In 1961 a small, independent label with a few regional hits was about to blaze a stunning trail through the history of music. It would join Motown and Sun in bringing the sound of working-class America to the world. The hope, struggle, heartbreak, and joy would be there on wax for all who wished to hear. Stax—which would also release records as Volt and other subsidiaries through the '60s and early '70s—burst out of Memphis and onto the national stage with a stable of era-defining artists. The singles and albums they released are as vibrant and relevant today as they were then.
A bit of a disclaimer: As with all of my recent guides, this is not intended to be a “best of” or “Top 10” list of records. We’ll be using some specific singles and records as examples to teach you how to identify (and start collecting) various pressings from the different eras of the label. Stax was home to some of the biggest soul and funk acts of all time, so there are many variations of these records out there in the world. That said, before we jump into our guide, here are some quick picks to get you started:
In 1957, Satellite Records was a country and rockabilly label much like its nearby competition—Sun Records—which was just a few miles up the road. In 1960, though, they had a solid hit with “Cause I Love You,” the B-side to the “Deep Down Inside” single by father-daughter duo Carla and Rufus Thomas. The song, a two minute and forty-seven second R&B stunner, was enough to pick up a distribution deal with Atlantic Records through their ATCO subsidiary.
Two course-changing events happened at that point: The label changed focus to R&B and soul, and they came to the attention of a California-based record company named… Satellite Records. The little company housed in a former movie theater at 926 East McLemore Avenue in Memphis was about to change its name, be reborn, and set the charts on fire. Co-owners Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton combined their names and business acumen and became the one and only Stax Records.
Like other labels of the time, Stax utilized a studio system that relied on in-house musicians and songwriters. Unlike, say, Motown, the divisions between featured artist, session player, and engineer were fairly informal. People were hired for their talent and were expected to express that talent. Many session musicians, such as Isaac Hayes, started out playing backing tracks and moved into arrangements and then into being stars in their own right. The atmosphere was far more collaborative than at other labels, which arguably led to a stronger output of music.
Stax’s prodigious release schedule put it at odds with the policy of some radio stations. Stations were often unwilling to play more than a set number of songs by a specific label lest they be accused of engaging in payola, the practice of record labels sliding a station or DJ some cash to hype a song into a hit.
In order to get as many of their songs out on the air as possible, the Volt label was born. And with it, one of the best damned center labels ever designed. Look at that thing! Incredible.
Green Onions by Booker T. & the MGs is a great example of that early Stax sound, as well as the early center label design. Originals are going to have the standard mono light blue center label with the "Stax-o-Wax" logo at the 12 o’clock position. Stax will be in a squeezed lettering font just underneath the logo, with the title of the album center justified immediately below. The name of the group will be under the album title and above the spindle hole. Catalog number will be at the 9 o’clock position, and side indicator and “HIGH FIDELITY” at the 3 o’clock position. Track listing is center justified under the spindle hole.
“Distributed by Atlantic Record Sales” and the "1841 Broadway, New York, N.Y." address will be written across the bottom rim of the label. All the text is in black. Original sleeves are going to be heavy cardboard. This is a mono recording, but there is a stereo mix if you don’t mind the fact that it’s fake. Fake stereo, that is.
These 1968 reissues have a yellow center label similar to the mono, but does not have the Atlantic info at the bottom. We’ll get to why in a bit. Instead, there is a catalog number and pressing plant (such as “MO” for Monarch) center-aligned at the bottom. These pressings are fairly inexpensive and easier to find.
If you have to have a clean mono mix and don’t mind a modern mastering, Sundazed reissued the album in 2002. This pressing is easy to spot, as the Stax mono label recreation has Sundazed indicia and barcode on the back cover. Rhino also released the mono mix on 180-gram vinyl in 2017. The shrink wrap will have some hype stickers celebrating the 60th anniversary of Stax. The center labels are white and approximate the original typography and logo, but has WB indicia along the bottom rim of the label.
