Jim Stewart, co-founder of R&B label Stax and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, died on Monday, longtime staff Stax songwriter David Porter confirmed on Monday. Stewart was 92.
“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,” Porter wrote in a social media caption with a photo of the Stax Museum bus (the museum is located at the original location of Stax Records). “I love and acknowledge him and his memory. RIP my dear benefactor to American Soul music.”
Stewart was born on July 29, 1930, in Middleton, Tennessee. In 1957, he co-founded Satellite Records, which would later be known as Stax Records, after persuading his sister, Estelle Axton, to take out a second mortgage on her home and join him.
The record label and recording studio on McLemore Avenue in South Memphis would become a sanctuary to a new generation of Memphis R&B hitmakers spanning from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s. Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Carla Thomas, William Bell, Booker T & the MGs, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd, and more helped the label soar.
Carla Thomas’ hit “Gee Whiz” sold half a million copies, according to Commercial Appeal. Other chart hits soon followed, including the Mar-Keys’ “Last Night,” Booker T. & the MG’s’ “Green Onions,” and the groundbreaking arrival of Georgia singer Otis Redding.
“The spirit that came from Jim and his sister Estelle Axton allowed all of us, black and white, to come off the streets, where you had segregation and the negative attitude, and come into the doors of Stax, where you had freedom, you had harmony, you had people working together. It grew into what became really an oasis for all of us,” Bell told author Robert Gordon.
Stax would suffer a series of devastating news in the Sixties: Redding’s death in a 1967 plane crash, the company’s separation with distribution partner Atlantic in 1968, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis that year.
In 1968, his partnership with his sister Estelle Axton in 1968 ended, and Stewart relaunched Stax with Al Bell and the support of entertainment conglomerate Gulf & Western.
In 2002, Stewart was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the institution said that, “As producer, engineer, businessman and mentor, Jim Stewart was at the center of it all.”