Stax Records Founder Jim Stewart Dead At 92
Jim Stewart, the founder of the great Memphis soul label Stax Records, has died. Commercial Appeal reports that Stewart died yesterday. According to a statement from the Stax Museum Of American Soul Music, Stewart passed away “peacefully, surrounded by his family.” Stewart was 92.
James F. Stewart grew up on a farm in Middleton, Tennessee, and he moved to Memphis after finishing high school. Stewart worked as a stock clerk at Sears, served in the military, and eventually earned a business degree from Memphis State University. Stewart was a fan of country music, and he played fiddle in a local group called the Canyon Cowboys on weekends while working as a bank teller. After noticing the success of local record labels like Sun Records, Stewart founded his own Satellite label in 1957. He hired rockabilly producer Chips Moman and started cutting records in his garage.
The early Satellite Records were not successful, but Stewart eventually borrowed money from his sister Estelle Axton, who mortgaged her home so that Stewart could buy an Ampex tape recorder. (The name Stax is a combination of Stewart and Axton’s last names.) Stax Records moved into the former Capitol Theater in a Black neighborhood in South Memphis, and the label had its first success in 1960, when Memphis entertainer Rufus Thomas recorded “Cause I Love You,” a duet with his teenage daughter Carla.
Jim Stewart didn’t know anything about R&B, but “Cause I Love You” sold thousands of copies in the Southeast, and Atlantic Records began to distribute Stax. Rufus and Carla Thomas both went on to further success — the former with “Walkin’ The Dog,” the latter with “Gee Whiz (Look At His Eyes).” After Chips Moman left Stax, the interracial instrumental group Booker T. & The M.G.’s became the Stax house band, and the label had huge success with Southern soul artists like Otis Redding, the Bar-Kays, and Sam & Dave.
Stax ended its relationship with Atlantic in 1968, and the label lost its back catalog in the transition. But Jim Stewart relaunched Stax, breaking away from his sister and working instead in partnership with the Black DJ Al Bell, with financing from Gulf & Western. Stax once again became successful in the ’70s, with hits from artists like Johnnie Taylor, the Staple Singers, and especially Isaac Hayes, who’d previously been an in-house songwriter and musician at the ’60s version of Stax.
Eventually, Al Bell bought out Jim Stewart, but Stewart reportedly continued to put much of his own fortune into keeping the label going, mortgaging his home to invest in the label. Eventually, Al Bell was arrested for tax fraud, Gulf & Western sold off the Stax name and masters, and Jim Stewart lost his home in foreclosure.
After the decline of Stax, Jim Stewart largely stayed out of public life. In the ’80s, he produced a few records for former Stax artists. Stewart joined the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 2002. In a 2018 ceremony, Stewart was honored at the Stax Museum, and he donated his fiddle to the institution.