Estelle Axton, the former teacher who co-founded (and contributed the “ax” to) Stax Records, died Tuesday in Memphis; she was eighty-five.
Axton’s passing comes amid a rekindled interest in the label she started with her brother Jim Stewart in 1959. Last year, the old Capitol Theater where Stax ran its recording studio and record store, was reopened as the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, with label alumni like Isaac Hayes and other soul luminaries like Al Green attending a grand opening.
Soul wasn’t exactly Axton’s birthright, though she did sing in a family gospel quartet while growing up in Middleton, Tennessee. Born Estelle Stewart, she attended Memphis State University, where she met her future husband, but returned to Middleton in the late Thirties where she became a first grade teacher. Among her students was her own younger brother Jim, twelve years her junior. Stewart was more active in his love of music, learning guitar as a child and playing fiddle in a country swing band. Both were on track for banking careers, but Stewart’s fascination with the recording industry pulled them in a different direction.
Axton took out a second mortgage on her home, which provided the start-up funds for Satellite Records, which the siblings ran out of Brunswick, Tennessee. Legendary producer-to-be Chips Moman helped hook Axton and Stewart up with an abandoned movie theater on East McLemore Street in Memphis. The theater’s candy counter was transformed into a record shop and the theater itself became a recording studio. Local DJ Rufus Thomas and his teenage daughter Carla recorded a regional hit, “Cause I Love You,” which was followed by Carla’s own “Gee Whiz,” a Number Ten hit when Atlantic leased and released it in 1961. Stewart and Axton then abandoned the Satellite name — another company had already lay claim to it — taking the first two letters in their last names to create Stax.
Under the guidance of “Lady A” and Stewart, Stax developed a rich roster of southern soul music represented by more than 800 singles and 300 albums by the likes of Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Booker T and the MGs, Isaac Hayes and William Bell before the label shuttered in 1976.
Stax flourished as a multi-cultural institution during tumultuous times, and the label’s management is often credited with establishing a copasetic vibe. Stax’s artists are always quick to cite an atmosphere that placed art and camaraderie as its driving forces. Bell described the label as having “a family atmosphere,” while Hayes said, “the spirits in the building were just so wonderful. Those were my favorite years”
“Stax was a real anchor in the community,” Deanie Parker, a Stax artist, publicist and driving force behind the new museum said. “We were a business with an open-door policy where you weren’t questioned because of the color of your skin or your gender or because you had ideas that were bizarre.”
Axton enjoyed a second hurrah in the late Seventies, when her Fretone label issued Rick Dees’ chart-topping “Disco Duck.”