Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,146

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,146

This is the grave of Estelle Axton.

Born in 1918 in Middleton, Tennessee, Estelle Stewart’s parents were farmers. Her early life seems to have been fairly unexceptional. Like lots of young rural people, she moved to the city during World War II, in her case, Memphis, about 50 miles west of her home. She at first was going to go into teaching and went to Memphis State University. Then she got a job in a bank. She married a guy named Everett Axton. They had a family.

But in 1958, Axton’s brother Jim Stewart came to her with a proposition that would change music history. He wanted to start a record label to record some of the South’s many amazing artists who did not have a recording contract. The original idea here was to focus on country music, as well as rockabilly music. She thought this was interesting and decided to invest with him on the venture. They named their label Satellite Records. Pretty quickly, they realized that the real opportunity was to record the many Black artists on Memphis. They opened a studio and agreed to be full partners. She had some good leverage to do that, as she basically paid for everything in the early years. It was Estelle who pushed this change. Stewart was a country picker. But Axton saw where the money could be. To say the least, it worked out.

Now, it turned out there was a label in Los Angeles named Satellite Records. So they had to change the name. And they did–to Stax, combining their two last names. To say the least, this was a good idea. Thus began one of the most important labels in the history of American music. Initially, it was Stewart’s deal more, but Axton proved to be just as important to the label. Rufus and Carla Thomas were among the first artists to score big working with them, when it was still Satellite. Rufus Thomas basically rushed over there when he heard there was a new label willing to record Black artists, even if it was white owned. Worked out well for him too. Axton handled a lot of the business matters, while Stewart handled the recording studio, along with Chips Moman, who would later become a big deal himself. As part of this, they had a record shop. Axton ran that. As such, she could see not only which records sold but which records got customers excited. This gave her a real insight into what worked and what didn’t.

One thing that Axton and Stewart were both responsible for is getting a distribution agreement with Atlantic Records, which along with Motown was the most important label distributing Black artists at the time. This gave their artists a vastly larger footprint and given how many Stax artists became major figures in the history of American music, it was hugely beneficial for all involved.

Axton also had a son, Packy, who recorded who had a band known as the Mar-Keys (he is actually buried next to his parents). She convinced Stewart to record and release them as well. “Last Night” became the biggest hit Stax released thus far. Now this story is a bit more complicated. See, the original name of the Mar-Keys was The Royal Spades. Let’s just say a band of white kids with this name was, uh, not going to fly. So they changed it and then they backed Carla Thomas for some time.

The history of the music industry tends to focus heavily on men, often to the outright exclusion of women. This erases a lot of important women, even given that sexism did often limit their influence during these years. Axton was a central figure at Stax. Running that record shop was huge because she also got to hear lots of material from other labels that she introduced the musicians to. For example, Booker T. Jones remembered:

She just loved music, loved people. She was always bringing us up there, having us listen to records. She kept us in touch with the music industry. I doubt there would have been a Stax Records without Estelle Axton. She encouraged the entire Stax roster from her little perch behind the counter.

Axton was known as “Lady A” among the musicians and was known for her calmness among crazy and volatile musicians. Now, it’s worth noting here that there’s a huge myth about racial harmony among labels like Stax. As Charles Hughes has definitively shown in his great book Country Soul about this scene, labels such as Stax may have been integrated but all the tensions that were part of the South during these years were reflected in what was happening at these labels. And if you ever want your opinion about Duck Dunn and Steve Cropper changed by hearing what they actually had to say about Black people getting studio gigs instead of them during the soul era, well, this is the book for you. Moreover, Booker T. Jones came out after the book was published and stated publicly how much he appreciated someone telling the true story of race relations in his band and the whole scene.

Axton has been a part of that mythology. It’s not that I am slamming on Axton here. Isaac Hayes particularly credited her with being a really great person and they wrote a lot of songs together. For a white woman in 1960s and 1970s America, especially the South, this is a remarkable figure. It is however worth pushing back on the mythology a little bit, if not around Axton herself, around the scene that is so often promoted as a racial paradise in the midst of southern segregation, which it was not. What Axton absolutely did do was the groundwork on music around the nation to figure out what was popular, how the Memphis musicians could build from it, and then introducing them to what she heard and her ideas. However, it is worth noting that the label promoting the Mar-Keys so strongly caused a lot of resentment among the Black musicians who believed, quite correctly, that this was about race as much as skill. Moreover, when they were on the road backing up Carla Thomas or whoever else, they got the nice accommodations and Thomas got the Jim Crow accommodations.

In 1968, Stax sold part of the company to Al Bell, who was Black. This was the moment of Black Power. And Bell took the label in a direction that embraced Black pride and Black musicians backing Black singers. He wanted racial equality in Stax management. Axton was outraged by all of this, as was Steve Cropper. Bell still worked with white musicians. Some of the decisions here was about money–Stax wanted to market itself as the music of the soul movement and to do so, it needed to be a Black label. But the white privilege that Axton and Cropper held onto was very strong. Axton stated, “Al Bell had . . gotten in so tight with the blacks, you could see division—both in the company and outside. I could feel it and see it, how he would have meetings with some of the blacks and no white was allowed.” Hoo boy. Meanwhile, Steve Cropper stated publicly that these people were racist toward whites. Yikes.

In 1970, Axton sold her share of Stax and started her own label, Fretone Records. She sold because her white privilege was being challenged quite frankly. This is what Hughes notes in Country Soul. Fretone would be known for one thing–the novelty Rick Dees hit “Disco Duck” in 1976. Well, it made people a lot of money. We’ll leave it at that. OK, so her own label wasn’t anything to special. But she was still very involved in the local music scene. In 1973, she founded the Memphis Songwriters Association to help promote local songwriting talent and get their work in the hands of people who might record it. In fact, for the rest of her life, Axton was involved in the local Memphis music scene in various organizations to promote local talent.

Axton died in 2004, at the age of 85.

Estelle Axton is buried in Forest Hill Cemetery, Memphis, Tennessee.

If you would like this series to visit other record executives, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Leonard Chess is in Chicago and Ahmet Ertegun is in Istanbul, Turkey, which you should totally send me to see. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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