Jim Stewart, who founded what became the Stax Records label and produced some of the great soul records of the 1960s, died Monday at age 92. A cause of death was not released.
Stewart co-founded the iconic, Memphis-based Black music label in 1957 and ran it, with eventual help from future figurehead Al Bell, until the early 1970s, when he sold out his interest. Along the way, he was instrumental in discovering and/or releasing records from such greats as Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas, the Staple Singers, Wilson Pickett and Booker T. and the MG’s, producing and especially engineering many of these singles himself.
The label owner and producer was a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, having been inducted in 2002 by two of the musicians he made famous, Sam Moore and Steve Cropper. He was given the hall’s Ahmet Ertegun Award for his pioneering efforts.
Stewart freely admitted he knew little about Black music prior to Stax, and indeed, what was known as Satellite Records when the label was founded in 1957 started out with a country music emphasis. But he not only recognized the importance of R&B a few years into the company’s run but became actively involved in its direction and recordings as it soon defined the “Memphis sound” that enthralled that generation and many more to come.
Wrote Grammy-winning writer Bob Mehr for Stewart’s hometown newspaper, the Memphis Commercial Appeal: “It’s one of the funny twists of history that the greatest, funkiest soul label in the world, one of the most powerful outlets for African-American expression, was started by a white hillbilly fiddler and bank employee named Jim Stewart.”
For his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, a piece in the 2002 program book celebrating his entry summed up the interracial legend that Stax became under his guidance. “Arguably as important as Stax’s groundbreaking music was the fact that Stewart, within the confines of that converted movie theater, created an environment that brought to life Dr. Martin Luther King’s integrationist dream,” the Rock Hall entry read. “Located in the heart of the segregated South, and operating at the height of the most tumultuous period in the civil rights movement’s history, Stax Records defiantly stood as an oasis where Black and white musicians wrote songs, played music and forged friendships as complete equals. While much of white Memphis gasped in horror, Stax created magic.”
Stewart was not ashamed of the truth behind the “hillbilly” tag that got put on him — although, as photos indicate, he had changed with the times and adopted a bearded, beatnik look around the time Stax really began taking off in the 1960s.
“I’m a hillbilly at heart,” Stewart said during a rare visit to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music — which sits on the site of the label’s original demolished building — in 2018, as reported by Mehr. “I grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry. I got to Memphis after I graduated high school, and one day I heard a record by a gentleman named Ray Charles. From that time on, I knew what I had to do. I had to find a way to make music like Ray Charles. Since Sun Records was so famous … we decided to go in the record business.”
Stewart co-founded Satellite Records with his sister, Estelle Axton, whom he credited for being the real instigator in starting the company, as she mortgaged her home to kick it off. As the ’50s turned into the ’60s, they moved operations into an abandoned Memphis movie theater, the Capitol Theater on McLemore Avenue, and changed the name to Stax Records, combining the first two letters of their last names. It didn’t hurt that those letters combined to form a play on how music fans stacked their records on automatic turntables at the time. It wasn’t until 1965 that he finally quit his bank job to focus on the label full-time.
In 1960, Satellite had a regional hit with Carla and Rufus Thomas’ “‘Cause I Love You,” which was soon followed by the label’s first national hit, Carla Thomas’ “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes),” which made the top 5 on the R&B chart and top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. Though these singles were outliers for the label at that point, Stewart quickly realized that soul should be the company’s bread-and-butter. “Prior to that I had no knowledge of what Black music was about,” he said. “It was like a blind man who suddenly gained his sight.” Although the early Thomas hit is not one of the many Stax songs that endures on oldies radio, it attracted the attention of Atlantic Records and specifically label VP Jerry Wexler, and a deal was forged for Atlantic’s Atco division to distribute what in 1961 became known as Stax (even as Thomas herself moved over to Atlantic). It proved a fruitful relationship until there was a break between the two labels in 1968.
Serendipity thrived amid the multi-racial cast of musicians. Booker T. and the MG’s formed in 1961 as a house band before breaking out with their own hits like “Green Onions,” and they kept that unofficial role up through 1970. Out of that abundance, other stars rose. Recalled Isaac Hayes, “I had been to Stax about three different times with a blues band… trying to get a break and was always turned down.” But after being on the periphery as someone who played and wrote songs, Hayes recalled, Stewart “said, ‘You know, you sound pretty good on keyboards. Booker T. is off in Indiana. You in school. Would you like to become a staff musician here? So that’s how I got into Stax.” His “Shaft” soundtrack album and theme song would land among the biggest hits of 1971. Stewart later admitted that for years he saw no potential in Hayes as a star on his own, but noted, “I’ve been wrong before in my life.”
