Localised soul labels emerged throughout the USA in the 1960s. Soul had distinct and identifiable regional variations and generally the further south you headed, the rawer it became: New York had the slick urban sounds of the Scepter and Wand labels (Maxine Brown, Chuck Jackson, the Shirelles); Cincinatti had the rougher King (Johnny Guitar Watson, Hank Ballard); Houston, Texas was home to Duke (Bobby Bland) and Backbeat (Carl Carlton); and Nashville provided intense country soul on the SSS International group of labels.
Stax was set up in Memphis by a bank clerk called Estelle Axton and her fiddle playing brother Jim Stewart. Memphis was a strictly segregated city in the late fifties when they bought up the derelict Capitol cinema on East McLemore in 1960. The popcorn stand out the front was soon converted into a record shop called Satellite, which funded the studio. Estelle's son Packy had the run of the studio, and began rehearsing with local school kids including guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald 'Duck' Dunn. They called themselves the Royal Spades, later The Mar Keys, and experimented with Country, R&B, Rockabilly, working up their own distinctive sound. The Satellite shop effectively became a social club where black and white mixed and everyone heard the latest sounds as soon as they landed in the racks. Estelle Axton and Jim Stewart worked in the shop by day, and in the studio at night and on weekends. Once the hits began, and the set-up began to grow, some of the kids who frequented the shop became employees. Keyboard player Booker T Jones and a grocery boy called David Porter were soon involved in studio sessions.
Through a shared love of R&B and rock'n'roll, the studio musicians had hit upon a new gritty but streamlined sound that solidified by '63 into the Stax sound: horns to the fore, intense vocals, drummer Al Jackson and bassist Duck Dunn's warm, compact rhythm section and, central to their tight groove, the economical guitar playing of Steve Cropper. Clipped and clean, Cropper's playing was the opposite of flash.
Stax had their first hits with Carla Thomas's Gee Whiz (Look In His Eyes) and The Mar Keys' Last Night in 1961; after two more major hits in '62 - William Bell's gospel-influenced You Don't Miss Your Water and the house band instrumental, Green Onions, credited to Booker T & The MGs - Stax became the sound of Memphis, earning the right to hang a sign over the Satellite record shop that read 'Soulsville USA'. When musicians started to seek out Stax, they ended up with Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Judy Clay, Eddie Floyd and Johnnie Taylor. Pretty soon, the sound became as important as the artist, and Stax became the southern equivalent to Motown.
Browse some of DP's Stax-related goodies here : STAX @ DADDYPOP