How Estelle Axton Created A Home For Memphis Soul

1950s: The Jim Crow Era

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

Otis Redding’s Try A Little Tenderness

Meet ‘Lady A(xton)’

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).

Stax Record’s logo

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”.

A peek into Stax Records’ history

Stax Became The South’s Champion Label

Carla Thomas’ B-A-B-Y

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

Now entering: Soulsville U.S.A

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