Jim Stewart, a co-founder of Stax Records, died on Monday at age 92.
The news was confirmed by the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. “Mr. Stewart died peacefully surrounded by his family,” a statement on its website reads, “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.”
Born and raised in Middleton, Tenn., Stewart moved to Memphis shortly after graduating high school in 1948, with plans to attend Memphis State University. He was eventually drafted into the Army, where he served two years before returning to Memphis in 1953.
When he wasn’t working his day job at a bank, Stewart was playing the fiddle in a local group called the Canyon Cowboys. Inspired by Sam Phillips’ Sun Records – which had recorded Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis – Stewart founded his first label, Satellite Records, in 1957. With help from his sister, Estelle Axton, who mortgaged her home to help purchase recording equipment, Stewart focused primarily on country and rockabilly records. At the time, Satellite operated out of a former movie theater that charged $150 a month in rent.
In 1960, Stewart worked with Memphis DJ Rufus Thomas, who came in to record a song called “Cause I Love You” with his 16-year-old daughter Carla. The song became a regional hit, and Stewart swiftly turned his attention toward R&B music, which he wasn’t all that familiar with. As he would later describe it, “It was like a blind man who could suddenly see.”
Listen to Carla and Rufus Thomas’ ‘Cause I Love You’
Using the first two letters of their respective surnames, Stewart and Axton changed the label’s name to Stax and went on to help launch the careers of dozens of successful R&B artists, including Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Booker T. and the M.G.’s, the Staple Singers, Albert King and Isaac Hayes.
Stax went bankrupt in 1976 (though it would eventually recover), and Stewart kept a mostly low profile over the following decades. When he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, his granddaughter accepted the award on his behalf. He also made a handful of public appearances at the Stax Museum, which opened in 2003 on the original site of Satellite Records.
“What he and his sister meant to American and Soul music that would be recorded is undeniable,” David Porter, a songwriter for Stax whose credits include Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man,” told WREG Memphis following the news of Stewart’s death. “Jim Stewart was a conduit for the music and culture that affected music all over the world.”
Porter added on his Facebook page: “Wow! 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. “I love and acknowledge him and his memory. RIP my dear benefactor to American Soul music.”
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