Estelle Axton was the co-founder of the legendary Stax Records -- home to acts including Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and Isaac Hayes -- and widely renowned as the premier label in the rich history of Memphis soul. Known to the artists who recorded for her as "Lady A," she was born Estelle Stewart and was a schoolteacher by trade -- her brother Jim, 12 years her junior, played fiddle in a series of local Western swing bands before settling down as a banker. In 1957, Jim Stewart formed Satellite Records, setting up a recording studio in his wife's uncle's Memphis garage; when he relocated the label to nearby Brunswick the following year, Axton agreed to mortgage her home to fund the purchase of more up-to-date recording equipment. The $2500.00 gamble paid off in 1960, when WDIA disc jockey Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla cut Satellite's first hit, "'Cause I Love You." A year later, the Mar-Keys (featuring Axton's son Packy on tenor sax) scored with the classic "Last Night," but when a California label also called Satellite threatened to file a lawsuit, Stewart and Axton rechristened their company Stax, borrowing the first two letters from their respective surnames. In the years to follow, Stax rivaled Motown as America's most respected and successful soul label, reeling off a string of immortal hits that included Booker T. & the MG's "Green Onions," Sam & Dave's "Hold on, I'm Comin'," Redding's "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay," Eddie Floyd's "Knock on Wood," and William Bell's "You Don't Miss Your Water." In 1968, Stewart and Axton sold Stax to film company Gulf & Western, only to buy the company back two years later in time for the commercial ascendance of Hayes and the Staple Singers. In 1972, Stax signed a distribution deal with CBS, but an IRS investigation and cash-flow problems would doom the company into involuntary bankruptcy in late 1975. Two years later, Fantasy Records acquired Stax's master tapes at auction for just $1.3 million, while Axton went on to found the Fretone label, which launched Rick Dees' 1977 novelty smash "Disco Duck." The Stax Museum of American Soul Music, Music Academy, and Performing Arts Center opened in Memphis in 2003 -- Axton died of natural causes on Feb. 24, 2004 at the age of 85.
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