Estelle Stewart, businesswoman and teacher: born Middleton, Tennessee 11 September 1918; married 1941 Everett Axton (one daughter, and one son deceased); died Memphis, Tennessee 24 February 2004.
In the pantheon of soul labels, Stax Records is second only to the legendary Tamla Motown. Estelle Axton co-founded Stax with her brother Jim Stewart, the two putting the first letters of their surnames together to come up with Stax. Throughout the Sixties and into the early Seventies, Stax launched the careers of Arthur Conley, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, the Staple Singers and Isaac Hayes, while the label's house band, Booker T & the MG's, became the most successful instrumental group of all time.
Jim Stewart had originally started a company called Satellite Records in 1958; soon, he wanted to expand and in 1959, he called on his older sister, Estelle Axton, for financial help. Her influence later extended to all areas of the label's business. According to the guitarist Steve Cropper, of Booker T & the MG's, "Estelle Axton was the heart and soul of Stax. No doubt about it."
She was born Estelle Stewart in 1918 in the small community of Middleton, Tennessee. As a teenager, she played the organ and sang in a family gospel quartet. In 1935, she moved to Memphis to study at the State University where she met her future husband Everett Axton; in 1941, they married and moved to Memphis. Soon the couple had two children and Estelle remained a housewife until 1950 when she joined the Union Planters National Bank.
The Ampex tape recorder bought with her initial investment in Satellite was installed in a garage in rural Brunswick where the company recorded an R&B vocal group, the Veltones, and issued their single "Fool in Love" in 1959. By the following year, the studio had moved back to Memphis and into the old Capitol Theatre. To generate income, Estelle Axton set up the Satellite Record Shop in the lobby.
The shop would also later act as a testing ground for acetates and a source of cover versions such as Otis Redding's breathtaking reworking of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction". Axton said:
When a record would hit on another label, we would discuss what made this record sell, we analysed it. That's why we had so many good writers. They knew what would sell.
In 1960, everyone chipped in to convert the former cinema at 926 East McLemore Avenue into a recording studio with a very "live" sound which would become such a part of the Stax trademark. Estelle Axton injected a further $4,000 into the operation just as they issued "Cause I Love You" by a local DJ and musician, Rufus Thomas, and his daughter Carla.
The single sold 5,000 copies in Memphis alone and attracted the interest of Jerry Wexler at Atlantic records, who gave them a $1,000 advance to release "Cause I Love You" nationally. "That was the biggest thousand dollars I ever saw," Axton said. The single sold a further 40,000 copies and the subsequent success of "Gee Whiz" by Carla Thomas in the US Top Ten sealed the partnership.
In 1961, Axton's son Packy was a member of the group called the Mar-Keys, whose infectious song "Last Night" reached No 3 on the US pop charts and brought the record company's name to the attention of a Californian label, also called Satellite. The Californian operation offered to sell their name to Stewart and Axton, but they decided instead to call the record label Stax.
A sharp businesswoman, Axton championed "Frog Stomp" by the saxophonist Floyd Newman, which was the first composition by Isaac Hayes to be recorded; she spotted the blues guitarist Albert King; and convinced her brother to release Eddie Floyd's "Knock On Wood" which became a million-seller.
She also helped smooth the transition from the Atlantic deal to ownership by Gulf & Western before eventually selling her interest in Stax in 1969. Axton invested the $750,000 settlement she received in an apartment complex. In 1974, she established Fretone Records and two years later scored a transatlantic hit with the novelty song "Disco Duck" by the Memphis DJ Rick Dees. Stax eventually closed down in 1975.