Spectropop remembers

ESTELLE AXTON (1918 - 2004)

Lady A, the ax in Stax

Memphis music legend Estelle Axton, co-founder of Stax Records and a mentor to some of the world's most influential musicians and composers, has died. She was 85. Her son-in-law, Fred Fredrick said she died at the hospice at Saint Francis Hospital of natural causes. The musicians at Stax called her 'Lady A'. "Were it not for her, there's no way Stax could have become what it became", said David Porter, a songwriting legend who with co-writer Isaac Hayes composed scores of Stax hits including Sam and Dave's 'Soul Man' and 'Hold On, I'm Coming'. "She had a positive spirit toward the acts in that community and any young kids who came in there with aspirations. There's no way that Stax could have become Stax without the positive energy that this lady contributed," said Porter.

Porter says 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. The family said Stewart was with Axton when she died. Stax began as Satellite Records in 1957, but they were forced to change the name because a California company already was using it. They combined their 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. Between 1960 and 1975, Stax also produced artists such as Otis Redding, the Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas, Albert King, Johnnie Taylor, the Mar-Keys, the Bar-Kays and many others. Axton and other family members went on to establish the Fretone label that produced Rick Dees's massive hit 'Disco Duck'.

Axton's daughter Doris Fredrick, who worked with her mother in the record shop, said Axton's earlier 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."

Deanie Parker, president and executive director of Soulsville, the organization that developed the Stax Museum Of American Soul Music and Stax Music Academy, described Mrs. Axton as "the mother figure, if you will, in a lot of ways."

Isaac Hayes echoed Parker's assessment: "Estelle was a very generous woman. She was generous with her time, with her counsel, with her advice," he said. "I think she was responsible for the racial harmony at Stax. Mrs. Axton, you didn't feel any backoff from her, no differentiation that you were black and she was white. Being in a town where that attitude was plentiful, she just made you feel secure. She was like a mother to us all."

Pamela Perkins and Michael Lollar - The Commercial Appeal, Memphis

Estelle Axton, co-founder of Stax Records: born Sept 11, 1918 - died February 24, 2004