Satellite Records was launched 50 years ago in Memphis. The company became better known when the name was changed to Stax—a conflation of its two owners' names, Jim Stewart and his sister, Estelle Axton. Stewart and Axton were both white, but they set up their recording studio in an old movie theater on McLemore Avenue in a Memphis neighborhood that was rapidly becoming black. And the rest is history—a history gloriously preserved in Stax 50, a recently issued two-disc collection of the company's 50 greatest hits.
During the 1960s and early '70s, outside the Stax studio doors, Memphis was a rigidly segregated city. Its political and economic leaders were firmly committed to white supremacy. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated there. As late as 1971, the Memphis city government closed all public swimming pools rather than desegregate them. Meanwhile, on McLemore Avenue, inside the studio that became known as "Soulsville USA," black and white people worked together as equals to produce music that moved hearts, souls, feet, and pelvises the world over.
A scan down the track listing for Stax 50 tells the story: Rufus Thomas, Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MGs, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes, Johnnie Taylor, Eddie Floyd, The Staple Singers—and those are just the ones who had pop hits. Dozens of other Stax artists placed records on the rhythm-and-blues charts during the Soulsville era.