The center labels for singles are similar to those of LPs. And if you want to wake the neighbors, you could do worse than The Mar-Keys’ “Whot's Happenin'! / You Got It.” This single, like most of this era of Stax, was mono. The center label is a light blue. The 12 o’clock position has the logo and squeezed Stax. Publishing information is at the 9 o’clock position, while catalog number, running time, and song genre are at the 3 o’clock. Below the large spindle hole is the song title, writing credits, and band name. Along the bottom rim is the Atlantic distribution indicia.
Your record collection also needs to have Albert King’s Born Under a Bad Sign. If you’re flipping through a friend’s shelves and don’t see that legendary artistic statement of an album cover—with its playing card, cat, calendar, and dice—you need to rectify the situation.
Original monos will have the light blue label, while original stereo copies will have one of two yellow labels. One will be nearly identical to the mono save for the color of the label and the word “Stereo” where “High Fidelity” is on the mono. The other yellow label has the Atlantic distribution indicia center justified at the 6 o’clock position rather than along the bottom rim of the label. These are very expensive.
Atlantic did a repressing of this album in the ‘70s that is far more affordable but lacks the Stax label magic. A newer pressing of the stereo mix has been released by the modern incarnation of Stax. This has a yellow label with Stax indicia along the bottom rim and the famed snapping fingers boxed logo with the word “Stax” in red above it on the left hand side.
“Try a Little Tenderness” by the great Otis Redding is a definitive Volt Single. Original labels (which, as stated above, have the best label design ever) have a black and red scheme. The background and lettering is in black with fields and the bolts of electricity in red. An arc and burst of red are at the 12 o’clock position with the word “Volt” in the burst. The letters are a bit uneven, as if they have been struck by the power. Red fields on either side of the large center hole have the catalog, running time, and ASCAP info. A red wedge at the 6 o’clock position has the song title, artist, and “Dist. By ATCO Records” along the bottom rim.
While these particular copies of "Try a Little Tenderness" are affordable, they are often in bad shape. This song was very popular. A later pressing will have an orange center label with “Volt Records” in rainbow colors on the left hand side and a red bolt in a black field on the right. Song title is at the top and artist name at the bottom.
Speaking of Otis. The Soul Album. Get it! Originals have the yellow Volt center label. This label has “Volt Records” at the top of the label in two different font sizes sitting atop a black box with a horizontal yellow bolt cutting through it. Below this but above the spindle hole is the album title and artist name. Catalog and side info are on either side of the spindle hole at the 3 and 6 o’clock positions, respectively. Song titles are center-justified below the spindle hole. "Distributed by ATCO..." runs along the bottom rim.
‘70s pressings were produced by ATCO and feature a yellow center label and an ATCO “color wheel” on the left-hand side. Stax reissued the album in 2017 on 180-gram vinyl. The center label approximates the original but has WB and Atlantic indicia running along the bottom rim.
The Mad Lads In Action—another stunning record from this time, if not as well remembered as Otis’ output—was originally issued in mono. The mono center label used the light blue background and has “High Fidelity” under the side indicator, whereas the yellow stereo labels say “Stereo.” The 2010 Stax reissue has a nearly identical center label to the original stereo version, but does not have the ATCO indicia along the bottom.
You may have noticed that later pressings of original Stax/Volt albums do not have Atlantic or ATCO indicia or that some of those albums have been reissued on the Atlantic or subsidiary labels. We’re about to find out why.
Atlantic was sold to Warner Brothers in 1967. This led to a renegotiation between Stax and Atlantic/Warner. It did not go well, and Stax decided not to renew the deal. It was then that Stax found out that Atlantic owned their masters and were free to take control of any recording they had distributed for Stax/Volt. 1967 was also the year that Otis Redding died. Three years later, Axton left the company.
