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Stax: The Making Of A Legend
Written by Donna Prima   
Stax Stax Records is a crucial piece in American music history. It was second only to Motown in sales and influence, and known as the home of gritty, raw soul music.
 Learn More About Stax
Official Stax Website Classic Stax Website
Stax Museum

 

 

 

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In 15 years Stax placed over 167 hit songs in the top 100 on the pop charts and 243 hits in the top 100 R & B charts. Stax launched the careers of major pop soul stars Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Carla & Rufus Thomas, Booker T. & the MGs, and '70s soul superstar Isaac Hayes. Stax songs such as "Green Onions," "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay," "Soul Man," "I'll Take You There," "Hold On, I'm Comin'" and "Theme from Shaft" are all classic songs.

Stax Records began as Satellite Records in Memphis in 1959. Founded by Jim Stewart, a former country fiddler, and Estelle Axton, whose son Charles "Packy" Axton was a saxophonist with the original Mar-Keys, the company had its first Top Ten hit in 1961 with "Gee Whiz" by Carla Thomas.

In the 1960s, when having an integrated company was unheard of, Stax was the paradigm of an integrated company—from management all the way down to its bands. By 1974, it was the 5th largest African-American owned business.

Stax developed music which was to have worldwide repercussions. With its house rhythm section, better known as Booker T. & the MGs, its tight horn section, which later became the Memphis Horns, and its gospel-rooted recording artists, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Stax created contemporary soul music, both on its own records and as a Southern base of operations for Atlantic artists such as Don Covay and Wilson Pickett. Stax also created the link between the roots of rock 'n roll at Sun Records in the 1950s to the sweet soul music of the 1960s--as did Goldwax Records in the 1960s and Hi Records in the late 1960s and 1970s--and the hard funk and disco of the 1970s.

Unfortunately, after Atlantic was sold to Warner Brothers in 1967, Stewart experienced contractual conflicts. The death of Otis Redding that same year preceded the sale of Stax to Gulf and Western. Sam and Dave disbanded around the same time, and although they continued to record as a unit, the members of Booker T. & the MGs did more administrative work than session playing. This was the end of the first Stax era.

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A new breed of Stax artists was led by Isaac Hayes who had been an important songwriter, producer, and session pianist during the label's earlier period; along with David Porter, he was responsible for writing and producing Sam and Dave's "Hold On, I'm Coming" and "Soul Man." On his own, Hayes developed a unique blend, part jazz, part soul, part easy listening. He talked on his records in a mellow, bantering manner, and he used an orchestra to provide instrumental cushioning. In many ways Hayes was a founding father of 70s soul.

Along with Hayes was Albert King and his flying-V guitar with bluesy urgency as well as the mighty Staple Singers who were at their artistic peak when they recorded for Stax during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Johnnie Taylor was in his prime, testifying on the ins and outs of falling in and out of love with intense passion.

Mega-groups included
the Emotions ("Best Of My Love") and UK favorites the Soul Children.

The new Stax producers were at least as important as the artists in determining the Stax sound. One of the most resourceful and versatile was Don Davis, who began a fruitful association with Johnnie Taylor. Al Jackson, Jr. the great soul drummer who was the backbone of Booker T. & the MGs, also produced, collaborating with Jim Stewart, Albert King, the Staple Singers, and the Emotions. Jackson was still heard on drums on many Stax releases while other session musicians included guitarists Vernon Burch, Michael Toles, and keyboard player Marvell Thomas. Al Bell was an important creative force as well as an administrator.

Gulf and Western was not a successful manager, however, and in 1970 Stewart and Al Bell, Stax's sales director, bought the company back in an attempt to revitalize it. In 1972, they threw what came to be known as Black Woodstock, a Watts, Los Angeles festival featuring Stax artists and drawing over 100,000 people to the predominantly African -American neighborhood.

The comic warm-up for the festival was a young unknown by the name of Richard Pryor. He along with others such as the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Bill Cosby, Moms Mabley and more would go on to record spoken word records under the Stax name.

But despite the passion of its founder and undeniable talent on the label, Stax went bankrupt in 1976. That was the end of the second era.

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The third era of Stax is still evolving. It started in June 1977 when virtually all Stax assets, including all masters, both completed and unfinished recordings, together with all Stax contracts, were purchased by the group behind Fantasy Records who continued to re-package Stax product for years.

In 2004, Fantasy was purchased by Concord Music Group, who officially re-launched Stax in March 2007 by signing (ironically) Hayes along with Angie Stone as the re-incarnated label's first artists. The label announced its plan to  release new and classic material to the general public.

The first release on the brand new Stax, Stax 50: A 50th Anniversary Celebration, was a 2-CD box set containing 50 of the best tracks from the entire history of Stax Records. It was released in March 2007.

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