American History Month in Black
Stax Records is an American record label, originally based in Memphis, Tennessee.
Founded in 1957 as Satellite Records, the label changed its name to Stax Records in 1961. It was a major factor in the creation of the Southern soul and Memphis soul music styles, also releasing gospel, funk, jazz, and blues recordings. While Stax is renowned for its output of African-American music, the label was founded by two whitebusinesspeople, Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton (STewart/AXton = Stax). It featured several popular ethnically-integrated bands, including the label’s house band,Booker T. & the M.G.’s, and an integrated black and white team of staff and artists unheard of in that time of racial strife and tension in Memphis and the South. Resp
Following the death of Stax’s biggest star, Otis Redding, in 1967 and the severance of the label’s distribution deal with Atlantic Records in 1968, Stax continued primarily under the supervision of a new co-owner, Al Bell. Over the next five years, Bell expanded the label’s operations significantly, in order to compete with Stax’s main rival, Motown Records in Detroit. During the mid-1970s, a number of factors, including a problematic distribution deal with CBS Records, caused the label to slide into insolvency, resulting in its forced closure in late 1975.
In 1977, Fantasy Records acquired the post-1968 Stax catalog, as well as selected pre-1968 recordings. Beginning in 1978, Stax (now owned by Fantasy) began signing new acts and issuing new material, as well as re-issuing previously recorded Stax material. However, by the early 1980s no new material was being issued on the label, and for the next two decades, Stax was strictly a re-issue label.
After Concord Records acquired Fantasy in 2004, the Stax label was reactivated, and is today used to issue both the 1968–1975 catalog material and new recordings by current R&B/soul performers. Atlantic Records continues to hold the rights to the vast majority of the 1959–1968 Stax material.
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, rockabilly 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. Taking a considerable financial risk, she mortgaged her family home to enable Satellite to purchase an Ampex 350 mono console tape recorder, at a cost of $2500.
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 went 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 focused 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 much of it was recorded in the studios at Satellite (later Stax), or in Nashville under the supervision of the Stax staff.
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 ascendancy (1962–1964)
By 1962, the pieces were in place that allowed Stax to turn from a successful regional label into (alongside Motown and Atlantic) a national R&B powerhouse. Throughout the rest of the 1960s, the label’s operations would be greatly aided by several unique factors, including the label’s record store, studio, A&R department and house band.
- Record Store: While Stewart ran the recording studio where the auditorium was, his sister Estelle Axton ran the Satellite record shop, which she established in the cinema’s old foyer, where the refreshment stand had been. (The store later expanded next door into a vacated barber shop.) The Satellite store sold records from a wide variety of labels, which gave the Stax staff first-hand knowledge of what kind of music was selling – and was subsequently reflected in the music that Stax recorded. The store quickly became a popular hangout for local teenagers and was used to ‘test-market’ potential future Stax singles, as acetates of recently recorded Stax music were played to gauge customers’ reactions. It also provided regular employment for many of the young hopefuls who later became part of Stax’s “musical family” and provided cash-flow in the early years while the label was struggling to establish itself. In his 2013 book on Stax, writer Robert Gordon highlighted the previously undervalued importance of Estelle Axton to Stax. Always addressed as either “Miz Axton” or “Lady A.”, she was highly respected by all the Stax staff and performers, and was regarded as a mother figure in the company. Although she had no formal training or experience in marketing, she had an unerring instinct for music and made many valuable suggestions to the young writers and musicians. Booker T. Jones described Estelle as “an inspirer”:
- “She just loved music, loved people. She was always bringing us up there (the record shop), having us listen to records. She kept us in touch with the music industry. I doubt there would have been a Stax Records without Estelle Axton. She encouraged the entire Stax roster from her little perch behind the counter.”
- A&R: Original A&R director Chips Moman 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 official A&R director. Cropper would quickly become a writer, producer and session guitarist on scores of Stax singles.
- House band: Through the first few years of Stax, the ‘house band’ varied, although Cropper, bassist Lewie Steinberg, drummer Curtis Green, and horn players Floyd Newman, Gene “Bowlegs” Miller and Gilbert Caple were relative constants.