All of these setbacks certainly hurt the label, but Stax was still in the fight. They had their artists and they still had a legendary studio with its own unique sound. Because the studio’s live room was in a converted section of the theater auditorium, records made there sound like no other. The sloping floor created unique reflections, and that sonic fingerprint was a big draw to fans, Stax artists, and musicians around the world. The Beatles considered recording an album there, while Elvis Presley ended up recording three. In addition to the unique studio layout, engineers at Stax had some innovative techniques (and you can read about some of the drum tricks over at Reverb).
Ollie & The Nightingales’ “Mellow Way You Treat Your Man” was released in 1969 and features the first post-Atlantic single center label. It has the familiar yellow and black scheme, but with narrower type. Song title and writing credits are at the 12 o’clock position. At the 3 o’clock position are the catalog and publishing information. The artist and producer credits are at the 6 o’clock position. To the left of the large spindle hole, we see the new logo. This would be a snapping hand in blue tint with “Stax” in red above it, all contained in a white box.
Issac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul—a classic Stax recording from this era—was released on Enterprise Records, another Stax subsidiary. Originals have black center labels with “Enterprise” in yellow serif font across the top. To the immediate right of the text is a boxed logo with a stylized treble clef and record design in blue that says “Enterprise” in block letters. Some versions of the label have artist, title, and song info all below the spindle hole. Others will have artist and title above the spindle hole. These will have “stereophonic” on the left-hand side of the label. A third variation will use narrow lettering and have artist and title above the spindle hole. These have “stereo” on the right side of the label.
‘70s pressings have a rainbow circular logo at the 12 o’clock position and the word “Enterprise” in a white block font with very stylized E’s. Stax reissued the album on the rebooted Stax label in 2013. These have a yellow and black center label similar to the old stereo labels, but has a black unboxed snapping hand logo on the left side. Craft Recordings released their own reissue that approximates the original Enterprise labels. These will have Craft Recordings indicia along the bottom rim of the label and have barcodes.
Be Altitude: Respect Yourself by The Staple Singers has a similar yellow label to earlier 1971–72 releases, but the snapping hand is now tinted brown and the word “Records” has been added under the hand but still within the box. The address along the bottom rim is "98 North Avalon," where Stax's offices resided during this later time period. The 1978 reissue has a purple center label that gradates to white from top to bottom. Beginning in 1977, Fantasy owned Stax's catalog, so this 1978 Staples Singers release, like other Stax records from this era, will have “Distributed By Fantasy Records Berkeley, California” written along the bottom rim.
While the music is as good as ever, ‘70s Volt singles do not have that cool black and red center label. Some, like Charlene and The Soul Serenaders' “Love Changes,” have a blue and black design, with a large red and black downward bolt on the right.
Others, like Mavis Staples’ “Endlessly,” released in 1972, have an orange label with black type. Song title will be above the large spindle hole, artist information at the 6 o’clock position, and catalog information at the 9 o’clock position. A yellow downward bolt with “Volt” in white block letters with drop shadow are to the right of the spindle hole.
In 1971, Volt released The Dramatics excellent Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get. Early pressings of this album are gatefold and have the orange LP center label. These labels have an orange background with black text. Artist info and song titles are below the spindle hole. A large, yellow bolt design juts downward through the center label and has “Volt” in large, white block letters with drop shadow. The late-‘70s pressings have the purple to white gradient center label and have a different cover. This alternative cover features a photo of the band with “Dramatics” written across the top in... dramatic handwritten script. The 2011 reissue brings back the psychedelic illustration of the eye, sun rays, and trees cover. As with most reissues, these are probably digitally sourced.
In 1975, Stax/Volt became insolvent—though that didn't stop Stax music from being released under new owners. For a while, the labels were used strictly for reissue purposes by various other labels that bought the rights to their catalogs. The current owner, Concord, brought Stax back to life and is currently issuing new albums by Nathaniel Rateliff, Ben Harper, Melissa Etheridge, and more. Of course, they still reissue plenty of early classics.