The next chapter of the story of the Memphis sound begins in what once was a storehouse in Brunswick, Tennessee, a small community straddling what used to be the L&N railroad out in northeastern Shelby County. Half a century ago, if you asked a local where Brunswick was, they would tell you “It’s eight miles from four-way,” and that answer would suffice. The answer to why anyone would put a recording studio out here, so far away from the general populace, has to do with price and space.
Full-time banker and part-time fiddler Jim Stewart had developed an interest in recording, and his hobby was outgrowing the garage on Orchi Street where he dabbled in cutting country and rockabilly bands. Jim’s sister, Estelle Axton, made the move from their hometown of Middleton, Tennessee to Memphis a few years before her younger brother. She taught school for a while, then took a job at a bank. As the 50’s neared their end, and Jim’s hobby inched closer to becoming his career, Estelle also found that the numbers which fascinated her most weren’t those on the bank balance sheets, but the musical numbers which came pouring from the speakers when Jim played one of his new projects. She shared her vision with her husband Everett, and second-mortgaged their home to finance new recording equipment and renovations to that store space out in Brunswick.
Jim obtained the new location for literally a song. A barber friend offered him use of the building for free, in exchange for recording the barber’s daughter. The new enterprise was dubbed Satellite Records.
At this point, Chips Moman enters the story again. We were introduced to Chips as a guitarist working with acts at Fernwood records. Since those days, Chips had hit the road with Johnny Burnette and Gene Vincent‘s bands. He was a session player at Gold Star Studios in LA. Back in the mid-south, Chips broadened the musical horizons of the new label.
The first single recorded in Brunswick and released on Satellite was by an R&B band called the Veltones. “Fool In Love” didn’t make an enormous splash, but it was picked up for national distribution by Mercury Records. Among the DJ’s Stewart would meet as he worked to drum up airplay for the single was WDIA’s Rufus Thomas. By the time a second single was released, Charles Heinz’ recording of “Prove Your Love,” all parties realized the long trip out to Brunswick simply wasn’t paying off, despite the free rent. And there was the factor of the train tracks. Just about the time they would get a band rolling, another L&N train would roll through and bust the take. So the search was on for a move back to Memphis.
Built in the 30‘s, The Capitol Theater on McLemore brings back fond memories to South Memphians of Saturdays spent watching double features, a serial, and three cartoons, plus a Coke and candy bar, all for a quarter. By 1960, those days were gone, and the building was up for rent. Chips Moman found it, and all parties decided it fit the bill. With 25-foot high ceilings and a sloped floor, the room retained a live concert-hall feeling which would give the label’s recordings an identifiable sound all their own. The team pitched in on renovations, building the control room on the stage, adding acoustic baffles, and converting the candy counter into a record store.
One of the first callers to the new tenants was that DJ Jim Stewart pitched the Veltones single to, Rufus Thomas. Rufus had recorded hits for Sun Records, but found that once Sam Phillips discovered Elvis, he no longer had time for the R&B artists who were his early bread and butter. Rufus came in with the suggestion that he christen the new studio by recording his composition “Cause I Love You” as a duet with his teenaged daughter Carla. This release gave Jim Stewart something he hadn’t tasted in three years of trying… a hit record! Airplay from Nashville to San Francisco helped fuel sales nearing 20,000 copies, and got the attention of Jerry Wexler with Atlantic Records in New York. Atlantic offered a distribution deal which gave Satellite Records their first big bucks, but down the line would prove to be the textbook demonstration that one should always consult a lawyer before signing a contract.
But in the summer of 1960, things were looking up for Jim Stewart, Estelle Axton, the Thomas family, and a record company which would soon change its name.