The Stax “Independent” Era
While browsing through my copy of “The Complete Stax Volt Singles – 1959 – 1968” I was once again amazed by how a small independent label out of Tennessee could rise to such heights, playing with the “Big Guys” nationally.
The label started off as “Satellite Records” and was founded in late 1957 by Jim Stewart who was born in Middleton, Tennessee and worked his way at an early age to Bluff City, Tennessee to seek out a career as a country musician in the vein of Bob Wills. Early on he secured a spot in a group called the Canyon Cowboys. He supplemented his income working at a local Sears store during the day. He would next do a brief stint as a banker and then enter into the military service for a two-year term. Upon his return from the service Stewart hooked up with a local country singer, Fred Byler and started shopping around some tracks recorded by Byler but could not find any takers.
He finally decided to start up his own label in Brunswick, Tennessee (influenced no doubt by Sam Phillips’ Sun Records) and entered into a three-way partnership with Byler and another musician, Neil Herbert. The trio recorded a few additional country/rock-a-billy acts without any success and thus Byler and Herbert both opted out of the venture.
In 1960, with the departure of his two partners, Stewart would join up with his sister, Estelle Axton, who became his full-time partner. They decided to move the fledgling record label to nearby Memphis, where Estelle would elect to double as the front person, opening the Satellite Record Shop, which, along with studio, was situated in a nearly all-black neighborhood in the city.
Smartly, Estelle would use the store as a testing ground for possible releases, playing songs for the customers who generally resided in the surrounding community, the same community which would attract talent to the label such as song writer David Porter and keyboard player Booker T. Jones. Favorable reaction usually translated to a sure release. For some reason not entirely understood by Stewart himself, but probably influenced by his label’s new surroundings, he and Estelle began to involve themselves with local rhythm and blues musicians. Earlier Stewart made the acquaintance of a group called The Veltones while still in Brunswick and they would become his first foray into rhythm and blues.
In Memphis, Stewart would soon meet local radio DJ/Comic/Musician Rufus Thomas. It would be Rufus and his daughter Carla who would first record at the new Memphis studio.
The Thomas’s teamed up to record “‘Cause I Love You” b/w “Deep Down Inside” in August of 1960 on released on Satellite catalog number 102. Carla would become the first Stax/Volt artist to chart nationally with her November of 1960 release “Gee Whiz” which would be picked up by the giant Atlantic label who took it to the Hot 100. Carla had penned the song when she was just 16 years old.
Stewart was introduced to Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler who was always on the lookout for local acts of promise. Satellite entered into an agreement with Atlantic giving the industry mover and shaker first refusal rights to their recordings. Atlantic for the most part would opt primarily only for Carla Thomas releases and thus her string of Atlantic releases up through the mid 1960’s.
With the infusion of cash from the success of “Gee Whiz” Stewart and Axton were on their way. In June of 1961 they would record an instrumental group, The Mar-Keys and come up with a monster smash, “Last Night”, landing in the number 2 spot on the nation’s R&B charts and all the way to #3 Hot 100. The Mar-Keys were in reality a studio group without a constant lineup. The Mar-Keys evolved out of a mostly white instrumental group “The Royal Spades” and included Estelle’s son Charles Axton on sax, Steve Cropper on guitar, Duck Dunn on bass, Wayne Jackson on trumpet, Terry Johnson on drums, “Smoochy” Smith on keyboards and rounded out by sax player Don Nix. Many others would come in and out of the Mar-Keys line up, but Cropper, Jackson, and Dunn would soon form the Stax mainstay studio group “The MG’s” fronted by keyboard player Booker T Jones.
This lineup would lay down what was to become the famous “Memphis Sound” backing many R ‘n B musicians as well as recording under their own name – They would break onto the scene in a big way in 1962 with “Green Onions”.
Stewart and Axton were forced to abandon the Satellite name due to a conflict with a California label bearing the same name. And so they combined the first two initials of their names STewart and AXton to establish Stax. By 1968, Atlantic ended it’s “first refusal rights” agreement with Stax. Stax would carry on for years and toward the end of the 1960’s artist William Bell joined Stewart as a company executive/partner. Disagreements between Estelle and William caused her to sell out her ownership in the company by the early 1970’s. Stax would carry on for several years before succumbing to bankruptcy. Distribution rights continued and Stax recordings have been widely distributed through the years. Stax wasn’t Motown – a very slick but close-knit record company, and they certainly weren’t Atlantic, a giant independent with tremendous clout and a roster which seemed finite in talent.
Stewart was a country boy and admired Sam Philips and Sun Records. His heart was always close to country and rock-a-billy but he found his way a step at a time into the world of R&B and gave to the world some of the best soul music ever to be recorded.
Visit my Stax Page providing a discography for the golden independent era of the label – 1958 through 1968. There will be another page later on for many fine soul tracks were yet to come.