Jim Stewart, whose Stax label became soul powerhouse, dies at 92


Jim Stewart, a part-time fiddle participant who grew to become a soul music hitmaker because the co-founder of Stax Data, the trailblazing Memphis label that helped launch the careers of Nineteen Sixties and ’70s artists together with Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave and the Staple Singers, died Dec. 5 at a hospital in Memphis. He was 92.

His dying was confirmed by Tim Sampson, a spokesman for the Soulsville Basis, which operates the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis. He mentioned that Mr. Stewart had been ailing however didn’t cite a particular trigger.

As an government, producer and engineer, Mr. Stewart was a driving pressure behind the Tennessee music firm, which trailed solely Motown Data because the nation’s prime soul label. Its data got here to outline the “Memphis sound,” a sultry fusion of Southern soul, blues and gospel epitomized by Stax artists together with Redding, Wilson Pickett, Rufus and Carla Thomas, and the label’s home band, Booker T. & the M.G.’s.

Mr. Stewart later acknowledged that he “knew nothing” about music publishing, copyright points or the mechanics of tips on how to get a document pressed when he began the label in 1957. However he liked nation music — particularly the Western swing of Texas fiddler Bob Wills, whom he emulated whereas enjoying in bands — and hoped to duplicate the success of Memphis producer Sam Phillips, the Solar Data founder who produced recordings by Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison.

Figuring out of his spouse’s uncle’s two-car storage, Mr. Stewart recorded nation and rockabilly songs with backing from his older sister Estelle Axton, who joined him as a co-founder. However after they moved the corporate right into a former movie show on the south aspect of Memphis in 1960, he started recording R&B songs by native musicians, embracing soul music in full after chopping a regional hit, “Cause I Love You,” by Memphis DJ Rufus Thomas and his teenage daughter Carla.

“It was like a blind man who instantly gained his sight,” Mr. Stewart later recalled. “You don’t wish to return; you don’t even look again.” Or as he put it in an interview for “Respect Your self,” a 2007 PBS documentary that was later tailored right into a e-book by Robert Gordon: “The wind blew in, and we have been sensible sufficient to not struggle it.”

Over the subsequent 15 years, the label launched greater than 160 songs on the Billboard Sizzling 100 pop chart and 243 on the R&B chart, in accordance with the Stax Museum. The corporate additionally grew to become generally known as a haven for racial integration within the segregated South: Black and White musicians carried out collectively in bands together with the Bar-Kays and the M.G.’s whereas Mr. Stewart, who was White, labored with Black enterprise companions together with Al Bell, the corporate’s head of promotions, who ultimately grew to become co-owner.

“The spirit that got here from Jim and his sister Estelle Axton allowed all of us, Black and White, to … come into the doorways of Stax, the place you had freedom, you had concord, you had folks working collectively,” Bell mentioned in an interview for “Respect Your self.”

Mr. Stewart recalled that at the same time as Black artists recorded High 10 hits at Stax’s studio, they have been unable to hitch him at Whites-only inns and eating places down the road. “When [Atlantic Records executive] Jerry Wexler got here to Memphis again in 1961 to fulfill Carla and Rufus, we needed to sneak them into one of many native inns via the service entrance,” he informed the Miami Herald. “I used to be by no means extra embarrassed in my life.”

Though he was greatest generally known as an government, Mr. Stewart produced Nineteen Sixties hits together with Carla Thomas’s “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes)” and Rufus Thomas’s “Walking the Dog,” which each reached No. 10 on the pop chart, in addition to Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” which topped the R&B chart.

He was additionally within the studio when blues guitarist Johnny Jenkins arrived for a 1962 recording session accompanied by Redding, then a comparatively unknown singer who was working as Jenkins’s driver. After Jenkins recorded just a few songs, Redding pleaded to sing a few his personal, then surprised Mr. Stewart together with his efficiency of the torch music “These Arms of Mine,” in accordance with Mark Ribowsky’s e-book “Goals to Keep in mind: Otis Redding, Stax Data, and the Transformation of Southern Soul.”

