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07 December 2022

Jim Stewart, Founder Of Stax Records, Dies At 92

Jim Stewart Stax Records Dies 92
Photo: David Reed Archive/Alamy Stock Photo
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Jim Stewart, founder of influential US southern soul label Stax Records, has died aged 92. Stax confirmed the news on social media, writing that Stewart “passed away peacefully earlier today, surrounded by his family”.

As the founder of Stax, Stewart was responsible for signing and nurturing the careers of many of soul and R&B’s most influential figures, including Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Wilson Pickett, Albert King and the Bar-Kays.

Born James Frank Stewart was born in the Tennessee farming town of Middleton, 70 miles east of Memphis, on July 29, 1930. His mother was a homemaker, and his father was a bricklayer and farmer who encouraged his son’s interest in music, giving Mr. Stewart a guitar when he was 10. Mr. Stewart soon switched to the fiddle, playing in country bands after graduating from high school and moving to Memphis.

Jim Stewart started Stax as Satellite Records in 1957.  He founded the label as a country and rockabilly imprint before pivoting almost exclusively to R&B. Stewart likened his introduction to Black music as “like a blind man who suddenly gained his sight”. Based in segregation-era Tennessee, Stax was a rarity in that it had a mixed-race staff and sought to uplift its Black employees as much as its white ones.

Satellite Records changed its name after releasing the Mar-Keys’ 1961 single Last Night, an instrumental that reached No. 3 on the pop chart and attracted the attention of another Satellite Records in California. Mr. Stewart and his older sister, Estelle Axton, resolved the threat of a lawsuit by giving their company the name Stax, which combined the first two letters of their surnames and suggested “stacks” of vinyl records.

Working out of his wife’s uncle’s two-car garage, Stewart operated with backing from Axton, who joined him as a co-founder. But after they moved the company into a former movie theater on the south side of Memphis in 1960, he began recording R&B songs by local musicians, embracing soul music in full after cutting a regional hit, Cause I Love You, by Memphis DJ Rufus Thomas and his teenage daughter Carla.

Stax found great success through the 60s with a unique recording model that utilised an in-house band, ehe legendary Booker T & The MG’s, as opposed to hired-gun session musicians. Stax’s recording studio was a converted movie theatre in Memphis, a unique environment that created a distinctive, bass-heavy “Stax sound”. This, combined with major-label distribution through Atlantic Records, meant that Stax was responsible for dozens of Billboard hit singles in its first decade.

“The spirit that came from Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton allowed all of us, Black and White, to … come into the doors of Stax, where you had freedom, you had harmony, you had people working together,” Stax head of promotions Al Bell said in an interview for ‘Respect Yourself.’

As the 60s drew to a close, Stax faced significant operational troubles. In 1967, Atlantic was acquired by Warner Bros, and Stax was not made part of the deal; regardless, Atlantic retained rights to all Stax records masters, massively devaluing Stax as a label.

Stax was then sold to the conglomerate Gulf and Western in 1968, and Jim Stewart helped buy it back before selling his share in 1972, after his partner Bell signed a new distribution deal with CBS Records. The label was relaunched under Concord Records in 2006.

Still, Stewart and Stax found some success in its post-Atlantic years, signing Johnnie Taylor and the Staple Singers.

In 1976, Stax went bankrupt, and Stewart lost much of the money he had made over the previous two decades. In the ensuing years, he largely retreated from the public eye, declining to attend his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 and only occasionally making public appearances, save for a 2018 event during which he was honoured at the Stax museum. He is survived by three children and two grandchildren.

“Everything we did at Stax was a team effort,” Stewart told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. “I think my contribution was in being able to put the right combination of people together creatively. We didn’t know at the time we were developing a sound. There was never an idea that we were going to be different or make a new sound. We just did what we felt was right at the time for a particular record and song.”

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