Remembering Stax Records Co-Founder Jim Stewart

The legendary record producer passed away at 92

Jim Stewart in his office (Image: Stax Records)

Seldom has one person had such a profound impact on popular culture as did Jim Stewart.

The legendary record producer and co-founder of Stax Records passed away this past week at 92 years old. The music Stewart recorded in the ramshackle Stax studio in a converted Memphis movie theatre would resound around the world, forever altering the musical landscape of the 1960s and influencing generations of artists.

Born on a farm in rural Millington, Tennessee in 1930, Stewart moved to nearby Memphis after high school, working as a bank clerk before being drafted. Returning to the Bluff City after serving two years in the Army, Stewart also returned to his bank job. He was an aspiring musician, however – a fiddle player – and joined a local country music group called the Canyon Cowboys, performing nights and weekends while working days at the bank. Stewart launched Satellite Records in 1957 out of his garage, initially releasing country and rockabilly records, none of which sold in exceptional quantities. 

“I recognized my limitations,” Stewart told Memphis author Robert Gordon (no relation) for his 2013 book Respect Yourself. “I knew that I could not make it as a musician, so producing was the next best thing. It was an outlet for me to express myself musically.”

Convincing his sister, Estelle Axton, to invest in the company (she mortgaged her house to do so), Stewart bought an Ampex console tape machine and set up a makeshift recording studio in a rural Memphis suburb. Introduced to rhythm & blues music by songwriter and musician Chips Moman (who would go on to find fame as a producer with his American Sound Studio), Stewart took a chance and released a single by R&B artists the Veltones (“Fool In Love”) in 1959, which subsequently received national distribution via Mercury Records. 

Original Stax Records logo (Image: Stax Records)

Stewart met popular Memphis DJ and singer Rufus Thomas while promoting “Fool In Love” and struck up a friendship. At Moman’s urging, Stewart moved the label back into Memphis, into the old Capitol Theatre at 926 East McLemore Avenue on the south side of the city. In the summer of 1960, Thomas and his daughter Carla were the first artists recorded at the new studio; the father/daughter single “Cause I Love You” sold thousands of copies regionally before being picked up by Atlantic Records for national distribution through their Atco subsidiary label. That year Stewart and Axton changed the label’s name to Stax Records, using the letters of their last names (STewart and AXton) and signed a long-term distribution deal with Atlantic that gave the major label a first shot at Stax label releases.

In a little more than a year, with Atlantic’s promotional muscle behind them, Stax Records became a commercial powerhouse of R&B and soul music. The label boasted of its own in-house band (Booker T & the M.G.’s) and recording studio as well as a staff of A&R people, producers, and songwriters like Isaac Hayes and David Porter. A record store run by Estelle in the old theater’s foyer sold music from Stax and other labels, providing invaluable info on what records were popular. During the label’s fifteen-year existence, Stax Records released more than 800 singles and nearly 300 albums, earning the label and its artists eight Grammy® Awards and an Academy Award. Stax enjoyed an unparalleled 243 hit songs on the Billboard magazine R&B chart and found enormous crossover success by placing more than 167 songs on the pop charts, among them Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay”, Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man”, Eddie Floyd’s “Knock On Wood”, and the classic Booker T. & the M.G.’s instrumental “Green Onions”. 

 

VIDEO: Booker T. & The M.G.’s “Green Onions”

The biggest part of the label’s success was due to its multi-racial staff where, as reported by the Associated Press, “during an era of racial strife, white musicians and producers worked alongside Black singers, songwriters and instrumentalists to create the ‘Memphis sound’.” Speaking with author Gordon, Stax Director of Promotion Al Bell stated “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.” Another aspect of Stewart’s genius was that the house band had a vote in the records that Stax released, providing a different perspective and, at times, outvoting the ‘boss’ in favor of releasing an individual record.

The label lost its highest-profile artist with the tragic death of Otis Redding and members of his backing band the Bar-Kays in December 1967, and it was struggling in the aftermath of its disentanglement from Atlantic, which was then in the process of being acquired by Warner Music. As the label renegotiated its distribution deal, Stewart discovered a disastrous flaw in his original contract with Atlantic. As music historian James L. Dickerson wrote in his 1996 book Goin’ Back To Memphis, “unknown to Jim, the original agreement had transferred ownership of the Stax master tapes to Atlantic. It was spelled out in the fine print, but Jim had not read the fine print…in reality, all that Stax owned was a name and future work recorded by its artists. Atlantic owned everything Stax had recorded to date.”

It was a major blow to the scrappy Southern soul imprint as they instantly lost their entire back catalog of music (and the income it provided). Backed into a corner, Stewart made a deal to sell Stax Records to Gulf & Western, an industrial conglomerate that also owned Paramount Pictures and Dot Records. With the sale to G&W, Stax co-owner Estelle Axton sold her share of the company to Al Bell, who was promoted to the position of Vice President. Bell concocted an ambitious plan to rebuild the label’s back catalog that would become known as the “Soul Explosion.” Under Bell’s guidance, Stax expanded its roster by signing new artists, and they released a whopping 30 singles and 27 full-length albums over the course of eight months from late 1968 through May 1969.

Stewart and Bell bought Stax back from G&W in 1970, and found some success in the early part of the decade with artists like Isaac Hayes, whose 1969 breakthrough album Hot Buttered Soul sold over three million copies. Other late-period Stax successes including the Staple Singers, the Dramatics aand Johnnie Taylor, whose 1968 hit single “Who’s Making Love” sold over a million copies. But Stewart was gradually stepping away from the company, leaving more and more decisions up to Bell, and after the success of the Wattstax concert in 1972 in Los Angeles, which resulted in a hit album and movie, Bell bought out Stewart’s share in the company.

 

 

With poor distribution deals and insufficient cash flow during the ensuing years, as well as changing musical trends, Bell attempted to stave off creditors and the IRS and avoid bankruptcy. When Stax Records began to experience financial trouble, Stewart stepped back in and poured much of the fortune he’d earned from Stax back into the label, to no avail. Stax was forced into involuntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1975 and its musical assets were sold off to Fantasy Records, which was itself later sold to Concord Music Group; Atlantic/Warner still owns Stax’s pre-1968 recordings.

Stewart lost nearly everything in the Stax bankruptcy, with the IRS seizing his Memphis home and selling most of his possessions at auction. Thanks to some holdings in his wife’s name, Stewart gradually re-built his financial life, and even returned to the studio in the early 1980s, producing records for several veteran Stax artists. Over the years, however, Stewart largely removed himself from the music biz and kept a low profile. In a rare 2018 interview with the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper, Stewart laid much of the credit for Stax’s success to his sister Estelle, who was the de facto den mother of the label’s rowdy staff. “She deserves all the credit for Stax Records,” he told reporter Bob Mehr, “because she borrowed money, she mortgaged her home in order for us to start a record company. Without that…this would never have happened.”  

Jim Stewart was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, sending his granddaughter Jennifer to the ceremony to accept the honor on his behalf. In comments he made for the label’s 60th anniversary celebration in 2017, Stewart said “Stax Records was my baby. Stax music was and always will be inspirational. I am so pleased that the music we created and recorded at Stax is still being discovered, and it continues to reside in the hearts of devotees everywhere that know the joy and power of ‘real’ music.” 

 

 

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Rev. Keith A. Gordon

RockandRollGlobe contributor Rev. Gordon is an award-winning music critic with 40+ years experience writing for publications like Blues Music magazine and Blurt. Follow him on Twitter @reverendgordon.

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