to read it first. It didn’t matter in the beginning. The two labels collaborated on a huge number of hits over the next few years, including records by Redding, Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave, Booker T. & the MGs, Eddie Floyd, the Bar-Kays, and Albert King. Atlantic sent Wilson Pickett and Don Covay down to record at Stax, and released those records on their own label. It seemed like everything that Stax touched was gold in those days.
Then things changed. In 1967, Atlantic Records was sold to Warner Brothers – Seven Arts. Stewart hoped that his label would be part of the sale, but received what he deemed an insulting offer for his company. One thing that Stewart had insisted on in his deal with Atlantic was a “key man clause.” The key man designated at Atlantic was Jerry Wexler and the clause said that if Wexler left Atlantic, or his stock in the company was sold, the deal between Stax and Atlantic could be renegotiated, or terminated.
Stewart wanted the Stax masters back from Atlantic but then he got a letter from Atlantic’s lawyers informed him that according the the 1965 agreement that Stewart hadn’t read, Atlantic had all rights to the Stax recordings they had distributed between 1960-1967. To this day those recordings are still owned by Atlantic’s parent company. Stewart terminated the deal with Atlantic. Suddenly, shockingly, Stax was without a catalog. Stewart had been royally screwed. He always blamed Wexler for the betrayal, and it was a dirty deal, but he should have taken the time to read the contract. Such dirty deals have been the sine qua non of the record business from its beginnings.
As if that blow wasn’t strong enough, Stax was about to take a hit from which it almost didn’t recover. On December 10, 1967, Otis Redding’s plane went down in Wisconsin, killing him and all but two members of the Bar-Kays. A few months later Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered at the Lorraine Motel, a place where Stax staffers often met. It all proved too much for Stewart, who became less active in his company, ceding a lot of his responsibilities to Al Bell, who became a co-owner of Stax. Bell and Estelle Axton didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things however, and eventually Stewart was forced to choose between Bell and his sister. He chose Bell, and asked Axton to leave the company.
Bell shepherded a recovery that surprised a lot of people in the music business. Since the company no longer had a catalog, Bell initiated a program to release as many albums as possible in as short a time as possible. The company released an astonishing 27 albums and 30 singles in mid-1969 alone.
The album that stood out in the surge of activity at Stax was Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul, which sold three million copies. Hayes’ first solo album hadn’t been successful, and if not for the fact that Bell was determined to rebuild the Stax catalog quickly, Hayes might not have had another chance as a solo artist. He demanded complete creative control, and Bell gave it to him.
Hot Buttered Soul only has four songs, but two of them, covers of Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” and Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Walk On By,” clock in at over 12 minutes. The album was recorded at Ardent Studios (when the Stax facility was overbooked, as it must have been during the surge of recording, Stax artists were sent to Ardent) in Memphis, and at Tera Shirma Studios in Detroit. It was released on September 23, 1969 on the Stax imprint Enterprise.
The album version of “Walk On By” was over 12 minutes long. In order to make it palatable as as single, and get the single some airplay, the record was edited down to less than five minutes. While the single was not as successful as the album that spawned it, “Walk On By” did manage to make it to #30 on the pop chart.
By 1971 Stax was well on its way to become the diversified music company that Bell envisioned. But while there were a number of hits during this period, it merely forestalled the inevitable. Financial impropriety, music business excess, and a bad distribution deal with CBS had the company teetering by 1975. On December 19 of that year the company declared bankruptcy, and a few weeks later a judge ordered the company’s doors closed. Bell was eventually indicted for bank fraud, but he was acquitted.
The Stax name and assets have been sold several times since then. Fantasy Records controlled the company for many years before being purchased by the Concord Music Group in 2004. In 2006 Concord announced that the Stax label would be reactivated for the release of new music. Among Concord’s first signings was Isaac Hayes.
Ken Shane is the New Music Editor at Popdose
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