X is for Estelle Axton

I believe Estelle Axton ought to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Estelle AxtonJim Stewart was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. Here’s part of his bio:

Jim Stewart and sister Estelle Axton were the co-founders of Memphis-based Stax Records. Stax and Motown were the two most important record labels in America in terms of bringing black music into the mainstream during the Sixties and Seventies.

Stax recorded some of the greatest acts in the history of soul music – Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, Johnnie Taylor, Booker T. & the MG’s, Carla Thomas, and Eddie Floyd, among them.

If Motown was “the Sound of Young America,” then Stax/Volt was “Soulsville, U.S.A.” Between 1959 and 1975, Stax and its affiliated labels released 300 albums and 800 singles. Among the latter, 167 were bonafide hit singles.

Now here’s part of Estelle Axton’s 2004 obituary:

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 [Everett Axton] 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…

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. [It was.]

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…

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.”

From Jim and Estelle’s Memphis Music Hall of Fame induction page:

At Stax, Estelle ran the front of the house – the record store – and Jim ran the back – the studio. Many of the label’s stars first came in as her customers – Booker T. Jones, William Bell, and Albert King among many (in the early years, she also employed Steve Cropper). Her store would serve as both a respite from the studio, and perhaps more importantly, as a library and research facility for the songwriters and musicians.

From Wikipedia:

Estelle was the founder of the Memphis Songwriters Association in 1973. The Memphis Songwriters Association was formed in order to foster the education and advancement of local area songwriters. There was a focus on the development of the songwriting craft with the intentions of producing commercially viable songs and improving performance skills.

After her split from Stax, Axton went on to found the Fretone label, which launched Rick Dees’ 1977 novelty smash “Disco Duck.”

Clearly, Estelle Axton was the ears and heart, and soul of STAX in the 1960s, helping move the label from its rockabilly roots to become a soul powerhouse. In spite of Disco Duck, I believe Estelle Axton ought to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

ABC Wednesday – Round 16

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