In the history of soul music, Stax Records stands out as being a major force in developing Southern soul and the sound that became known as Memphis Soul. They recorded and released music from a wide array of artists from the fields of gospel, jazz, blues, and funk. For many years they did it better than anyone else and were renowned for bringing African-American artists to the public eye in a time when much of the country, and especially the south, was still struggling with discrimination.
The label was founded in Memphis in 1957 as Satellite Records and changed its name to Stax Records in 1961. Although a major source of soul music, the label was founded by two white businesspeople, Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton (STewart/AXton = Stax). The label highlighted a number of racially integrated bands including what is probably the most famous house band of all time, Booker T. & the M.G.’s.
The label grew in popularity and suffered a setback when their biggest star, Otis Redding, was killed in a plane crash in 1967. This was followed by the ending of a distribution deal they had with Atlantic Records in 1968 and they acquired a new co-owner, Al Bell.
Bell expanded the label’s operations to compete with Stax’s main rival, Motown Records in Detroit. During the mid-1970s, a number of factors, including a ill-advised distribution deal with CBS, caused Stax to go bankrupt and it closed in 1975.
Fantasy Records acquired most of the Stax back-catalog of recordings in 1977 and began signing new acts. Eventually, the new acts were not released and they basically became a re-issue label.
Concord Records acquired Fantasy in 2004 and Stax label was resurrected to re-issue both the 1968–1975 catalog material and new recordings by current R&B/soul performers.
But the history of Stax Records lies not just in the business dealings of record company executives. It exists within the soul music that came out of those studios and changed how America listened to music.
I’m going to focus on some of the artists that called Satellite and Stax home and, although you may not have heard of some of these artists or songs, these are the tunes that were blasting out of tiny transistor radios and malt shop juke boxes on hot summer nights across cities like Memphis and small towns throughout the South.
Here’s a first sampling of some of Stax’s biggest stars. These are, to a song, beautiful tunes. Listen to the music and the subtle orchestrations. For my ears, they’re just perfect…
- “Just Across the Street” – The Del Rios. A beautiful tune in the doo-wop style. Great harmonies.
- “Formula of Love” – William Bell. A former member of The Del Rios who went solo.
- “Wait A Minute” – Barbara Stephens. Born in 1939 in Atlanta, a true Stax star.
- “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes) – Carla Thomas. Carla wrote this song when she was just 15 years old. Just beautiful and well worth a close listen.
- “Last Night” – The Mar-Keys. The first Stax house band including Steve Cropper on guitar and Booker T on the keys. Look how much these guys are having!