Jim Stewart obituary | Pop and rock

Jim Stewart was a 28-year-old bank clerk in Memphis, Tennessee, studying law at night and playing violin in a country music band on weekends, when he and his older sister, Estelle Axton, started a record company in 1958. .

Their first recordings were made in a borrowed garage, using a mono tape recorder. Within a few years, Stax Records, named after the first two letters of their respective last names, would emulate the success of the Motown label in Detroit with a string of hits, including Booker T and the MG’s Green Onions, Rufus Thomas’s Walking the Dog, Otis Redding’s Respect and Sam and Dave hold on, I’m coming.

When their activities started in a still segregated city, Stewart, who passed away at the age of 92, knew no African American people and nothing about their music. But he discovered a natural affinity for the blues and gospel, and Stax became famous for the raw, unedited nature of his records, which lacked the pop sweetness that marked the hits of many of Berry Gordy Jr’s Motown artists.

Like Gordy, Stewart gathered a trusted cadre of young musicians, writers and producers. They included the organist Booker T Jones, the guitarist Steve Cropper, and the songwriters Isaac Hayes and David Porter, whose output made Stax and his artists a fixture on the charts until the mid-1960s.

Their sound was so distinctive that in 1966 the Beatles invited Stewart to produce their next album at the Stax studios. According to George Harrison, financial differences led to that album, Revolver, being recorded instead at Abbey Road in London with their usual producer, George Martin.

Jim Stewart outside Stax Records headquarters in Memphis, 1973. Photo: David Reed/Alamy Archives

At the height of Stax’s fortunes, a series of tragedies and corporate disasters—beginning with Redding’s death in a plane crash in 1967—brought the company to its knees. A revival ended with its closure in 1976, and Stewart lost about half a million dollars he had put into trying to save it.

He was born and raised 70 miles west of Memphis, in Middleton, a population of just over 300, where members of his family sang and played in gospel and country music groups. After graduating from high school, he followed his two sisters to Memphis, where he earned a business degree from state university.

Although he realized he would never be good enough to pursue a career as a professional musician, he had noticed the success of Sam Phillips’ Memphis-based Sun studio and label with artists such as Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.

With a number of enthusiastic young helpers, he first started a label called Satellite Records. When a local singer and disc jockey named Rufus Thomas came in with his 17-year-old daughter, Carla, and worked his way to make a duo record titled Cause I Love You, the success of selling about 40,000 copies the label’s efforts to create the atmosphere of black music.

The regional hit also caught the attention of New York’s Atlantic Records, whose executive Jerry Wexler offered Stewart a deal to distribute Stax records nationally and, under their own licensing agreements, around the world. Soon Stewart and Axton converted the former Capitol Theater movie theater on East McLemore Avenue, Memphis, into a studio, record store, and offices.

The hits started to flow, starting with Last Night, a moody blues instrumental by the Mar-Keys. Another instrumental, Green Onions, established the individuality of what had already become the Stax sound, and the members of the MGs became the company’s resident rhythm section, the basis of hits such as Gee Whiz and BABY by Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas’s Do the Dog, Eddie Floyd’s Knock on Wood, Albert King’s Born Under a Bad Sign and a string of successes from Sam and Dave, a duo brought to the label by Wexler.

But it was Redding, a 21-year-old singer from Macon, Georgia, who became the label’s signature artist. Four months after his death, the assassination of Martin Luther King took place at a Memphis motel often used by Stax artists, undermining relations at a label that had contributed to desegregation.

The sense of trauma was heightened by a split with Atlantic, which had been acquired by Warner Brothers and promptly triggered an overlooked clause in a 13-page contract allowing them to claim ownership of all of Stax’s recordings in perpetuity.

Forced to start from scratch, Stewart handed over the label to Al Bell, an energetic ex-disc jockey. Support from the Gulf and Western conglomerate enabled Bell to authorize the near simultaneous release of about 30 albums in 1969, giving the label a new platform for hits with Hayes and the Staple Singers. But after the gamble paid off in the short term, the gamble backfired when the bank debts were recovered, revealing the extent of the company’s overspending, and this time the collapse was permanent.

The old cinema where so many hits were filmed was demolished. But after going into personal bankruptcy, Stewart was able to attend the 2003 opening of a near-replica of the building on the same site, which now houses the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Stax Academy for Young Musicians. In 2002, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Stewart is survived by three children, Lori, Shannon and Jeff, and two grandchildren.

Jim (James F) Stewart, record company executive, born July 29, 1930; passed away on December 5, 2022

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