- 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 was bassist 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 sound slowly became the house band’s primary bassist and officially replaced Steinberg as an MG in 1964. Booker T. Jones was frequently absent from Stax over several years in the mid-1960s, while he pursued his musical studies at Indiana University, so during this period Isaac Hayes usually replaced him as the house band’s regular pianist, although the two occasionally performed on recordings together when Jones was back in Memphis.
- Other members of the house band included horn players Andrew Love and Wayne Jackson. Also auditioning for Stax in 1962 was Isaac Hayes; though he was not successful at the time, by 1964 he would be a vital part of the Stax house band, along with his songwriting partner David Porter. The sextet of Cropper, Dunn, Hayes, Jackson, Jones and Porter were collectively known as the “Big Six” within the halls of Stax, and were (either as a group, or working in various combinations) responsible for producing almost all of the label’s output from about 1963 through 1969.
- The Stax house band’s working methods were unusual for popular music recording at the time, and it was this that attracted the interest of Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler. For most major recording companies at the time, the standard practice was for the label’s staff producer or A&R manager to hire a studio, an arranger and the session musicians who were to back the featured vocalist or instrumentalist, and the arranger would write sheet music arrangements for the musicians to work from. Such unionised sessions were run strictly “by the clock” and there was a strict demarcation between the studio and the control room. By contrast, the Stax sessions ran as long as was needed, the musicians moved freely between the control room and the studio floor, and all were free to make suggestions and contributions as they worked up what are known as “head arrangements”, in which none of the musicians’ parts were written down, and nothing was worked out in advance.
- Stax’s unusual working methods first came to Wexler’s attention in the fall of 1963. He was expecting a new single from Carla Thomas, but when he contacted Stax he was told that they had been unable to record for two weeks due to faults in the recording equipment, so he immediately flew Atlantic’s crack house engineer Tom Dowd down to Memphis that Friday. Dowd had the equipment fixed within two days and on the Sunday he was able to act as engineer during the creation of a new Rufus Thomas track. He was amazed both by the loose, improvisational feel of the session, and by the way Thomas and the musicians developed and record the song – according to him, Thomas simply sang through the new number for the band once or twice, humming suggestions for their parts and sounding the rhythm by clacking his teeth close to their ears. Once the new head arrangement was established, Dowd started recording and Thomas and the band nailed the song in just two takes. When Dowd returned to New York the next day he had the tape of Thomas’ breakthrough hit “Walking The Dog”, which Jim Stewart lauded as the best-sounding record Stax had yet produced. Wexler later commented:
- “Memphis was a real departure, because Memphis was a return to head arrangements, to the set rhythm section away from the arranger. It was a return to the symbiosis between the producer and the rhythm section. It was really something new.”
- The Studio: Another important factor in Stax’s success was the actual Stax 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 distinctive sound, soul music fans can tell often within the first few notes if a song was recorded at Stax. When Tom Dowd first arrived at Stax in 1963 they were still using the veteran Ampex mono recorder they had purchased in the late Fifties, and he immediately suggested that they should instal a two-track recorder. The Stax team were appalled at the idea, fearing that the distinctive “Stax sound” would be destroyed. However Dowd pointed out that stereo albums sold for a higher price, which would mean more income for Stax, so in the summer of 1965 Dowd installed an additional two-track recorder, allowing Stax to record sessions simultaneously in mono and stereo, and in 1966 he upgraded the studio further with a 4-track recorder.
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 to Otis Redding, the Bar-Kays, and a handful of other artists. Volt releases were initially issued by Atlantic through their Atco Recordssubsidiary. 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’sCHUM Chart), and Barbara & The Browns’ “Big Party” made it to #97 in mid-1964.
Beginning in 1965, when the label formalised its distribution agreement with Atlantic, Stax/Volt artists would make the charts much more frequently.
