Stax Records is synonymous with deep, gritty soul music. The Memphis-based studio and record label was responsible for countless titans of R&B, including Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave, the Staple Singers and Carla Thomas. It’s funny to think that the label known as Soulsville, U.S.A., began by releasing country records.

Before its glory days as Stax, the label was called Satellite -- founded in 1957, by Jim Stewart in his wife’s uncle’s garage in Memphis. Stewart was a fiddle player and so his tastes naturally leaned toward country music, which is what he originally sought to record and release on Satellite, along with rockabilly and pop tunes. A year after starting out, Stewart got a much-needed financial boost from his sister Estelle Axton, who mortgaged her house to buy a console tape recorder, and in so doing, became a financial partner in Satellite. In 1959, she helped the burgeoning label out of the garage and into a better facility in Brunswick, Tenn. (about 20 miles northeast of Memphis).

It was during Satellite’s sabbatical in Brunswick that Stewart became interested in R&B music. Producer, songwriter and guitarist Lincoln Wayne “Chips” Moman helped turn him on to some of the local groups, one of which was a black vocal quintet that called themselves the Veltones (sometimes written Vel-Tones). The group, composed of Samuel Jones, Alvin Standard, Kenneth Patterson, George Powell and Jimmy Ellis, had been singing in Memphis since 1952, taking their inspiration from doo-wop. Stewart enjoyed the Veltones’ smooth sound and offered to record and release a single for the group on Satellite.

On a handful of occasions in the spring of 1959, the Veltones trucked on out to Brunswick to record a pair of songs. Chips Moman would serve as the guitarist on the session, along with bassist Jimbo Hale and drummer Jerry “Satch” Arnold (according to Rob Bowman’s ‘Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records’). Moman and Arnold also wrote the song selected for the A-side, ‘Fool in Love,’ which features Chips’ ghostly, twangy lead guitar -- a peculiar sound on a ’50s R&B recording. The B-side was the more traditionally sounding ballad ‘Someday,’ with songwriting credit given to the group.

Although it wasn’t the first record released on the label, ‘Fool in Love’/‘Someday’ was released in the summer of 1959 as Satellite 100 (possibly because Estelle Axton was now doing the books and wanted to start the numbering system all over). As it turned out, the reboot was appropriate. Of course, the Veltones record would be the first by a black group on a label that would soon become world famous for R&B music.

In addition, the single marked the first time Stewart and Axton made any money from their record label. Since Satellite could only manage to distribute copies regionally, Mercury Records contacted Stewart with an offer to take the record national. Mercury paid Satellite between $400-500 for the rights and re-released the record in September 1959. However, the record flopped and no one saw any more money from ‘Fool in Love.’

While the single wasn’t a huge windfall for Stewart and his label, it did lead to bigger things. While he was promoting ‘Fool in Love,’ Jim met Memphis radio DJ and recording artist Rufus Thomas. The pair hit it off and began plans to work with each other. Meanwhile, Chips Moman had convinced Stewart to move back to Memphis to be closer to the action. The label took up residence at the former Capitol Theatre on East McLemore St., where it would remain for years to come. In the summer of 1960, the first artists to record at the new studio were Rufus and his daughter Carla Thomas. Satellite would record and release the duo’s ‘Cause I Love You,’ which would become the label’s first big hit, lead to a distribution agreement between Stewart and industry heavyweight Atlantic Records and, finally, force a name change. As there was already a Satellite Records company in California, Stewart and Axton combined the first two letters of their last names and rebranded their up-and-coming label as Stax Records. Soulsville, U.S.A. was about to be born.

Listen to the Veltones' ‘Fool in Love’

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