Jim Stewart, Founder of Stax Records, Dies at 92

Jim Stewart, the founder of Stax Records, the iconic Memphis, TN label that launched the careers of Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, the Bar-Kays and many others, and shaped the sound of soul music, died Monday (Dec. 5) at the age of 92.

Stax Records (formerly Satellite) was founded in 1957 by sibling Stewart and Estelle Axton, and would go on to trigger the “Soul Explosion,” a movement that rumbles on to this day.

Born July 29, 1930, in Middletown, TN, Stewart relocated to Memphis as a young man. He served for two years in the armed forces, then tried his hand at music.

Playing in a band wasn’t his strong suit, but Stewart would forge a home and career with music. An allrounder, he was a producer and engineer in the studio, a record label executive, a promotions man on the go, and, importantly, a team player.

As a producer, he oversaw sessions for Carla Thomas’ “Gee Whiz” (1961), Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’” (1966) and Rufus Thomas’ “Walking the Dog” (1963), and worked on such albums as Booker T. & The M.G.’s Green Onions (1962), Redding’s Pain in My Heart and Albert King’s Born Under a Bad Sign (1967).

Stax Records — a combination of the first two letters of the owners’ last names — would rent the abandoned Capitol Theater on McLemore Avenue and, from there, make music history.

“Today we lost an important piece of American music history,” comments Michele Smith, vice president of estate & legacy brand management at Craft Recordings and Stax Records.

Stewart’s legacy “will live on through the Stax Records label that he founded, and the artists, musicians, and fans worldwide that love Stax music. I’m not sure if he ever realized the immense impact that he had on soul music across the globe, and he will be sorely missed. Our condolences go out to his friends and family, especially his children and grandchildren.”

The “Soul Explosion” and the Stax philosophy “wasn’t just about penetrating the market with as much music as possible, it was also about releasing the best music possible,” wrote Billboard in 2019, as Stax celebrated a milestone anniversary.

In the segregated south, Stax was something of an artistic oasis, a space for musicians to come together and create.

Among the many artists who bagged hits on Stax and its Volt subsidiary during the 1960s were Rufus and Carla Thomas, Booker T. & the MGs, Sam and Dave, Johnnie Taylor, Albert King, and Redding.

Following the untimely death of Redding in 1967, Stax would recalibrate and unearth a new fresh crop of stars, including Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, and the Dramatics.

Financial troubles would see Stax enter into involuntary bankruptcy in 1975. Its output during a 15-year golden period, however, would see Stax establish its reputation as a “critical” piece of “American music history,” reads a statement from the label, as “one of the most popular soul music record labels of all time – second only to Motown in sales and influence, but first in gritty, raw, stripped-down soul music.”

During that period, Stax placed more than 167 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 and 243 hits on the R&B chart, reads an official statement from the label.

Today, the original Stax property at East McClemore is home to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, with the Stax Music Academy and Soulsville Charter School close by, and many of its classic recordings live on popular culture as samples.

In 2002, the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame celebrated Stewart’s career with the Ahmet Ertegun Award. Also, HBO Documentary Films is said to be in production on STAX, a multiple-part documentary series exploring the legendary label.

Stewart is survived by his wife Evelyn Stewart, sisters Estelle Axton and Mary Lucille McAlpin, three children — Lori Stewart, Shannon Stewart and Jeff Stewart — and by grandchildren Alyssa Luibel and Jennifer Stewart.

Plans for a memorial are pending. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Stax Music Academy, which aims to inspire young people and enhance their academic, cognitive, performance, and leadership skills by utilizing music.

Lars Brandle