The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

26 February 2004

The passing of Lady A

A converted moviehouse on McLemore Avenue in Memphis. The sounds of soul waft up from the studio, into the control room, and out into the street. And presiding over it all, Lady A.

Estelle Axton and her brother Jim Stewart formed Satellite Records in Memphis in 1957 to record local musicians. They scored a substantial national hit — "Last Night" by the Mar-Keys — before discovering that there was already a Satellite Records on the West Coast, prompting a name change. STewart plus AXton became Stax.

And Stax, in the Sixties and early Seventies, was the most serious rival to Motown in the creation of that marvelous music known as Soul. The Stax house band, Booker T. [Jones] and the MGs [Memphis Group], backed up Sam and Dave, Rufus (and daughter Carla) Thomas, and scored hits on their own; sister label Volt was the home of Otis Redding.

In 1968, Stax, having been shafted in a distribution deal with Atlantic — to make a long story short, Atlantic wound up owning the entire Stax catalog up to that point — allowed itself to be acquired by the Gulf + Western conglomerate. G+W hadn't a clue about the record business, though, and Jim Stewart — by now Estelle had retired from day-to-day operations — bought back the company, which continued to flourish with the Staple Singers and Isaac Hayes until an even worse deal with CBS sent Stax spiraling into Chapter 7.

Estelle Axton died Tuesday in Memphis; she was 85. The old theatre on McLemore Avenue is gone; the Stax Museum of American Soul Music is planned for the site. The memories, and the music — the post-Atlantic recordings are now owned by the jazz label Fantasy — of course live on.

Says the eminent Rocksnob DragonAttack:

I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that being a woman running an integrated studio in Memphis in the sixties was not always the easiest task in the world. But she (along with her co-founding brother) got the job done, and for that we should be grateful.

I know I am.

Posted at 8:54 AM to Tongue and Groove

TrackBack: 8:44 AM, 27 February 2004
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