Jim Stewart, the co-founder of Stax Records, died yesterday (5) at the age of 92. His passing was confirmed by another storied member of the Stax family, hit songwriter David Porter.
Stewart paved the way for, and presided over, the immense and worldwide popularity of Stax and its wealth of household soul names. His standing was reflected in his 2002 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, by representatives of two of the company’s most celebrated groups, Steve Cropper of Booker T. & the M.G.’s and Sam Moore of Sam & Dave.
Porter wrote a Facebook post accompanying a photograph of a bus advertising the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and carrying his name among other greats of the soul dynasty: “WOW!! No way a poor kid from a housing project’s picture in Memphis would be on a bus rolling through Memphis if it were not for this man, JIM STEWART the ST of the word Stax. I love and acknowledge him and his memory. RIP my dear benefactor to American Soul music.”
An official statement reads: “The Stax Museum of American Soul Music is very saddened to announce the passing today of Mr. Jim Stewart, the founder of Stax Records. Mr. Stewart died peacefully surrounded by his family, and will be missed by millions of music fans around the world as one of the great pioneers of soul music and an architect of the Memphis Sound. He was 92 years old.”
Stewart – born July 29, 1930 in the small farming town of Middleton, Tennessee – and his sister Estelle Axton did indeed each lend the first two letters of their surnames to the label, when it was renamed as such in Memphis in 1961. Stewart had come to the city to attend then-Memphis State University at the age of 18, and started the company as Satellite Records in 1957.
Axton joined as a financial partner the following year, mortgaging her home to help her brother buy some recording equipment. Satellite, not initially the soul torchbearer that Stax soon became, was inspired by Sam Phillips’ nearby success at Sun Records, releasing records in pop, rockabilly, and country, the latter a reflection of Stewart’s predilection as a fiddle player. The label was based in a former movie theater that Stewart rented for $150 a month and renovated at 926 E. McLemore Avenue, the modern-day site of the Stax Museum.
After the regional success of the single “Cause I Love You” by local DJ and early advocate Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla, the name change to Stax signalled the beginning of a decade and a half of unforgettable achievement. Stax launched the worldwide careers of such stars as Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave, Booker T. & the M.G.s, the Staple Singers, Johnnie Taylor, Albert King, Rufus and Carla Thomas, and so many more.
Beyond that, at a time of intense and ingrained segregation in the South, Stax became a beacon of racial harmony, with an open-door policy championed by Stewart that welcomed creative people all of creeds and colors. Before its involuntary bankruptcy in 1975, Stax’s track record embraced some 800 singles and 300 albums, over 165 entries to Billboard’s Hot 100 and 243 to its R&B charts, as well as eight Grammys and an Academy Award for Hayes’ “Theme from Shaft.”
As observed in the Stax statement, Stewart first visited the Stax Museum in 2007, celebrating his 77th birthday in a private ceremony. He made public appearances in 2013 to mark the Museum’s 10th anniversary; in 2018, when he donated his fiddle to the Museum’s permanent collection; and in 2019 for a press conference to announce plans for the Stax Music Academy’s 20th anniversary. Here he was joined by Cropper, former Stax Records owner Al Bell, original Bar-Kays bassist James Alexander, and numerous other Stax alumni. He also regularly attended fundraisers for the Stax Music Academy.
Stewart is survived by his wife Evelyn Stewart, sisters Estelle Axton and Mary Lucille McAlpin, and by his children Lori, Shannon, and Jeff Stewart, and grandchildren Alyssa Luibel and Jennifer Stewart. Plans for a memorial are pending.