Sixties Soul Music

  The Stax Sound 

 


Early years as Satellite Records (1957-1960)
 
The classic "Stax-O-Wax" logo used during the Atlantic distribution years Stax Records, originally named Satellite Records, was founded in Memphis in 1957 by Jim Stewart, initially operating in a garage. Satellite's early releases were country music records or straight pop numbers, reflecting the tastes of Stewart (a white country fiddle player) at the time.

In 1958, Stewart's sister Estelle Axton began her financial interest in the company.

For a time in 1959, the company moved to Brunswick, Tennessee. Around this time, Stewart was introduced to rhythm and blues music by staff producer Chips Moman. Satellite's first release by a black rhythm and blues act occurred in September 1959, with the Veltones' "Fool For Love" (which was soon picked up for national distribution by Mercury Records.) However, Satellite remained primarily a country and pop label for the next year or so.

 

 

 

While promoting "Fool For Love", Stewart met with Memphis disc jockey and R&B singer Rufus Thomas, and both parties were impressed by the other. Around the same time, and at the urging of Chips Moman, Stewart moved his company back to Memphis and into an old movie theater, the former Capitol Theatre, at 926 East McLemore Avenue in South Memphis. In the summer of 1960, Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla would be the first artists to make a recording in this new facility; the record, "Cause I Love You" (credited to Rufus & Carla) would be a substantial regional hit, and would be picked up for national distribution by Atlantic Records on their Atco subsidiary. It would go on to sell between thirty and forty thousand copies, becoming Satellite's biggest hit to that time.

Name change to Stax, and partnership with Atlantic begins (1961)
With the success of "Cause I Love You", Stewart made a distribution deal giving Atlantic first choice on releasing Satellite recordings. From this point on, Stewart focussed more and more on recording and promoting rhythm and blues acts. Not having really known anything about the R&B genre prior to having recorded acts such as The Veltones and Rufus & Carla, Stewart likened the situation to that of "a blind man who suddenly gained his sight." From 1961 on, virtually all of the output of Satellite Records (and successor labels Stax and Volt) would be in the R&B/southern soul style.

As part of the deal with Atlantic, Satellite agreed to continue recording Carla Thomas, but to allow her releases to come out on Atlantic. Carla Thomas' first hit, "Gee Whiz", was originally issued on Satellite 104, but was quickly re-issued on Atlantic 2086, becoming a hit in early 1961. Carla Thomas would continue to have material issued on Atlantic through mid-1965, though all of it was recorded in the studios at Satellite (later Stax).

In June 1961, Satellite signed a local instrumental band known as The Royal Spades. Changing their name to The Mar-Keys, the band recorded and issued the single "Last Night", which shot to #3 on the US pop charts, and #2 on the R&B charts.

"Last Night" was the first single to be nationally distributed on the Satellite label -- previous Atlantic issues of Satellite material were issued nationally on the Atlantic or Atco labels. This led to a complaint from another "Satellite Records", a company that had been in operation in California for some years, but who were previously unaware of the Memphis-based Satellite label. Accordingly, in September 1961 Satellite permanently changed its name to "Stax Records", a portmanteau of the names of the two owners of the company: Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton.

Stax and Volt in ascendency (1962-1964)
By 1962, the pieces were in place that allowed Stax to turn from a successful regional label into (alongside Motown) a national R&B powerhouse.

While Stewart ran the recording studio where the auditorium was, Axton ran the Satellite record shop where the refreshment stand was. The record shop gave the Stax staff first-hand knowledge of what kind of music was selling, which was reflected in the music that Stax recorded.

Chips Moman, meanwhile, left the company at the end of 1961 after a royalty dispute with Stewart; he soon opened his own studio across town. Mar-Keys member Steve Cropper replaced Moman as Stewart's assistant, and would quickly become a writer, producer and session guitarist on scores of Stax singles.

By 1962, pianist/multi-instrumentalist Booker T. Jones was also a regular session musician at Stax (he actually played sax on "Cause I Love You"), as were bassists Lewis Steinberg and Donald "Duck" Dunn. Jones, Steinberg and Cropper would be joined in mid-1962 by drummer Al Jackson, Jr. to form Booker T. & the M.G.'s, an instrumental combo that would record numerous hit singles in their own right, as well as serving as members of the de facto house band for virtually every recording made at Stax from 1962 through about 1970. (Dunn would replace Steinberg as an MG in 1964.) Other members of the house band included horn players Andrew Love, Wayne Jackson, Floyd Newman, and Gene "Bowlegs" Miller.

