(Sept 11, 1918 - Feb 24, 2004)


Estelle Axton

The founding force of Stax Records

Estelle Axton, who has died aged 85, was co-founder of the legendary Memphis label Stax Records, which, through the 1960s, ran Detroit's Motown Records a
close second as hitmaker and discoverer of black American musical talent. Otis Redding, Booker T & the MGs, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers and Johnnie Taylor were among the many Stax discoveries, and so good were its house musicians and songwriters that the Atlantic label took Wilson Pickett and Sam & Dave to record with them.

Born in the 800-strong town of Middleton, Tennessee, Estelle Stewart, as she then was, grew up on a farm. She moved to Memphis as a school teacher, married
Everett Axton and was living a quiet life - working in the Union Planters National Bank and raising two teenagers - when, in late 1958, her younger brother, Jim, appealed for financial help to develop Satellite Records, which he had set up to issue recordings of local Memphis country and rockabilly artists.

Estelle convinced her husband that they should remortgage their house and, in February 1959, she joined Satellite as an equal partner, contributing $2,500 - at a time when Everett was earning just $18 a week. She kept her bank job, but took a keen interest in Satellite's fortunes, enjoying pop music and working with young people.

By 1960, Jim and Estelle had found the Capitol theatre, in a black Memphis neighbourhood, that they turned into a recording studio. To help defray the rent, she opened a record shop in the foyer, and left the bank to work there. She and Everett remortgaged for another $4,000 to refurbish the cinema.

In the mid-1960, Satellite's recording of Memphis disc jockey Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla singing Cause I Love You became a local rhythm & blues hit.
Atlantic Records leased the single, which sold strongly, and set up a distribution deal for Satellite's future releases.

The studio's location meant a wealth of aspiring local black talent began dropping in, Estelle's record shop encouraging them to hang out and play popular songs.
"The shop was a workshop for Stax Records," she explained. "When a record would hit on another label, we would discuss what made it sell."

Also in 1960, Estelle's son, saxophonist Charles "Packy" Axton, provided Satellite with its first million seller when his group, the Mar-Keys, put out their debut single, Last Night. According to Estelle, her brother had not been interested in releasing the record until she pleaded, cried and swore at him. Then he bet $100 that it would never be a hit.

Satellite was forced to change its name after it was discovered that a Los Angeles label already owned the title. Taking the first two letters from Jim and Estelle's surnames, Stax Records was born. There was a bitter split with Atlantic in 1969, but although the now totally independent label initially enjoyed even greater success, Estelle and Jim were no longer getting on, and she sold her share of the company in 1970. Bad business decisions forced Stax into insolvency in 1975.

After setting up Fretone Records, Estelle scored a massive hit in 1976 with the novelty song Disco Duck, by Memphis DJ Rick Dees.

Over the years, many of Stax's musicians recalled that it was Estelle who encouraged them, then forced her brother to sign them up. "You didn't feel any back-off
from her, no differentiation that you were black and she was white," noted Isaac Hayes. "Being in a town where that attitude was plentiful, she just made you feel secure. She was like a mother to us all."

"We didn't see colour, we just saw talent," was Estelle's recollection of her proteges. Her daughter survives her.

Estelle Axton, music entrepreneur, born September 11
1918; died February 24 2004,12723,1158250,00.html

Garth Cartwright
Saturday February 28, 2004
The Guardian


'Lady A' of Stax Records dies at 85'

By Pamela Perkins and Michael Lollar
February 25, 2004

From The Commercial Appeal, Memphis.

Memphis music legend Estelle Axton, co-founder of Stax Records Co. and a mentor to some of the world's most influential musicians and composers, died Tuesday. She was 85.

Axton's son-in-law, Fred Fredrick said she died at the hospice at Saint Francis Hospital about 7 p.m. Tuesday. He said the death appeared to be of natural causes.

The musicians at Stax called her 'Lady A.'

"Were it not for her, there's no way Stax could have become what it became,'' said David Porter, a songwriting legend who with co-writer Isaac Hayes composed scores of Stax hits including Sam and Dave's "Soul Man" and "Hold On, I'm Coming."