Stax/Volt’s continued success (1965–1967)
In 1965, Jim Stewart signed a formal national distribution deal with Atlantic Records, although fatefully he signed the contract without reading it – a decision that would later cost the label dearly. 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 to establish themselves as Stax’s new team of hit writer/producers. Hayes would also permanently 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 artists, The Mad Lads. Sam & Dave were technically a duo act on the Atlantic roster, but were “leased” to Stax by Atlantic with Stax overseeing their recordings and putting them 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 both Don Covay and Wilson Pickett to record at Stax, though these songs were released directly by Atlantic. Covay’s hits “See Saw” and “Sookie Sookie” and 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. Although Wexler was greatly enamoured of Stax’s “organic” recording methods, some of the artists they brought in created conflict. A June 1965 session with Don Covay created bad feelings, which came to a head in early 1966, when Wilson Pickett returned to record new material. Although the session produced two hit songs (“634-5789” and “Ninety-Nine and A Half (Won’t Do)” Pickett’s “corrosive” character caused havoc in the studio – the session musicians eventually walked out, and the breaking point came when Pickett followed them outside and offered them $100 each to complete the session. As a result, the furious house band bluntly told Jim Stewart not to bring “that asshole” to the studio again. Stewart was also tiring of another label capitalizing on the Stax sound, so he phoned Wexler soon after the Pickett session and told him that he was banning all non-Stax productions at the Stax studios. One Atlantic artist who was thus not able to record at Stax was the newly-signed Aretha Franklin. She instead was sent to Rick Hall’s FAME studios in Alabama, which had a sound that was similar to Stax. Pickett’s subsequent hits were also recorded elsewhere, including at Fame and American Group Productions, Chips Moman’s Memphis studio.
Through 1966-1967, Stax and its subsidiaries 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 year was 1967 and the record company Stax was at the height of its fame. Alongside Otis Redding were soul singers Sam and Dave, as well as Carla Thomas and writer Isaac Hayes who would have a deep impact on the funk music of the 70’s. Also signed to the record label was the house band, Booker T. and the MG’s who were breaking boundaries in integration. Half of the band was black and the other half was white, which at the time was unheard of because of the racial turmoil that was happening at this time in the United States.
In contrast to Stax’s rapidly rising fortunes at this time, most of the house band were still struggling to make a living: the musicians often worked long hours in the studio during the day, developing songs and arrangements, but they were only paid for recordings when the actual sessions took place, so most had to play at local venues in the evenings to earn enough to support themselves and their families. To remedy this, during 1966 Al Bell appointed the members of the so-called “Big Six” (Hayes, Porter and Booker T. & The MGs) as full-time salaried employees of Stax, on a fixed salary of $125/week. This allowed them to quit their night jobs and become full-time professional studio musicians, and from this point on Booker T. and The MGs regularly backed virtually all of the artists who recorded at Stax. Bell also persuaded Jim Stewart to set up a “production pool”, in which a small portion of the royalty payments Stax was receiving from Atlantic was split equally between the “Big Six” to pay them for their production duties with the artists they backed.
Stax was located in Memphis, Tennessee which was still a segregated city and would later that year witness the death of the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Whilst there was much racism around the artists, the Stax recording studio seemed to be an escape from the turmoil of the real world. When the artists got into the studio, they were there for one reason only and that was to make hit music, some of which had the social consciousness that became a soundtrack to the Civil Rights Movement. That same year, some of the Stax artists traveled to Europe and were taken aback by the welcome that they received, enjoying a better reception in parts of Europe than in the United States.
Although the trip was a huge success for the artists and their label, it also marked another significant change in the political landscape at Stax – at a fraught tour meeting in Al Bell’s hotel room, Steve Cropper was summarily removed as Stax’s A&R director, and Al Bell took over the position. Following the touring party’s return to Memphis, Bell was also promoted to executive vice-president, and horn players Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love joined the Stax rhythm section as salaried Stax employees.
The break from Atlantic Records (1968)
In 1967, Atlantic Records was sold to Warner Bros.-Seven Arts. The sale of Atlantic to Warner activated a “key man” clause (which Jim Stewart had insisted upon) in the Stax/Atlantic distribution contract. This called for the renegotiation or termination of the distribution deal in the event that Stewart’s nominated “key man” at Atlantic – Jerry Wexler – either left the company, or his stock in Atlantic was sold. Stax initially hoped to join Atlantic in the Warner buyout, so Jim Stewart, Estelle Axton and Al Bell flew to New York hoping to negotiate a deal, but according to Stewart the figure they were offered was “an insult”. His view was that Stax had generated millions of dollars in sales, but Stax had borne all the production costs, while by his reckoning Atlantic’s total investment over the seven years the deal lasted was a mere $5000. Stewart then approached Warner-Seven Arts directly, but their offer was similarly meagre. Unhappy with either offer, Stewart then asked for the return of the Stax masters, but the executives at Warner-Seven Arts refused. It was then that he was informed that Atlantic’s lawyers had included a clause in the 1965 distribution contract which gave Atlantic all right, title and interest, including any rights of reproduction, in all Stax’s Atlantic-distributed recordings between 1960 and 1967. Only its unreleased recordings remained the property of Stax, and all the masters delivered to Atlantic between 1960 and 1967 are still wholly owned by Warner Music.