The 1968 split with Atlantic — the fateful result of a dispute over a contract that both Stewart and Wexler said they didn’t completely read — was one of two major crisis points in Stax’s history. The endangered label emerged out of the ashes with a new financier, Gulf & Western, a new co-head, former promotion man Al Bell (pictured above with Stewart), and an all-new flow of vital recordings to replace the ones Stax had lost to Atlantic in the split. Bell bought out Stewart in the early ’70s, but within a few years, financial problems developed, and the label was not able to weather this second huge setback, having been forced into bankruptcy in 1975. Stewart, who had been out of the picture for a few years, came back in to try to help save the label by mortgaging his house to keep Stax afloat, but it was to little avail.
Still, the mythos of the label continued to be a part of pop culture, even if the label scarcely survived the mid-’70s as a business. An attempt to revive the indie label under new owners resulted in some R&B hits in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but the luster of a label that not very many years before had had a feature film in theaters, “Wattstax,” was long gone. Stax settled into being a catalog label under the Fantasy umbrella. There was great sadness when the run-down former movie theater that had been the label’s home was torn down in 1989 by a church that had come into possession of it, in a historic example of how a lack of preservation laws can lead to what will soon be seen by all, even by those with little sense of nostalgia, as a tragedy.
Happily, the building was recreated on the same site — or at least its original facade was — as the Stax Museum of American Soul Music opened in 2003. With tours and a souvenir shop, it became one of Memphis’ prime tourist attractions. But more than that, the label’s legacy lives on with the Stax Music Academy, which began in a nearby school cafeteria in 2000 to serve at-risk children, and was able to move to a new building next door to the museum a few years later. There is also an affiliated Soulsville Charter School that serves about 650 middle and high school students in academics and music.
The Stax catalog continues to sell well under the umbrella of Craft Recordings, Concord’s catalog division, which has kept the imprint alive with aggressive reissue campaigns. Per the Rock Hall of Fame, Stax and affiliated labels released about 300 albums and 800 singles during its 1959-1975 lifetime. In its 15-year initial history, Stax had 167 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 and 243 hits on the R&B chart, by Craft’s tally.
In 2006, the Stax imprint was again revived by Concord — which had purchased Fantasy two years earlier — for new recordings by artists that have come to include Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats and Melissa Etheridge.
Stewart produced records after leaving Stax but eventually quit the music business altogether and became somewhat reclusive, only occasionally visiting the new Stax museum. He was greeted as a returning hero when he did.
At the 2018 gathering, Carla Thomas was reported by the Commercial Appeal as telling him, ““Jim, any crown that anybody says they wear at Stax Records, well, you’re a jewel in their crown. I love you.” Stewart donated his early country fiddle to the museum, receiving thanks for that from his appointed successor, Bell. “I thank you, Jim, for being here finally,” Bell said, per Mehr. “They say there is a season and a time for all things. The man who founded Satellite and Stax is here to certify that the institutions built and being developed here represent the ultimate success of his dreams and desires. I’m talking about the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, the Stax Music Academy and the Soulsville Charter School. By allowing your fiddle to be placed here, it formalizes the existence of the institutions on this real estate – y’all hear me?”
Upon news emerging of Stewart’s death, Michele Smith, the VP of estate & legacy brand management at Craft/Stax, said, “Today we lost an important piece of American music history. Mr. Stewart’s legacy will live on through the Stax Records label that he founded, and the artists, musicians and fans worldwide that love Stax music. I’m not sure if he ever realized the immense impact that he had on soul music across the globe, and he will be sorely missed. Our condolences go out to his friends and family, especially his children and grandchildren.”
Stewart is survived by three children – Lori Stewart, Shannon Stewart and Jeff Stewart – and by two grandchildren, Alyssa Luibel and Jennifer Stewart. Memorial services are pending; the family has sked for donations to be made to the Stax Music Academy in lieu of flowers.