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10 Things You Didn't Know About Stax Records

Stax Records, aka Soulsville USA, was THE soul and R&B label in Memphis back in the 60s and 70s. The label was home to such stars as Otis Redding, The Staple Singers and Isaac Hayes, and put out some of the biggest hits of the day. The label was also influential in breaking barriers, and, today, via the Soulsville Foundation, continues to give back to the community. Read on for some facts about the iconic label.

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1. The Name "Stax" Was a Hybrid of the Founders' Last Names

Stax Museum of American Soul Music / Via nthp-savingplaces.s3.amazonaws.com

Memphis fiddler Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton were longtime music lovers, who felt that many of the local hits they were hearing could sound a lot better with an upgrade in recording equipment. In 1957, the siblings established Satellite Records. Renting out an abandoned theater in South Memphis, Satellite ran as a recording studio, with a record shop in the lobby. Estelle sold records in the front, honing an ear for what sold best. Her taste helped shape the acts that Jim recorded in the studio. In 1961, Jim and Estelle changed the business's name from Satellite to Stax (due to another label claiming the same name). They settled upon the name by combining the first two letters of their last names.

2. The Label's First #1 R&B Hit Was Written By A Couple of Teenagers

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Musical prodigy Booker T Jones was just 16 when he began performing as a session musician at the Stax studio, backing recordings for the likes of Carla Thomas and William Bell. Soon, Jones was part of the label's permanent house band, along with 19-year old guitarist Steve Cropper (who also worked behind the counter at the record shop), drummer Al Jackson Jr. and bassist Lewie Steinberg (later replaced by Donald "Duck" Dunn). The M.G.s, as they were called, played on hundreds of recordings for the label's biggest starts, including Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett and Carla Thomas. The group also recorded their own tracks, including a little ditty called "Green Onions," which went on to become on the most recognizable instrumental tracks, ever. The song flew up the charts in 1962, peaking at #1 on the R&B charts, and #3 on the Hot 100 charts.

3. One of Stax's Biggest Stars Was Also One Of The Label's Biggest Songwriters

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In 1963 Booker T Jones took some time off from the M.G.s to to go to college. A local musician named Isaac Hayes was brought in as a replacement, to cover keyboards. Though Hayes had no formal training, he had an uncanny knack for identifying notes and writing arrangements. By the mid '60s, Hayes was writing a prolific collection of his own songs, and soon began a fruitful songwriting partnership at Stax with David Porter. The two found early success with duo Sam & Dave, writing a string of hits for the singers, including "Soul Man" and "Hold On, I'm Comin'". And this was all before Isaac (aka Black Moses) became a huge star in his own right.

4. Stax Wasn't Just A Soul Label

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Though Stax is synonymous with soul, the label often made efforts to diversify, with signings in rock, blues and country music. Some were more successful than others. Throughout the early 70s, the label tried mightily to score the next big country single. Unfortunately (but maybe not surprisingly), tracks like Roger Hallmark's "Truck Diver's Heaven" and Connie Eaton's "I Wanna Be Wrong Right Now" never made it to the radio waves. Stax tried bringing in local white blues group Moloch. Their self-titled debut LP became a cult favorite amongst guitar heads, but they never released another album together. One of the best-known rock bands to emerge from Stax was Memphis power pop group Big Star. Though they didn't see commercial success during their heyday in the early-mid 70s, Big Star's music went on to influence some of the biggest alt rock bands of the 80s and 90s, and they remain one of the most critically-acclaimed rock bands in history, with songs like "In The Street" and "Thirteen".

5. Stax Has OG Indie Cred

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So Estelle and Jim were busy running Stax in the early 60s. The hits were coming, and the label was building a name for itself. So much so, that Atlantic Records made a distribution deal with the label in 1961. Throughout the next few years, the label saw great success, rolling out hits from Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas and Booker T & The M.G.s. But by 1967, upon realizing that he hadn't signed a great deal, Jim Stewart wanted out. Unfortunately, he would lose control over all tracks recorded throughout Atlantic's time with the label. And so, beginning in 1968, the label had to go it alone, and re-build its catalog of hits. It wasn't long before Johnnie Taylor helped make this happen with "Who's Making Love". The song became Stax's biggest-selling single up to that point. By the end of the 60s, with stars like Taylor, The Staple Singers and Isaac Hayes, the label was back on its feet and stronger than ever.

