Jim Stewart, Unlikely Entrepreneur of Soul Music, Dies at 92
Jim Stewart, who with his sister founded Stax Records, home to R&B luminaries like Otis Redding and Sam & Dave — and, after Motown, the best-selling soul music label of the 1960s and ’70s — died on Monday in Memphis. He was 92.
His death, at a hospital after a brief illness, was confirmed by Tim Sampson, communications director for the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis.
A former banker, Mr. Stewart first ventured into the music business in 1957, when he and his sister Estelle Axton established Satellite Records in a relative’s garage. Intending to release recordings of country and rockabilly music, Mr. Stewart and his sister, who died in 2004, never suspected that three years later their label would be producing some of the most enduring Black popular music of the era.
“I had scarcely seen a Black person till I was grown,” Mr. Stewart, who grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry on a farm in rural West Tennessee, was quoted as saying in Peter Guralnick’s “Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom” (1986).
“When I started, I didn’t know there was such a thing as Atlantic Records; I didn’t know there was a Chess Records or Imperial,” he continued, referring to record companies that promoted Black vernacular music. “I had no dream of anything like that.”
His remote upbringing notwithstanding, Stax placed more than 100 singles on the pop chart during Mr. Stewart’s tenure at the label, among them Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood” and Isaac Hayes’s theme from the movie “Shaft.” The influence of its catalog on generations of performers has proved wide and deep, extending to Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones as well as to the many hip-hop and R&B artists who have sampled Stax recordings.
In a 2013 interview with The Associated Press, Mr. Stewart attributed his decision to start recording Black music to a single epiphany: hearing Ray Charles sing “What’d I Say.”
“I was converted immediately,” he said. “I had never heard anything like that before. It allowed me to expand from country to R&B, into jazz, into gospel, wrapped all in one. That’s what Stax is.”
Mr. Stewart was the audio engineer, and often the credited producer, on many Stax records, including Mr. Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” and Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour.”
The label began to make its mark in 1960, shortly after Mr. Stewart and his sister moved their operations to the former Capitol Theater at 926 McLemore Avenue in South Memphis. One day the popular singer and local disc jockey Rufus Thomas walked into the record shop that Mr. Stewart and Ms. Axton operated at the front of the building and announced that he wanted to record a duet with his daughter Carla.
The record in question, “’Cause I Love You,” was only a regional hit, but “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes),” a dreamy ballad released the same year, reached both the R&B and pop Top 10 for Ms. Thomas in 1961. The same was true of 1961’s “Last Night,” a slinky saxophone-driven instrumental by the Mar-Keys, the R&B combo that evolved into Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Stax’s storied house band.
The success of “Gee Whiz” and “Last Night” changed the artistic and commercial direction of Satellite Records. It also acquired a new name, combining the first two letters of the owners’ last names to form the portmanteau Stax, after Mr. Stewart and Ms. Axton learned that another label owned the rights to Satellite.)
In 1962, “Green Onions,” by Booker T. & the M.G.’s, further cemented the label’s credibility on the emergent soul music scene, climbing to the pop Top 10 (and No. 1 on the R&B chart). A gutbucket instrumental, “Green Onions” served as a prototype for the groove-steeped, blues- and gospel-bred music that became synonymous with Stax — a sound as lean and funky as Motown’s was lush and refined.
Just as inspiring as the music made at Stax was the social climate Mr. Stewart cultivated there. Known for its laid-back and inclusive vibe, the label was guided by a spirit of good will — almost all the recording artists were Black, the house musicians both Black and white — that bore witness to possibilities for racial harmony at a time when segregation prohibited Black and white people from sharing public spaces.
“There was so much talent here, under circumstances that were almost considered impossible in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1960, with the racial situation here,” Mr. Stewart told The Associated Press in 2013, reflecting on the spirit of camaraderie that he helped foster at Stax. “It was a sanctuary for all of us.”
James Frank Stewart was born in Middleton, Tenn., on July 29, 1930, one of three children of Dexter and Olivia (Cole) Stewart. His parents were farmers, and his father supplemented the family income with work as a bricklayer.
Young Jim grew up playing gospel music at home on the fiddle with his father, uncle and two sisters. After graduating from high school, he moved to Memphis, where he worked at a local bank for several years before being drafted into the Army.
In 1953, after completing two years of service, he returned to Memphis and resumed working as a bank clerk while playing fiddle in local country dance bands. He earned a degree in business from the University of Memphis.
Mr. Stewart’s decision to launch Satellite Records in 1957 would not have been possible had his sister not taken out a second mortgage on her home to buy him recording equipment.
A distribution deal with Atlantic Records further opened doors for Mr. Stewart’s fledgling label, especially after the success of “Gee Whiz” and “Last Night.” A few years later, Mr. Stewart hired the songwriting and production team of Isaac Hayes and David Porter, enabling Stax to expand its capacity to develop artists and repertoire and, ultimately, its roster.
The arrival of Al Bell as national sales director in 1965 further strengthened the label’s capacity, lending it the promotional muscle needed to market its artists beyond Memphis and the South. But tragedy eclipsed this flush of prosperity when Mr. Redding and four members of his band, the Bar-Kays, died in a plane crash in 1967.
Around the same time, Stax dissolved its distribution deal with Atlantic, a settlement that, because of a contractual loophole, cost the label the rights to virtually its entire catalog.
The assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis in April 1968 cast even more of a pall over conditions at Stax, threatening the racial amity that had prevailed up to that point. Later that year Mr. Stewart, Ms. Axton and Mr. Bell, by then also an owner, sold Stax to Gulf & Western in exchange for stock in the company.
Ms. Axton sold her stock in the label to Mr. Bell in 1970, and Mr. Stewart eventually followed suit.
In 1975, following a revival of good fortune under Mr. Bell’s leadership, including the signing of the Staple Singers and others, creditors forced Stax into bankruptcy, leaving behind a legacy of some 800 singles and 300 albums.
Stax’s foreclosure was a hardship for Mr. Stewart, who had invested much of his personal wealth trying to satisfy the creditors. He resurfaced in the early 1980s, occasionally supervising projects for former Stax artists, but soon retired from the business except for occasional appearances at the Stax Museum and Stax Music Academy. The label has since changed hands a few times.
In 2002, after decades out of the public eye, Mr. Stewart was elected to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in the nonperformer category for his contributions to the creation and evolution of Southern soul music.
He is survived by his son, Jeff; two daughters, Lori Stewart and Shannon Stewart; and two grandchildren. Evelyn (White) Stewart, his wife of more than 50 years, died in 2020. Another sister, Mary Louise McAlpin, died in 2017.
“Mr. Stewart was the unpretentious soft-spoken diminutive white guy with a Brylcreem-lathered hair part and fat-rim glasses that I met in 1962,” Deanie Parker, Stax’s longtime publicist, told The Memphis Commercial Appeal after Mr. Stewart’s death.
“He gave us opportunities denied to most Blacks in America and we gifted him with an indelible Memphis Sound that, together, we created at Stax Records.”