Another important factor in Stax's success was the actual studio itself. The Stax recording studio in the converted movie theater still had the sloped floor where the seats had once been. Because the room was imbalanced, it created an acoustic anomaly that translated into the recordings, often giving them a big, deep yet raw sound. Soul music historian Rob Bowman notes that because of the disctincive sound, soul music fans can tell often within the first few notes if a song was recorded at Stax.

Finally, the label's biggest early star, soul singer Otis Redding, also arrived in 1962. Redding, however, technically wasn't on Stax, but on their sister label Volt. In that era, many radio stations, anxious to avoid even the hint of payola, often refused to play more than one or two new songs from any single record label at one time, so as to not appear to be offering favoritism to any particular label. To circumvent this, Stax, like many other record companies, created a number of subsidiary labels. Volt was founded in late 1961, and was the label home of Otis Redding, as well as a handful of other artists. Volt releases were issued by Atlantic on their Atco Records subsidiary. Other Stax subsidiaries over the years included Enterprise, Chalice (a gospel label), Hip, and Safice.

Redding's first single, "These Arms Of Mine" issued in October 1962, hit both the R&B and the pop charts. Though the label had enjoyed some early hits with The Mar-Keys and Booker T. & The M.G.'s, Redding became the first Stax/Volt artist to consistently hit the charts with each release -- in fact, each of Redding's 17 singles issued during his lifetime charted. (Carla Thomas also charted with reasonable consistency, but her pre-1965 releases were on Atlantic, not Stax or Volt.)

Between January 1962 and December 1964, Stax and Volt released several chart hits each by Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, and Booker T. and the M.G.'s. However, despite dozens of other releases, only three other Stax/Volt artists charted during this time, and all just barely: William Bell's "You Don't Miss Your Water" hit #95 in early 1962; The Mar-Keys' "Pop-Eye Stroll" hit #94 in mid-1962 (although it was a big hit in Canada, hitting #1 on Toronto's CHUM Chart), and Barbara & The Browns' "Big Party" made it to #97 in mid-1964.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beginning in 1965, Stax/Volt artists would make the charts much more frequently.

Stax/Volt's continued success (1965-1967)
By 1965, Stax had signed a formal national distribution deal with Atlantic Records. Carla Thomas also formally rejoined the Stax label in 1965. Perhaps more importantly for the label's fortunes, the songwriting team of Isaac Hayes and David Porter began their collaboration at Stax in early 1965. Over the next few years, they would write and produce numerous Stax/Volt hits. Hayes would also join the Stax house band, often subbing for Booker T. Jones, who was studying music full-time at Indiana University during the mid-1960s.

In addition to hits by stalwarts Redding, Booker T. & The M.G.'s, and Carla Thomas, 1965 saw the chart debuts of Stax artists The Astors and Sam & Dave plus Volt artist The Mad Lads. Sam & Dave were technically a duo act on the Atlantic roster, but were "leased" to Stax by Atlantic -- Stax oversaw their music and put it out on the Stax label. Virtually all of Sam & Dave's Stax material was written and produced by Hayes and Porter.

 

 

 

 

 
Hip Hug-Her by Booker T. & The MG's (1967), showing the two different Atlantic era Stax logos Atlantic's Jerry Wexler also brought Wilson Pickett to record at Stax, though these songs were released on Atlantic. Pickett's 1965-66 hits "In The Midnight Hour", "Don't Fight It", "634-5789" and "Ninety-Nine and A Half (Won't Do)" were Stax songs in all-but-name, as they were all co-written by Steve Cropper, recorded at Stax, and backed by the Stax house band. In early 1966, perhaps tiring of another label captializing on the Stax sound, Jim Stewart banned all non-Stax productions at the Stax studios. Pickett's subsequent hits were recorded elasewhere.

By 1966 and 1967, Stax and its subsidiaries had hit their stride, regularly scoring hits with artists such as Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Carla Thomas, William Bell, Booker T. & the MG's, Eddie Floyd, The Bar-Kays, Albert King, and The Mad Lads.

Unlike Motown, which frequently packaged its artists on review tours, Stax only infrequently sought to promote its acts through label-sponsored live concerts. The first of these was in the summer of 1965, in Los Angeles rather than in Memphis. While the show was a success, the Watts riots began the day afterward, and several Stax artists were trapped in Watts during the violence. Stax also sponsored a Christmas concert in Memphis for several years, the most notorious of which was held in 1968, when special guest Janis Joplin performed drunk and was booed off of 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.

