08/28/2014 10:03 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Woman Behind the Memphis Sound

Written by Sophia Dembling

Siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton defied cultural norms in the Jim Crow era to found Stax Records, one of the most influential soul and R&B labels of the 1960s and '70s.

There's no obvious reason why Estelle Axton and her brother Jim Stewart should have been the kind of people who would established Stax Records in the Jim Crow South.

One of the most prominent and influential soul and R&B labels of the 1960s, Stax artists included Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, and Isaac Hayes, backed by the house band, Booker T. and the MGs. The studio was located in the blue-collar African-American neighborhood of South Memphis, was founded by a pair of white siblings, and was a tightknit family of black and white artists working together.

"Jim and Estelle were righteous people who were living during a time and in a place that suggested that they should be anything other than who they were," says Deanie Parker, who joined the Stax family as a teenager and went on to become director of publicity. Parker helped establish the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which opened in 2003 on the site of the original studio.

The Stax Records building, previously the Capitol Theater, was razed in 1989.

Although Jim, a country fiddler, dreamed up the studio, Estelle is given credit for pushing him into what became recognized as a distinctive Memphis sound: raw and funky. She was, says Parker, "quite unlike any other white woman in the South with whom I had interaction."

When Jim first floated the idea of opening a recording studio, it was Estelle who bankrolled it by persuading her husband to take out a second mortgage on their home in 1958. The label was briefly based in Brunswick, Tennessee, but in 1959 the siblings rented the abandoned Capitol Theater on McLemore Avenue and converted it into a recording studio. (It opened as Satellite Records, but conflict with an existing label forced them to change the name. Stax combines letters from Estelle's and Jim's last names.)

They opened a record store in the theater's lobby to help pay the $150 monthly rent and keep the label afloat. As the label prospered, they bought the theater and adjacent property on the block.

16-year-old Deanie Parker wanted to be a singer when she knocked on the door at Stax, but took a job at the label's record store and worked her way up to director of publicity.

Estelle worked days at a bank and evenings at the record store. The contact she had with the kids there, as well as with her own children, helped develop her ear for what kids wanted. And she figured that if Sam Phillips at Sun Records could make his mark on the industry, she could too, says Parker: "While the men were grandstanding and smiling, she was working, studying, and juggling all her responsibilities."

Among the hits released by Stax: "Hold On, I'm Comin'"; "Sitting On the Dock of the Bay"; "Mr. Big Stuff"; "Soul Man"; "Theme from Shaft"; and "In the Midnight Hour," which Wilson Pickett and Steve Cropper wrote while hanging out at the nearby Lorraine Motel, one of the few places in Memphis where these black and white musicians could mingle.

But the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine changed the temperature in Memphis and the nation, marking the beginning of the end for Stax. It began a painful spiral to involuntary bankruptcy and folded in 1975.

The building was razed in 1989 and for years was just "glass and grass," says Parker. "[It was] one of those things you would drive the other way so you wouldn't have to see. Even the historical marker had things misspelled."

The museum was built on the site and around the original footprint of Studio A, where many iconic soul and R&B hits were recorded.

Parker's first effort to drum up interest in a museum went nowhere, but in 1998 she joined a group of civic leaders who had established the Ewarton Foundation (using the remainder of the names Stewart and Axton) to create the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Stax Music Academy. With $5 million in seed money from anonymous donors followed by several grants, the project got moving.

They decided to recreate Studio A on its original footprint because "the Stax soul music mystique revolved around what happened in Studio A," Parker says. With only black-and-white photographs to work from, they relied on memories, and debate, to get the colors as close as possible to the original. The rest of the museum was built around Studio A, an architectural challenge.

Today the museum is a deep, absorbing dive into an irresistible art form. If you visit, block out a few hours, because you'll want to watch all the performance videos, listen to all the interviews, and read all the history.

Touring cases belonging to Stax house band Booker T. & the MGs, Isaac Hayes's gold-plated Cadillac, and stage wear from some of soul music's hottest performers are among the displays at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.

But as proud as she is of the museum, Parker is prouder yet of the adjacent Stax Music Academy, which continues Estelle's legacy of nurturing young talent.

"A lot of the children we deal with come from the poorest ZIP codes in the county," Parker says. "It is to continue that philosophy of inclusiveness, that can-do spirit, to give children a warm and caring environment where their talents will be nurtured. Very few of them will go into the music industry, we also want them to be wholesome, happy individuals. We know the difference that music can make in one's life."

Sophia Dembling is the author of 100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go.