Between 1960 and 1975, Stax also produced artists such as Otis Redding Jr., The Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas, Albert King, Johnnie Taylor, The Mar-Keys and the Bar-Kays.

Axton and other family members went on to establish the Fretone label which produced Rick Dees's massive 1977 hit "Disco Duck."

Porter says Axton encouraged him and others in the Stax neighborhood after she mortgaged her home to help start the record company with her brother, Jim Stewart.

The family said Stewart was with Axton when she died.

Stax began as Satellite Records in 1957, but Porter says they were forced to change the name because a California company already was using it. . They combined their names - the "St" from Stewart and the "Ax" from Axton - to come up with Stax, which became a rival to Detroit's giant Motown sound in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

"She had a positive spirit toward the acts in that community and any young kids who came in there with aspirations. There's no way that Stax could have become Stax without the positive energy that this lady contributed.," said Porter.

Axton's daughter Doris Fredrick of Germantown, who worked with her mother in the record shop, said Axton's earlier experience as a teacher gave her a special nurturing ability.

"She worked 12 hours a day. She had time for anybody that came through the door," Doris Fredrick said. "I'd say, 'I'm sorry she's booked today.' And she'd come out and say, 'Oh no, I have time for them. I'm never too busy' if it was the neighborhood kids or someone who wanted to play a song for her."

Deanie Parker, president and executive director of Soulsville, the nonprofit that developed the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and Stax Music Academy, described Mrs. Axton as "the mother figure, if you will, in a lot of ways.''

Hayes echoed Parker's assessment.

"Estelle was a very generous woman. She was generous with her time, with her counsel, with her advice,'' he said. "I think she was responsible for the racial harmony at Stax. Mrs. Axton, you didn't feel any backoff 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 Axton's funerals

Deanie Parker and Jim Stewart

About 150 family members, music fans and former Stax artists heralded the accomplishments of record label co-founder Estelle Axton during funeral services at Hope Presbyterian Church.

Mrs. Axton died Tuesday at the hospice at Saint Francis Hospital. She was 85.

Mrs. Axton grew up on a farm in Middleton, Tenn. She was a teacher and a bank teller before she mortgaged her home and joined her brother Jim Stewart's budding recording business.

The siblings moved what was then Satellite Records, from Brunswick to South Memphis in 1959.

"Estelle had a green thumb," said Deanie Parker, one of the label's first employees and now the president and executive director of the nonprofit Soulsville.

"Estelle looked around their new neighborhood and using her human imagination she saw potential, talent and opportunity. She began to create a garden," Parker said.

That garden produced Booker T. and the MGs, Rufus Thomas and Carla Thomas, the Mar-Keys, David Porter and Isaac Hayes, among others.

Soulsville recently opened the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and Stax Museum Academy at 926 E. McLemore. That is the site of the original Stax studio, demolished in 1989 after the company was forced into bankruptcy years earlier.

"Her inspiration was the cornerstone of Stax Records," said MGs musician Steve Cropper.

Amy Reeves said her grandmother taught her not to judge people based on their color, their clothes or even their attitude.

"I'm still having a problem with the attitude," Reeves said.

Marvell Thomas, son of Rufus Thomas, said race was not an issue among Stax's black and white workers during the turbulent 1960s.

"And it was all because of her," he said after the service.

Reeves introduced a video with Mrs. Axton speaking over a stream of photographs showing her with various artists and family members.

"We had an open door policy - let people come in and let us hear them," Mrs. Axton says.

Hayes, who served as a pallbearer, said he and Porter took a lot of kidding as budding songwriters. "But she kept encouraging us," he said. "She knew a hit."

Hayes and Porter wrote about 200 songs for Stax, including the Sam and Dave hits "Soul Man," "Hold On I'm Comin'" and "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby."

"She was a wonderful spirit," Hayes said.

Pamela Perkins
The Commercial Appeal

Feb 28, 2004

See photos at STAX TODAY page 14.