Jim Stewart, who founded what became the Stax Records label and produced some of the great soul records of the 1960s, died Monday at the age of 92. The cause of death was not disclosed.
Stewart co-founded the popular Memphis-based Black music label in 1957 and ran it, with later help from future personality Al Bell, until the early 1970s, when he sold his interest. Along the way, he has been instrumental in discovering and/or releasing recordings from such greats as Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas, the Staple Singers, Wilson Pickett, Booker T. and MG’s, producing and especially engineering Several of these singles by himself.
The owner and producer of the label was a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, having been inducted in 2002 by two of the musicians they are best known for, Sam Moore and Steve Cropper. He was awarded the Ahmet Ertegun Hall Award for his pioneering efforts.
Stewart freely admitted that he knew little about Black’s music before Stax, and in fact, what was known as Satellite Records when the label was founded in 1957 began with a focus on country music. But not only did he realize the importance of R&B after a few years of running the company, but he was actively involved in its direction and recordings as it soon defined the “Memphis sound” that fascinated this generation and many more to come.
Grammy Award-winning writer Bob Mehr wrote for Stewart’s hometown newspaper, Memphis Business Resume: “It is one of the funny turns in history that the greatest and most wonderful soul appellation in the world, one of The strongest outlets for African American expressionby a White Hills fiddler and bank clerk named Jim Stewart”.
For his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I summarized a piece in the program’s 2002 book celebrating his entry into the interracial legend Stax had become under. “Arguably the significance of Stax’s groundbreaking music is the fact that Stewart, within the confines of that converted movie theater, created an environment that brought to life Dr. Martin Luther King’s fusional dream,” reads the Rock Hall entry. Nestled in the heart of the segregated South, and operating at the height of the most turbulent period in the history of the civil rights movement, Stax Records stood defiantly as an oasis where black and white musicians wrote songs, played music, and forged friendships as utter equals. While much of white Memphis gasped with awe Stax created the magic.”
Stewart wasn’t shy about the truth behind the “hillbilly” tag placed on him—although, as the photos suggest, he did change with the times and adopted a bearded, battered look by the time Stax really started to take off in the ’60s.
During a rare visit to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music — which is located on the site of the label’s original demolished building — in 2018, Stewart said: mentioned by dowry. “I grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry. I got to Memphis after I graduated high school, and one day I heard a recording 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 popular…we decided to go in the record business.”
Stewart co-founded Satellite Records with his sister, Estelle Axton, who was credited as the real instigator in founding the company, mortgaging her home to start the project. As the 1950s turned into the 1960s, they moved operations to an abandoned movie theater in Memphis, the Capitol Theater on Macklemore Street, changed the name to Stax Records, and combined the first two letters of their last names. It didn’t hurt that these letters combined to form a play about how music lovers stacked their records on automatic turntables at the time. It wasn’t until 1965 that he finally quit his job at the bank to focus on the label full time.
Long before that time, Stax had achieved a regional hit with Carla Thomas’ “Cause I Love You,” an exception to the label that proved soul should be their bread and butter. It eventually produced a patriotic hit for Thomas, “Gee Whiz (Look into His Eyes)”. “Before that I had no knowledge of what black music was about,” he said. “It was like a man who suddenly lost his sight.” Although not one of many Stx songs carried by old radio, Thomas’ early song caught the attention of Atlantic Records and specifically label VP Jerry Wexler, and a deal was struck for Atlantic to distribute Stax. They proved a fruitful relationship until they broke up in 1968.
Serendipity thrived among the multiracial cast of musicians. Booker T and MG formed in 1961 as a house band before exploding with their own hits like “Scallion”. From this abundance, other stars rose. Isaac Hayes recalled, “I’ve been to Stax about three different times with a blues band… I’ve been trying to get some rest and it’s always been a no-brainer.” But after being on the sidelines as someone who would play and write songs, Hayes recalls, Stewart said, “You know, you look good on keyboards. Booker T’s off in Indiana. I was in school. Would you like to be an instrumentalist here? So that’s it.” The way you got into Stax.” Its soundtrack album, “Shaft” and its title track, were 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 remarked, “I’ve been wrong before in my life.”
The 1968 split with Atlantic was one of two major crisis points in Stacks history. The endangered label has risen from the ashes with a new financier, Gulf & Western, a new co-president, former promotion man Al Bell (pictured above with Stewart), and an entirely new stream of vital recordings to replace the ones Stax had lost to Atlantic in the split. Bell bought Stewart in the early 1970s, but within a few years, financial problems developed, and the company was unable to withstand this second huge setback, after it was forced into bankruptcy in 1975.
Nevertheless, the legend of the label continued to be a part of pop culture, even if the label had not survived into the mid-1970s as a business. There was great sadness when the former movie house that had been home to the brand was demolished at the end of the 1980s, in a landmark example of how a lack of conservation laws can lead to what everyone, even by those with little sense of nostalgia, will soon see as a tragedy. .
Fortunately, the building has been recreated on the same site—or at least its original facade—where the Stax Museum of American Soul Music opened in 2003. With tours and a souvenir shop, it’s become one of Memphis’ main tourist attractions. But more than that, the label’s legacy continues with Stax Music Academy, which began in a nearby school cafeteria in 2000 to serve at-risk children, and managed to move into a new building adjacent to the museum a few years later. . There is also an affiliated Soulsville Charter School which serves approximately 650 middle and high school students in academics and music.
The Stax catalog continues to sell well under the umbrella of Craft Recordings, division of Concord’s catalog, which has kept the imprint alive through aggressive reissue campaigns. According to the Rock Hall of Fame, Stax and its affiliates released about 300 albums and 800 singles during the 1959-1975 period. In its initial 15-year history, Stax has had 167 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 and 243 songs on the R&B chart, according to Craft’s tally.
In 2006 the Stax imprint was revived by Concord for new recordings from artists including Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite, Nathaniel Rateliff, Night Sweats and Melissa Etheridge.
Stewart produced records after leaving Stax but quit the music business altogether and became somewhat reclusive, occasionally visiting the new Stax museum. He was hailed as a returning hero when he did.
At the 2018 rally, the commercial appeal reported that Carla Thomas told him, “Jim, any crown anyone says they wear at Stax Records, well, you’re the jewel in their crown. I love you.” Stewart donated his first country violin to the museum, receiving thanks for this from his designated successor, Bell. “Thank you, Jim, for being here at last,” said Bill, to each pony. “They say there is a season and time for all things. The man who founded Satellite and Stax is here to ensure that the institutions that are built and are being developed here represent the ultimate success of his dreams and desires. I am talking about the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, the Stax Academy of Music and the Soulsville Charter School By allowing your violin to be placed here, it formalizes the presence of institutions on this property—do you hear me?”
Upon news of Stewart’s death, Michelle Smith, vice president of estate management and vintage brands at Craft/Stax, said, “Today we have lost an important part of American music history. Mr. Stewart’s legacy will live on through the Stax Records label he founded, and the artists, musicians and fans in All over the world who love Stax music. I’m not sure if he realized the huge impact he had on soul music all over the world. He will be sorely missed. Our condolences are with his friends and family, especially his children and grandchildren.”
Stewart is survived by three children – Lori Stewart, Shannon Stewart, and Jeff Stewart – and two grandchildren, Alyssa Loebel and Jennifer Stewart. memorial services suspended; The family made a donation to Stax Music Academy in lieu of flowers.