12/10/07 - Stax Records

Tutelage Led By Vinny "Bond" Marini Monday, December 10, 2007

In 1957 Jim Stewart started a record company in Tennessee. He named his baby Satellite Records.

In 1958, Stewart's sister Estelle became involved by making a financial contribution in the company and they moved their studios from Brunswick, TN to an old movie theater, The Capitol Theater at 926 East McLemore Avenue in Memphis.

The first successful artists for Satellite was Rufus and Carla Thomas, a father-daughter duo. Their sound attracted the attention of Atlantic Records and Stewart made a deal allowing Atlantic the right of first refusal on distribution of Satellite artists. At that time, the records would be distributed under the Atlantic or Atco label.

That changed in 1961 with the release of the MAR-KAYS hit "Last Night" which was released nationally using the Satellite Records label. The result of this was Stewart learning of another Satellite Records out of California.

The label was renamed using a combination of Jim and Estelle's last names Stewart and Axton and thus was born STAX RECORDS.

The Original Stax Label
DJ's always talk about
'Spinning stacks of wax on the wheels of steel'

Within a few months, pianist Booker T. Jones joined the label and combined his talents with some members of the Mar-Kays forming BOOKER T AND THE MEMPHIS GROUP. This was shortened to BOOKER T AND THE MGS. The band exemplified the southern style of soul Stewart was hoping to achieve and besides recording on their own, they became the house band for Stax Records. Besides Booker, the band included Lewie Steinberg on bass (later replaced by Donald "Duck" Dunn), Al Jackson, Jr. on drums and Steve Cropper on guitar.

Jerry Wexler, co-founder of Atlantic Records became enamored with the sound being recorded out of Memphis and learned that it had come totally by accident. When Stewart converted the movie theater into a recording studio, they had removed all of the seats, but the floor was still sloped and this contributed to the unique sound of Stax.

In 1965 they signed a formal deal becoming the sole national distributor of Stax Records. Atlantic Records also began sending their artists down to Memphis to record. Wilson Pickett recorded many of his hits there, though they were distributed on the Atlantic label. Conversely, the duo of Sam & Dave were "leased" to the Stax label which oversaw their recordings and their records were distributed under the Stax logo.

At that time Motown Records would combine their acts and send them out on the road together in 'revues'. Stax infrequently used this practice. Their first attempt as doing so was almost a disaster. In the summer of 1965 the revue began in Los Angeles, CA. The next day the Watts Riots occurred, trapping several Stax artists in Watts during the violence.

The label did sponsor a Christmas show each year in Memphis. The most notorious of these shows occurred in 1968 when a drunk Janis Joplin appeared and was booed off the stage. The most successful Stax package revue was a tour of England and France in 1967. Playing to sold-out crowds across western Europe, Stax released several live albums from the tour recordings, including the best-selling Otis Live In Europe.

After the payola scandals of the late 50's, many radio stations, hoping to avoid the appearance of favoritism, adopted a policy not to introduce more than one or two new songs from the same label at the same time. As other labels did, Stax formed subsidiary labels to continue to get their artists heard. These included Enterprise, Chalice, Hip, Safice and the most famous, Volt which was the home for Otis Redding.

As the 60's went on Stax and its subsidiaries were producing many hits. The songwriting team of Isaac Hayes and David Porter was a major contributor to this success.

In 1967 everything changed for Jim and Estelle and for the Stax label. Atlantic was sold to Warner-Seven Arts which immediately activated a clause in the Stax-Atlantic contract calling for a renegotiation.

Warner quickly pointed out to Jim Stewart that he had signed away the rights to all of the master recordings to the Stax-Atlantic released material when he signed the deal with Atlantic Records. Warner refused to renegotiate the deal or to return the masters which forced Stewart to sell his company to Gulf & Western. Estelle left the company, but Jim stayed on under the new ownership.

Stax had to continue on without the meat of their releases and without Sam & Dave who stayed with Atlantic Records. If things were not bad enough, Otis Redding and a good portion of the Mar-Lays were killed in a plane crash in December of 1967.