 
The Stax Museum on McLemore Avenue in Memphis, founded in 2003, is a replica of the Stax studio, built on the same site where many of the historic Stax recording sessions took place. The original Stax studio was demolished in 1989 The break from Atlantic Records (1968)
In 1967, Atlantic Records was sold to Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, which activated a clause in the Stax/Atlantic distribution contract calling for renegotiation of the distribution deal. At this point, it was pointed out to Stewart that he had unknowingly signed away the rights to the original master recordings for all of Stax's Atlantic-distributed recordings. The executives at Warner refused to return ownership of the Stax masters to Stewart. As a result, Stewart did not renew his distribution deal with Atlantic, and instead sold Stax to Gulf+Western in March 1968. As a result, Stax was forced to move forward without the most desirable portion of its back catalogue and without Sam and Dave, who remained at Atlantic after the split. To make matters worse, Stax's biggest artist, Otis Redding, as well as all but two of the members of the Bar-Kays, died in a plane crash on December 10, 1967.

Stewart remained at the company, and former Stax marketing executive Al Bell became the company's vice-president, taking on a more active role as Stewart became less active in Stax's day-to-day operations. Estelle Axton, who disagreed with Bell's visions for the company, left Stax after the sale.

After the Atlantic distribution deal expired in May 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+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 as an independent label (1968-1972)
Although Stax had also lost their most valuable artists, they recovered quickly. Johnnie Taylor gave Stax its first big post-Atlantic hit with "Who's Making Love" in 1968. Producer and songwriter Isaac Hayes stepped into the spotlight with Hot Buttered Soul , which sold over three million copies in 1969. By 1971, Hayes was established as the label's biggest star, and was particularly noted for his best-selling soundtrack to the 1971 blaxploitation film Shaft. Hayes' recordings were among the releases on a third major Stax label, Enterprise, which had been founded in 1967.

The label also enjoyed great success when it had the Staple Singers shift from Gospel music to mainstream R&B. Even Rufus Thomas, one of the first artists signed to the label, enjoyed a popular resurgence with a string of hits. However, Stax's record sales were down overall, under Gulf+Western's poor management. In 1970, Stewart and Bell purchased the label back, and Stax subsisted on its own for the next two years.

By this time, the Stax recording studio was accepting outside work again. In 1973, Elvis Presley recorded three albums at Stax in July and December. They were: Raised On Rock, Good Times, and Promised Land which produced four top 20 hits.[5]

As co-owner, Bell undertook an ambitious program to make Stax not only a major recording company, but also a prominent player in the black community. The Stax logo was slightly altered with the finger-snapping hand recolored brown. He began signing many more artists to the label, Frederick Knight and The Soul Children among them. For the first time, many of the label's acts began frequently recording at outside studios (such as Ardent Studios in Memphis and at recording studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama) and working with outside producers, signaling an end of the signature Stax sound. Bell even created a comedy subsidiary label, Partee Records, which released albums from the likes of Richard Pryor and Moms Mabley; and he made a bid for the white pop market by signing Big Star and licensing albums by Terry Manning, the UK progressive rock band Skin Alley, and Lena Zavaroni. In addition, Bell also became heavily involved with various causes in the African-American community, and was a close friend of the Reverend Jesse Jackson and a financial supporter of his Operation PUSH.

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 people, 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.

Decline and bankruptcy (1972-1975)
Despite the success of Wattstax, the future of Stax was unstable. In 1972, Bell bought out Stewart's remaining interest in the company, and established a distribution deal with CBS Records. CBS Records President Clive Davis saw Stax as a means for CBS to fully break into the African-American market and successfully compete with Motown. Bell had originally proposed that CBS buy 50% of the company, but Davis discussed it with CBS's corporate attorneys, who saw anti-trust problems, so a national distribution deal was worked out instead. However, Davis was fired by the company shortly after signing the Stax distribution deal. Without Davis at the helm, CBS very quickly lost interest in Stax.

The Stax labels' profits were cut severely, particularly since the CBS distribution agents bypassed the traditional small mom-and-pop record sellers in the black community which had been the backbone of Stax's distribution, and weren't pushing the Stax product to the larger retailers for fear of undercutting rack space for CBS R&B artists such as Earth Wind and Fire, The Isley Brothers, and Sly & the Family Stone. Reports came in to Stax of stores in cities such as Chicago and Detroit being unable to get new Stax records despite consumer demands, and the company attempted to annul its distribution deal with CBS. However, although CBS was uninterested in fully promoting Stax, it refused to release the label from its contract, for fear that Stax would land a more productive deal with another company and then become CBS's direct competitor.

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. By 1975, all of the secondary Stax labels had folded, with only the main Stax label remaining. Al Bell attempted to stave off bankruptcy with bank loans from Memphis' Union Planters Bank. Jim Stewart, unwilling to see the company die, returned to active participation in Stax and mortgaged his Memphis mansion to provide the label with short-term working capital. However, the Union Planters bank officers soon got cold feet, and foreclosed on the loans, costing Stewart his home and fortune.

