The Stax Museum of American Soul Music and Soulsville Foundation are very saddened to announce the passing Monday, December 5, 2022 of Mr. Jim Stewart, the founder of Stax Records, one of the most influential record labels in the world. Mr. Stewart, 92, 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.
His Stax Records helped launch the careers of icons such as Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Sam & Dave, Rufus and Carla Thomas, the Staple Singers, the Bar-Kays, Albert King, Eddie Floyd, William Bell, and hundreds of others.
Born July 29, 1930 in the small farming town of Middleton, Tennessee, Mr. Stewart left his family’s farm at age 18 to come to Memphis to attend then-Memphis State University. He brought with him two very important things: the fiddle he had practiced playing for years when he wasn’t in school or working in the fields, and the notion that he was going to get into the music business. The fiddle didn’t earn him a living and he worked first at Sears Roebuck and then as a bank teller while playing around town with various bands in the evenings. But that notion to get into the music business kept at him. And he kept at it.
Inspired by Sam Phillips’ success at Sun Records with artists like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis, Mr. Stewart began recording country artists on a tape machine in his wife’s uncle’s two-car garage in the mid-1950s and founded a record company named Satellite in 1957. A year later his sister Estelle Axton mortgaged her home in Memphis to help him buy some recording equipment and joined him in the venture.
Soon thereafter, he met Memphis DJ Rufus Thomas, who came to Stewart’s new studio, a closed movie theater he had rented for $150 a month and renovated at 926 E. McLemore Avenue, the site of the Stax Museum today. Thomas recorded a song, “Cause I Love You,” with his 16-year old daughter Carla Thomas. The song was a regional hit, brought in some much-needed revenue, and Stewart gave up country music, focusing only on this new rhythm-and-blues music about which he previously knew very little . As he has said on many occasions about the revelation, “It was like a blind man who could suddenly see.”
With the advent of their first million-selling record, Stewart and Axton learned there was already a Satellite Records and had to change the label’s name. They took the first two letters of their last names and created the portmanteau “STAX.”
For the next 15 years, Stax Records launched the explosive careers of the likes of Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave, Booker T. & the M.G.s, the Staple Singers, Johnnie Taylor, Albert King, the aforementioned Rufus and Carla Thomas, and hundreds of others. During a time in the segregated South, Stax was an oasis of racial harmony with its integrated staff and roster of musicians, thanks in large part to Stewart, who never saw color and just wanted to make great records.
For a decade and a half before being forced into involuntary bankruptcy in 1975, Stax cranked out some 800 singles and 300 albums, placing more than 167 hit songs in the Top 100 on the pop charts, and a staggering 243 hits in the Top 100 R&B charts, picking up eight GRAMMYs and an Academy Award (Isaac Hayes for “Theme from Shaft”) along the way.
Musically, the influence of Stax Records is still vivid today in R&B, soul, rock, pop, jazz, hip-hop, and gospel music. Stax songs have been covered by the likes of Aerosmith, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, the Black Crowes, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Cher, Ike & Tina Turner, and numerous other artists.
Mr. Stewart was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 by Steve Cropper of Booker T. & the M.G.’s, and Sam Moore of Sam & Dave. By then a very private person, Mr. Stewart sent his granddaughter to accept his award on his behalf.
According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s website, at Stax Records, “As producer, engineer, businessman and mentor, Jim Stewart was at the center of it all.”
Mr. Stewart first visited the Stax Museum in 2007, when he celebrated his 77th birthday in a private ceremony. He made public appearances in 2013 to celebrate the Stax Museum’s 10th anniversary, in 2018, when he donated his fiddle to the Stax Museum’s permanent collection, and in 2019 for a press conference to announce plans for the Stax Music Academy’s 20th anniversary, where he was joined by Steve Cropper, former Stax Records owner Al Bell, original Bar-Kays bassist James Alexander, and numerous other Stax Records stars. He regularly attended fundraisers for the Stax Music Academy.
Mr. Stewart is preceded in death by his wife Evelyn Stewart and sisters Estelle Axton and Mary Lucille McAlpin. He is survived by 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 requests that donations be made to the Stax Music Academy.