When the Atlantic distribution deal expired in 1968 Atlantic briefly marketed Stax/Volt recordings made after the split. These recordings feature the alternate Stax/Volt logos used on the album covers on their labels, as opposed to the original Atlantic-era logos, such as the "Stax-o-wax" logo. Stax label recordings were reissued on the Atlantic label, and Volt label material on the Atco label. Gulf and Western-owned Stax/Volt releases used new label designs, new logos (including the recognizable finger snapping logo) and new catalogue numbering systems to avoid confusion among the record distributors.

Stax continued on as an independent label and had their first hit with Johnny Taylor's "Who's Making Love" in 1968. Isaac Hayes also scored a hit with "Hot Buttered Soul" in 1969 and became the biggest star on the label by 1971 when the soundtrack to the movie "Shaft" was released. All of Hayes' music was released on a subsidiary label Enterprise Records formed in 1967.

Unfortunately Gulf & Western did a lousy job of marketing for Stax and record sales sagged.

In 1970 Stewart and Al Bell purchased the label and Stewart sank most of his personal fortune into the label to try and keep it afloat.

Bell began signing mainly black artists and even formed another subsidiary, Partee Records to sign comedy artists like Richard Pryor and Moms Mabley.

When the STAPLES SINGERS moved from Gospel to R&B, they began producing hits for the label and one of its original stars Rufus Thomas had a resurgence during the 70's.

On August 20, 1972, the Stax label presented a major concert, Wattstax, featured performances by Stax recording artists and humor from rising young comedian Richard Pryor. Known as the "Black Woodstock," Wattstax was hosted by Reverend Jesse Jackson and drew a crowd of over 100,000 attendees, most of them African-American.

Wattstax was filmed by motion picture director Mel Stuart ("Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory"), and a concert film of the event was released to theaters by Columbia Pictures in February 1973.

Clive Davis at CBS Records signed a distribution deal with Stax to help break his company into the African-American market. Shortly after the deal was signed Davis was fired and CBS lost interest in the Stax label.

One of the main problems is CBS ignored the smaller record stores located in the African-American communities and did not push the label to the larger retailers, as they were afraid of losing rack space for their other more mainstream artists.

The last big chart hit for Stax was "Woman to Woman" from Shirley Brown in 1974, and the single's success help delay the inevitable demise of the company for several months. Al Bell attempted to stave off bankruptcy with bank loans, while Jim Stewart mortgaged his Memphis mansion to provide the label with short-term working capital.

However, bank officers soon got cold feet, and foreclosed on the loans, costing Stewart his home and the fortune he had earned. Stax/Volt Records declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in December 1975, and its assets, catalogue, and McLemore Ave. headquarters sold for about a million dollars.

Fantasy Records bought the non-Atlantic Stax recordings and continued to repackage and re-release the Stax catalogue on the Stax label. Atlantic still has the rights to the Atlantic-era Stax recordings released up to May 1968, most of which have been reissued by co-owned Rhino Records or licensed to Collectables Records.

Concord Records purchased the Fantasy Label Group in 2004, and in December 2006 announced the reactivation of the Stax label. The formal relaunch came with the release on March 13, 2007 of "Stax 50th Anniversary Celebration", a 2-CD box set containing 50 tracks from the entire history of Stax Records.

The first acts signed to the new Stax include Isaac Hayes, Angie Stone, and SOULLIVE. The first Concord distributed Stax album of all new material is a various artists CD which was released on March 27, 2007 and titled "Interpretations: Celebrating The Music of Earth, Wind & Fire". Soulive is the first Stax artist to release an album of all-new material with "No Place Like Soul" released July 10, 2007.

The Stax Museum Of American Soul Music is located in Memphis on the original site on McLemore Ave. and is a recreation of the old Capitol Theater recording studio.

Until April of 2008 they are featuring a history of Otis Redding with pictures and memoribilia of the artist.

Stax Records...what the music industry used to be like...no pun intended, but it had a heart and a soul and was there to showcase its artists. Unlike the monolithic record industry of today where new artists must struggle to get attention and it is all about the dollar...

Stax nurtured their roster and was about the music...the tuneage...