6. Stax Had An Impressive Wall of Awards AND Broke Records

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Over the course of the 60s and 70s, Stax had 97 Top-Ten singles, 19 of those went to #1, while the label's artists took home 8 GRAMMY Awards. AND...If Isaac Hayes wasn't already the coolest, he took home the 1972 Academy Award for Best Original Song (for "Theme from Shaft") AND broke a few records while he was at it. Hayes became the first African American to win an Academy Award in a non-acting category. He was also the first recipient of the Best Original Song award to both write AND perform the winning song.

7. Stax Could Throw a Pretty Great Festival

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In August of 1972, Stax organized a concert to benefit Los Angeles' African American community of Watts, which was still reeling from the 1965 riots. Held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the concert (which became known as "The Black Woodstock") featured all of Stax's biggest stars, including The Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes, The Emotions, Rufus Thomas and Albert King, among many others. The Rev. Jesse Jackson gave his famous "I Am Somebody" speech to the audience at the top of the concert. A film of the festival and a soundtrack were released the following year.

8. A Prominent Trekkie Ran Stax

In 1965, an Arkansas-based DJ named Al Bell joined Stax as Director of Promotions. Bell rose through the ranks at the label, eventually becoming the Chairman of the Board and Executive Vice President, making Stax the second-largest African American-run business during its height in the 70s. Bell also was a producer and songwriter, and wrote one of the label's biggest hits (The Staple Singers' "I'll Take You There".) In 1967, Bell created a subsidiary label, which featured the solo recordings of Isaac Hayes (who, at the time, was simply a songwriter at the label). A huge fan of the TV show Star Trek, Bell named the imprint Enterprise, after the starship, and designed the logo as an homage to the space craft. Beam me up, Isaac??

9. Stax & Its Artists Were Players In The Civil Rights Movement

Stax Museum of American Soul Music / Via bittersoutherner.com

Aside from breaking records (see #6 & #8), and throwing groovy benefit concerts (see #7), Stax defied segregation from its headquarters in Memphis. Estelle and Jim set a precedent from the beginning, welcoming all races to their storefront, and carrying records from both white and black acts. In the Stax studios, white and black artists played together as equals, bonding over their love of music. In an interview, Stax biographer Robert Gordon stated that that "The MG’s could make international hits together, but they couldn’t go to a burger stand to be served together." Janis Joplin's pianist recalled going to a party at Jim Stewart's house, where there were "guests from both the black and white communities. Behind these doors people could mingle without prejudice." One of Stax's biggest acts, The Staple Singers, were activists in the Civil Rights movement, recording a handful of protest songs prior to their time on the label. In fact, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said that their song "Why Am I Treated So Bad" was his favorite. Pictured above are the two heads of Stax: Jim Stewart, and Al Bell. Seeing two executives, of equal stature and different colors, was not an ordinary photo at that time, especially in the south.

10. Stax Continues to Give Back

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In the mid 70s, Stax fell into bankruptcy and was forced to close its doors. After over a decade of neglect, the label's studios were torn town in 1989. However, things changed in the late 90s, when local residents and donors from around the world helped to fund a revitalization in the neighborhood, starting The Soulsville Foundation (named after Stax's "Soulsville U.S.A." tagline.) The foundation funded the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which was built on the former label's grounds, as a replica of the original building. The foundation also started the Soulsville Charter School, and the Stax Music Academy, both of which serve primarily at-risk, inner-city youth. The Soulsville Foundation aims to impart the spirit and soul upon which Stax Records was founded: using the power of music and opportunity to shape a young person’s life, rebuild a community and keep valuable history alive forever.

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