“That’s it! That’s it! The place is everyone! We gotta get this on tape!” mentioned Mr. Stewart, who ensured that the observe was recorded (it will definitely offered 800,000 copies) and signed Redding to a document deal, 5 years earlier than the musician was killed in a aircraft crash at age 26.

Redding’s dying was a significant setback for Stax, which struggled financially earlier than submitting for chapter in 1975 and collapsing altogether. Mr. Stewart, who had offered his remaining stake within the firm just a few years earlier, was devastated by the tip of the corporate and receded from public view, working solely sometimes as a producer.

“He gained’t speak to anyone,” Axton informed the Memphis Industrial Enchantment in 1989. “He was damage.”

Mr. Stewart was enshrined within the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, cited as “the creator of the final word R&B label.” He missed the induction ceremony however was praised on the occasion by longtime Stax musicians together with guitarist Steve Cropper, who carried out with the M.G.’s and was there within the studio when Mr. Stewart first heard Redding sing. “Jim stayed up hour after hour,” he recalled, “ensuring each artist at Stax received each penny that was due them.”

James Frank Stewart was born within the Tennessee farming city of Middleton, 70 miles east of Memphis, on July 29, 1930. His mom was a homemaker, and his father was a bricklayer and farmer who inspired his son’s curiosity in music, giving Mr. Stewart a guitar when he was 10. Mr. Stewart quickly switched to the fiddle, enjoying in nation bands after graduating from highschool and transferring to Memphis.

He served for 2 years within the Military and returned dwelling to check enterprise at Memphis State School, now the College of Memphis, ultimately touchdown a job at Union Planters Nationwide Financial institution. Whereas working within the bond division he recorded music via his fledgling label, which was initially given the Sputnik-era title of Satellite tv for pc Data.

A long time later, he informed the Industrial Enchantment that his oldest sister, Axton, “deserves all of the credit score for Stax Data. As a result of she borrowed cash, she mortgaged her dwelling, to ensure that us to begin a document firm. With out that … this may by no means have occurred.” (Axton died in 2004.)

When the siblings rented the previous Capitol movie show in Memphis, they turned the concession stand right into a document retailer, producing essential earnings within the firm’s early days.

They discovered expertise in addition to prospects from the encircling neighborhood: Isaac Hayes, the singer-songwriter who grew to become recognized for recording the theme music to the 1971 film “Shaft,” was a son of space sharecroppers, whereas songwriter David Porter labored at a grocery retailer throughout the road and bandleader Booker T. Jones lived only a few blocks a approach.

Satellite tv for pc Data modified its title after releasing the Mar-Keys’ 1961 single “Last Night,” an instrumental that reached No. 3 on the pop chart and attracted the eye of one other Satellite tv for pc Data in California. Mr. Stewart and his sister resolved the specter of a lawsuit by giving their firm the title Stax, which mixed the primary two letters of their surnames and prompt “stacks” of vinyl data.

The label commanded a nationwide viewers after signing a distribution take care of Atlantic Data, however Mr. Stewart was horrified to understand that he “had not learn the nice print,” as he put it, and had failed to note a clause that gave Atlantic the rights to Stax’s masters, one in all its greatest belongings. Gordon, the “Respect Your self” creator, described the deal as “company murder — well mannered, sterile, and lethal.”

Stax was offered to the conglomerate Gulf and Western in 1968, and Mr. Stewart helped purchase it again earlier than promoting his share in 1972, after his companion Bell signed a brand new distribution take care of CBS Data. The label was relaunched beneath Harmony Data in 2006.

Mr. Stewart’s spouse of greater than 60 years, the previous Evelyn White, died in 2020. Survivors embody three kids, Lori Stewart, Shannon Stewart and Jeff Stewart; and two grandchildren.

“All the things we did at Stax was a crew effort,” Mr. Stewart informed the Los Angeles Times in 1991. “I believe my contribution was in having the ability to put the proper mixture of individuals collectively creatively. We didn’t know on the time we have been growing a sound. There was by no means an concept that we have been going to be completely different or make a brand new sound. We simply did what we felt was proper on the time for a specific document and music.”

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