Jim Stewart regarded his original deal with Jerry Wexler as a “gentleman’s agreement” and (tragically for Stax) when the distribution arrangement was formalised with a contract in 1965, he had signed it without reading it, thus missing the fateful clause, buried on page 12 of the agreement, which gave Atlantic complete ownership of the Stax masters. Stewart was rightly furious at what he felt was Atlantic’s (and Wexler’s) betrayal of his trust, although Jerry Wexler was insistent that he had not read the contract either, and that he was also unaware of the ownership clause until the Warner-Seven Arts takeover. Wexler continued to protest his innocence in the matter throughout the rest of his life and clearly it remained a key issue for him – writer Robert Gordon notes that when he first interviewed Wexler by phone while researching his book on Stax Records, Wexler himself raised the issue of the Stax contract within a couple of minutes of the conversation starting.
As a result of this unfortunate turn of events, Stewart did not renew his distribution deal with Atlantic, and instead sold Stax a week later to Paramount Pictures (who also owned Dot Records), a unit of Gulf+Western, in May 1968. Consequently, Stax was forced to move forward without the most desirable portion of its back catalogue and without Sam and Dave, who had been unofficially “on loan” to Stax up to this point, and who were forced to return to Atlantic after the split (although they never scored another hit). The company was dealt another crushing blow when its biggest and best-loved 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. In April 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, the place where many members of the Stax “family” regularly met and ate, and where Steve Cropper and Eddie Floyd had written “Knock On Wood”. In the riots that followed King’s murder, many properties in the vicinity of the Stax studio were attacked by rioters, but Stax was left untouched.
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. To build up a catalog to replace the catalog lost to Atlantic/Atco Records, Stax/Volt/Enterprise released a whopping 27 albums and 30 singles in 1969. 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/Paramount/Dot’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.
As co-owner, Bell undertook an ambitious program to make Stax not only a major recording company, but also a prominent force 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 Davissaw 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 helped 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. Stax had signed artists like Joyce Cobb bringing her over from their Truth country music label that year but were never able to produce recordings with her and other new talent. 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, Stax Engineer and Producer Terry Manning was the last employee to walk out of the doors.
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. This corporation then sold the Stax-owned master recordings, as well as the name “Stax Records,” to Fantasy Records later that same year.
Effectively, that meant that Fantasy owned and controlled 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 Union 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 which was relaunched in January 1978. Porter signed several new acts to Stax, including Fat Larry’s Band, Rick Dees and Sho Nuff, as well as re-signing former mid-1970s Stax acts Rance Allen, Soul Children and Shirley Brown. As well, Porter was responsible for overseeing compilations of previously unissued material byIsaac 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 biggest 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 1960s and 1970s.
Stax as a reissue label (1982–2003)
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Through much of the 1980s and 1990s, Stax activities focused 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 re-released 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.
It is also noted that Fantasy tried to revive Stax’s sister label Volt Records twice during this time. The first time was in the late 1980s and second in the late 1990s.
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.
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.
On August 28, 2007, a 3 CD Deluxe Edition box set of the 1972 music event Wattstax was released, simply titled “WATTSTAX”. For the first time in over 30 years almost half of the 25-plus performers at that event were finally heard for the first time, released in remastered stereo. The 3-CD set still only covers about one-third of the entire Wattstax concert, which lasted 10+ hours; Concord has not issued any statement as to the possibility of preparing future releases that would cover the remaining Wattstax material. (Isaac Hayes’ complete Wattstax set was released on CD in 1995.)
In August 2012 American rapper RZA founded his new record label Soul Temple Records under Stax Records. On April 9, 2013, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama hosted an event called “In Performance at the White House: Memphis Soul”. Invited Stax artists included Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Eddie Floyd, and Sam Moore. First Lady Obama also led a workshop called, “Soulsville, USA: The History of Memphis Soul.”