Stax/Volt Records was forced into involuntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy on December 19, 1975. [6]

Stax in limbo (1976-1977)
Al Bell was arrested and indicted for bank fraud during the Stax bankruptcy proceedings, but was acquitted of those charges in August 1976. In early 1977, Union Planters sold Stax, its master tapes, and its publishing arms for about four million dollars to a holding corporation. [7] This corporation then sold the Stax-owned master recordings, as well as the name "Stax Records", to Fantasy Records later that same year. Effectively, this means that Fantasy owned and controled the following:

All Stax material recorded after May 1968.
The handful of pre-May 1968 Stax singles and albums Atlantic initially declined to distribute nationally in the 1960s (none of which were hits).
All unreleased tracks and alternate takes of Stax recordings, including those recorded before May 1968.
Fantasy also had the right to issue new recordings under the Stax Records banner.

Note that Stax's one-time McLemore Ave. headquarters was not sold until 1981, when United Planters deeded it to the Southside Church of God in Christ for ten dollars. [

Stax resumes operations (1978-1981)
In November 1977, Fantasy appointed long-time Stax writer/producer David Porter to head up a revived version of the Stax label. Porter signed several new acts to Stax, including Fat Larry's Band, Rick Dees and Sho Nuff, as well as re-signing former mid-70s Stax acts Rance Allen, Soul Children and Shirley Brown. As well, Porter was reponsible for overseeing compilations of previously unissued material by Isaac Hayes, Randy Brown, The Bar-Kays, Albert King and The Emotions.

This iteration of Stax released over two dozen singles, including nine that made the US R&B charts. By far the bigest hit of this era was The Bar-Kays' "Holy Ghost", a #9 R&B hit in 1978; it was a remixed and over-dubbed version of a track the band recorded for Stax in 1975. (By 1978, The Bar-Kays were long-gone from Stax, and were enjoying a string of hits on Mercury Records.)

Porter left Stax in 1979, and the label's new releases slowed to a trickle. By late 1981, Stax was strictly in the business of reissuing material recorded between 1968 through 1975, or issuing previously-unreleased archival material from the sixties and seventies.

Stax as a reissue label (1982-2003)
Through much of the 1980s and 1990s, Stax activities focussed exclusively on re-issues. Because Atlantic owned (and still owns) most of the Atlantic-era Stax master recordings released up to May 1968, the Atlantic-controlled material has been reissued by co-owned Rhino Records or licensed to Collectables Records.

Fantasy, meanwhile, also repackaged and rereleased the Stax catalogue it controlled, on the Stax label. Because Fantasy owned the non-master recordings of all Stax material, for several of its Stax compilations, Fantasy issued alternate takes of the Stax hit recordings in place of the master recordings owned by Atlantic.

In 1988, Fantasy issued the various artists album Top of the Stax, Vol. 1: Twenty Greatest Hits. This marked the first time an album was issued with both Atlantic-owned and Fantasy-owned Stax material; it was issued by arrangement with Atlantic Records. A second volume was released by Fantasy in 1991.

In 1991, Atlantic issued The Complete Stax/Volt Singles 1959-1968, a nine-disc compact disc boxed set containing all of the Atlantic-era Stax a-sides. This release earned Grammy Award nominations for boxed-set producer Steve Greenberg in the Best Historical Album category and for writer Rob Bowman in the Best Album Notes category. The boxed-set was certified gold in 2001, the largest collection of CDs ever to have earned that certification. Fantasy followed their lead and issued volumes two and three of the Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles series in 1993 and 1994, respectively. Volume Two compiles the Stax/Volt singles from 1968 to 1971, while Volume Three completes the collection with the singles issued from 1972 to 1975. Volume Three earned a Best Album Notes Grammy Award for Rob Bowman. In 2000, Fantasy issued a boxed set titled The Stax Story, which includes pre-1968 material by arrangement with Atlantic.

Stax Museum, and label revival (2003-present)
After a decade of neglect, the Southside Church of God in Christ tore down the original Stax studio in 1989. Over a decade later the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, was constructed at the site and opened in 2003. A replica of the original building, the Stax Museum features exhibits on the history of Stax and soul music in general, and hosts various music-related community programs and events.

Concord Records purchased the Fantasy Label Group in 2004, and in December 2006 announced the reactivation of the Stax label as a forum for newly-recorded music. The first acts signed to the new Stax included Isaac Hayes, Angie Stone, and Soulive. [9]

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 Concord-distributed Stax album of all-new material was a various artists CD which was released on March 27, 2007 and titled Interpretations: Celebrating The Music of Earth, Wind & Fire. Soulive was the first artist on revived label to release an album of all-new material with No Place Like Soul released July 10, 2007.