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Stax Records co-founder dies at 85

Estelle Axton brought 'racial harmony' to Memphis label
/ Source: The Associated Press

Estelle Axton, co-founder of the famed Stax Records Co., which generated hits from acts including Sam and Dave, Otis Redding Jr. and The Staple Singers, has died. She was 85.

Axton died of natural causes Tuesday at the hospice at Saint Francis Hospital, said her son-in-law, Fred Fredrick.

The musicians on the soul record label called Axton “Lady A,” and others who knew her described her as a calming, nurturing presence in the Memphis neighborhood.

“Were it not for her, there’s no way Stax could have become what it became,” said David Porter. Porter and Isaac Hayes co-wrote numerous Stax hits, including Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man” and “Hold On, I’m Coming.”

Hayes said Axton was responsible for the racial harmony at Stax.

“You didn’t feel any backoff from her, no differentiation that you were black and she was white,” Hayes said. “Being in a town where that attitude was plentiful, she just made you feel secure. ... She was like a mother to us all.”

Between 1960 and 1975, Stax’s roster also included Booker T. and the MGs, Rufus Thomas, Albert King, Johnnie Taylor, The Mar-Keys and the Bar-Kays.

Axton and other family members went on to establish the Fretone label which produced Rick Dees’ 1977 hit “Disco Duck.”

Porter said Axton encouraged him and others in the Stax neighborhood after she mortgaged her home to help start the record company with her brother, Jim Stewart.

Stax began as Satellite Records in 1957 but was forced to change the name because a California company already was using it.

The siblings combined their last names — the “St” from Stewart and the “Ax” from Axton — to come up with Stax, which became a rival to Detroit’s giant Motown sound in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Axton’s daughter Doris Fredrick worked in the Stax record shop said her mother’s experience as a teacher gave her a special nurturing ability.

“She worked 12 hours a day. She had time for anybody that came through the door,” Doris Fredrick said. “I’d say, ’I’m sorry she’s booked today.’ And she’d come out and say, ’Oh no, I have time for them. I’m never too busy’ if it was the neighborhood kids or someone who wanted to play a song for her.”