1950s: The Jim Crow Era
Throughout the mid-1900s, the U.S. underwent a significant period of American social history. The racial divide of the Jim Crow laws in the southern U.S. was in full effect and for those living in it, finding ways to adjust to their conditions was one of the few ways to survive. In the music realm, this was still at a time when Country and Rock were at peak radio play and continued to cast a wide reach among White audiences. Rhythm and Blues musicians and groups, who were predominantly Black, at the time hadn’t quite crossed over to White audiences outside of a select few or the emergence of White musical acts entering the Soul and Blues genres.
The music industry was as divided as the broader social context and there was a severe lack of champions for Black artists, especially in the Southern states. This is where record labels like Motown and Stax Records came in to fill the gap. In this case, Stax Records, and its creators, Estelle and her brother Jim, built a community hub and became a founding force in nurturing a number of staple Memphis soul acts during its rise.
So just how did a schoolteacher become the co-founder of the label that fostered Memphis soul throughout the 1960s and 1970s?
The Birth of Southern Soul
Southern Soul was born out of Blues, Country, and Rock in the 1950s. The focus of Southern Soul was tied to the heavy influence of Gospel music with less of a focus on the content or composition of the lyrics but played more into the groove of the music. This was later identified as some of the pieces that served as an influence for the development for early Funk music in later decades.
Meet ‘Lady A(xton)’
Born September 11, 1918, Estelle Stewart was raised on a small farm in Middleton, Tennessee. If you haven’t heard of the “ Crossroads of the South”, it’s likely because its population has kept under 1,000 people since it’s founding back in 1850. Stewart, along with her brother, Jim, and parents, Ollie and Dexter, lived on a farm in that small Tennessee town.
Now to properly tell this story, we have to focus on Estelle’s younger brother, Jim. Jim Stewart had a very similar upbringing to Estelle, spending his formative years in Middleton. Where the siblings began to differ is in Jim’s relationship to music. He had picked up a few instruments (i.e. guitar, violin, fiddle, etc.) in his early years. Jim tried his hand at a professional music career, even going as far to create his own label, Satellite Records, but couldn’t gauge the interest that he wanted to be garnered. A musical career on the front lines didn’t seem to be the legacy he was built for.
On a steady trajectory for a quiet life in Memphis with her children and husband, Estelle, was approached by Jim with a plea to help with the development of Satellite Records. The label, run out of his wife’s uncle’s garage, could be expanded to more than the local acts it was serving at the time. Willing to help with its expansion and acquire state-of-the-art equipment, Estelle took out a second mortgage on her house to rent out a defunct movie theatre. This was outfitted as both a recording studio and record shop to keep financially afloat.
Soon, a label out of California sharing the same Satellite name, threatened legal action, the name of the label was rechristened as “Stax” (taking the ST from Stewart’s first name and the AX from Axton’s surname).
Since the studio and record store was housed in the predominately Black south neighbourhood of the city, it quickly became a place for aspiring black artists to both listen and create. Estelle described the space as “a workshop for Stax Records. When a record would hit on another label, we would discuss what made it sell”.
Stax Became The South’s Champion Label
Motown, for a long time period, had the monopoly with their featured heavy hitters: The Supremes, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and Stevie Wonder. Where Motown took over the Detroit region, Stax held its own and dominated the Southern U.S. with notable talent including Carla Thomas, Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes.
As the height of Stax’ reached its pique, many of the influential musicians on the label’s roster cite Estelle’s persistence and respect as the main source of encouragement for them. Isaac Hayes spoke of feeling like “you didn’t feel any back-off from her, no differentiation that you were black and she was white. Being in a town where that attitude was plentiful, she just made you feel secure. She was like a mother to us all.” Estelle was able to ensure that Stax had a homely and family atmosphere in its early years. Where there can be a focus on her limited experience in the music business prior to creating the label, the breadth of her reach was where the community was able to see spaces to express their creativity.
An Unlikely Legacy
It will always remain an unlikely story that a middle-aged, white schoolteacher would have such an influence on the musical landscape of Southern Soul. Estelle had a large appreciation for the music in the South and “had a pulse on the creativity” enough to see the dignity in crafting the foundation that has continued to have influence years later.