This year is the 60th anniversary of the founding of the mighty Memphis soul music label Stax Records. Originally named Satellite Records, Stax and its subsidiary, Volt, released classics by Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, the Staple Singers, Carla Thomas, Eddie Floyd, William Bell, Albert King, Johnnie Taylor and many more.
As if the names of the label’s artists aren’t enough to illustrate Stax’s place in American music, the company’s sales further show its impact. Releasing more than 800 singles and nearly 300 albums, Stax sent 167 recordings into the Top 100 pop charts and 243 recordings into the Top 100 rhythm and blues charts.
From 1962 on, Deanie Parker was there for the Stax glory years. Parker was a junior in high school when Estelle Axton, sister of label founder Jim Stewart, hired her to work in the Stax-adjacent Satellite Record Shop. She later transitioned from record shop staff and aspiring singer to Stax marketing and publicity.
“It is unbelievable that the music we created has been around for 60 years,” Parker said from her Memphis home, a stone’s throw away from the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. “And the music is still as powerful as it was when it was first released. I am thrilled and honored to have been associated with such a magnificent and unique label.”
Parker stays involved with Stax through her work with the Stax Museum. She’s also helping promote the label’s 60th anniversary activities, which include an extensive reissue campaign by the owners of the classic Stax catalog, Concord Music Group and Warner Music Group. The campaign began in May with 10 budget-priced, single-artist hits collections.
In addition to the singers, musicians and songwriters who clinched Stax’s commercial success, Parker gives much credit to label executives Al Bell, Axton and Stewart.
“Stax Records was my baby,” Stewart, 87, said in a recent statement. “I am so pleased that the music we created and recorded at Stax is still being discovered, and it continues to reside in the hearts of devotees everywhere who know the joy and power of real music.”
Stewart, Parker said, “was always recognizing talent and providing opportunities. And Estelle Axton was such a nurturing soul. She created that open door-philosophy and gathered all of us kids around that turntable in that record shop. We analyzed what other companies were doing outside of Memphis.”
Axton led research and development at Stax. “As much as the record shop could provide that service,” Parker said. “Listening to the product. Letting the customers listen to it and checking out their reactions. We called them demos. And then communicating that information to Booker T. and the M.G.’s and Jim Stewart and (Stax musicians) Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love.”
Parker’s own desire to be a singer at Stax quickly dissipated.
“I was going to be bigger than Carla Thomas,” she said with a chuckle. “But my recording career was short-lived. And that’s okay. I didn’t have the talent. A few people enjoyed my records, but I was never impressed.”
The challenges faced by African-American performers during the Jim Crow era also helped dissuade Parker from a singing career.
“I didn’t want to be out here on the road where we couldn’t stay in good hotels,” she said. “We couldn’t stop at a service station and use the restroom. We couldn’t go in a decent restaurant. I didn’t want to have any part of that.”
All of the above led Parker to admire the Stax artists even more.
“I have such deep respect for those artists who became what they became and contributed to our great music,” she said. “They hung in there. They did it. But I would have thrown in the towel.”
Inside the tall black double-door front entrance to the Stax Record Co., a.k.a. Soulsville USA, the egalitarian atmosphere offered a deep contrast to the injustice outside. Black and white musicians and office staff worked side by side in Stax. Meanwhile, the city of Memphis strictly enforced its segregation laws and African-Americans had slim chance of rising on the socioeconomic ladder.
“It was a utopian environment at Stax,” Parker remembered. “We would leave our segregated neighborhoods, set aside our differences, our suspicions, our prejudices, and go into Stax Records. We got lost in the creativity going on behind those double doors with the gold studs on them. That’s all we cared about. What we were doing was in the very marrow of our bones. It was in the sweat. It certainly was in the heart and soul.”
The merger of the singers’ and musicians’ differing backgrounds enriched the music of Stax, Parker said.
“Each of them had a different perspective about almost everything,” she said. “But they enjoyed each other and developed genuine relationships. They learned to love each other to the extent that, when one bled, they all bled. That was happening, maybe, in other places, but not in such a comprehensive way in anyplace other than Stax Records, on the corner of College Street and East McLemore Avenue.”