Jim Stewart, co-founder with his sister Estelle Axton of Stax Records, the epicentre of Southern Soul – obituary

Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton in 1960 - Charlie Gillett Collection/Redferns
Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton in 1960 - Charlie Gillett Collection/Redferns

Jim Stewart, who has died aged 92, was the founder of Stax records, the Memphis-based record label that in the 1960s pioneered the development of what became known as Southern Soul, recording and promoting such artists as Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Carla Thomas, Eddie Floyd and Isaac Hayes.

Through the 1960s and 1970s there were two magnetic poles in black American music: in the north, Motown; and in the south, Stax. The contrast could hardly have been more striking.

While Motown’s recordings tended towards up-tempo dance songs or romantic ballads with sweetened arrangements, and were made with a keen eye on the young, white pop audience, the classic Southern Soul form, essayed by Stax, was altogether more gritty and visceral, made for an older black audience and dealing with more adult themes.

Motown was a well-oiled hit factory, turning out records as gleamingly polished as new automobiles coming off a production line, while the records at Stax were the result of a much more organic, earthy process – “head” arrangements rather than musical charts, built on a funky backbeat from the label’s house band, Booker T and the MGs (standing for “Memphis group”.)

While the sign outside Motown read “Hitsville USA”, the marquee at Stax declared “Soulsville USA”.

James Frank Stewart was born in the small town of Middleton, in rural west Tennessee, on July 29 1930, the son of a bricklayer and farmer and a homemaker.

After spending two years in the US Army. Stewart went to study Law at the Memphis State University, before going on to work in the bond department at Memphis’s First National Bank, at the same time playing fiddle in a country music band, the Canyon Cowboys, at the weekends.

Stewart recognised his limitations as a musician, but had ambitions to be involved in the music business as a producer. In 1957, on recording equipment set up in the garage of his wife’s uncle, he recorded a country tune, Blue Roses, performed by him and some local musicians.

With money raised from his older sister Estelle Axton mortgaging her home, the pair founded a label, Satellite, recording local country and rockabilly artists in a studio located in a storage unit at the nearby town of Brunswick.

In 1960 Stewart opened a new studio in a converted cinema, the Capitol, on McLemore Avenue in a working-class area in south Memphis that was undergoing a demographic shift from white to African-American, and established a new label under a name that combined his and Estelle’s surnames – Stax.

Stewart in 1967 with, l-r, Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas and Booker T Jones - Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Stewart in 1967 with, l-r, Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas and Booker T Jones - Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Up until this point, Stewart’s sole focus of attention was country music, but the pool of local black talent in the neighbourhood quickly changed that. “We didn’t sit down and say ‘we’re going with black music’, ” Stewart recalled. “ ‘R&B’ was a foreign word to me. It happened quickly, but not in a manner that was conscious and direct. It was striking an emotional fire with me and that was all I was going by. I had no way of knowing whether it was going to be successful or not. I just knew it moved me.”

Stewart’s first excursion into R&B was one of the last songs on Satellite, ’Cause I Love You, recorded by a local disc-jockey, Rufus Thomas, who had earlier recorded for Sun records, and his daughter Carla, and which became a hit in 1960. With the $5,000 they got for selling the master to Atlantic Records in New York, Stewart recorded Carla Thomas’s Gee Whiz (Look at his Eyes), which reached the US Top 10 in 1961.

It was soon followed by another hit, You Don’t Miss Your Water, written and sung by another local artist, William Bell, who would go on to record for Stax for the next eight years.

The foundation for Stax lay in the unusually close collaboration between white and black musicians and artists at a time when Memphis was still a segregated city. The house band that played on all label’s early records was comprised of two black musicians, the keyboard player Booker T Jones and drummer Al Jackson, and two white musicians, the bass-player Donald “Duck” Dunn, and guitarist Steve Cropper, who would also co-write and produce many of the label’s early hits.

William Bell told the author Robert Gordon: “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.”

Estelle Axton would describe the mixture of different elements – country, blues, gospel and rockabilly – as being the foundation of the sound that evolved at Stax.

“What our music was built on was feeling – with a mixture of the black and white musicians together getting that feel.”

A similar happy fusion of races and influences took place at the other great crucible of Southern Soul, Fame Records, 150 miles away in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

Stax’s most notable discovery was Otis Redding, who arrived at the McLemore Avenue studio in 1962. Redding was the sometime singer and full-time bus driver for Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers, a group from Macon, Georgia, who had been booked for a demo session. Jenkins did not impress, and at the end of the session Redding, who had spent the day twiddling his thumbs, pleaded to be given a chance to audition.

“Everybody was tired and a couple of the musicians had already left,” Stewart told Robert Gordon. “It was like, ‘Well, we gotta do this. The guy’s been sitting here waiting all day, let’s see what he sounds like’.”

Stewart with Stax executive Al Bell, left and Isaac Hayes with a framed copy of the singer's hit album Hot Buttered Soul - Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Stewart with Stax executive Al Bell, left and Isaac Hayes with a framed copy of the singer's hit album Hot Buttered Soul - Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Redding sat down at the piano and asked Cropper to play some “church chords”. ‘And we started playing,’ Cropper recalled, “and he started singing These Arms of Mine, and I know my hair lifted about three inches. I couldn’t believe this guy’s voice.”

Within a matter of days Stewart had signed Redding on a five-year contract to Stax’s subsidiary label, Volt. These Arms of Mine, a ballad in the tortured Southern Soul style, was originally released as the B-side to a song called Hey Hey Baby, a Little Richard-style shouter which was thought to be more commercial.

It was two months – in which time Hey Hey Baby appeared to have vanished without trace – before a Nashville disc jockey, John R, flipped the record and started playing These Arms of Mine on constant rotation on his show – incentivised by an Atlantic promotion man, Joe Galkin, who had secured the publishing rights, promising John R half a penny for every record that was sold. It went on to sell 800,000 copies.

By the mid-1960s, following Redding’s success, Stax was firmly established, with major hits by Sam and Dave and Eddie Floyd’s Knock on Wood. The Stax studio and musicians were also pressed into service for other artists signed directly to Atlantic, notably Don Covay and Wilson Pickett, whose hit In the Midnight Hour was co-written by Pickett and Cropper.

The Stax sound so impressed The Beatles that in 1966 the group asked Stewart to produce their next album in Memphis. Financial disagreements torpedoed the idea, and Revolver was instead produced at Abbey Road by George Martin.

But by 1968 Stax was faced with mounting difficulties. In December 1967, Otis Redding had died in a plane crash, robbing the label of its biggest star. Four months later, Martin Luther King was shot dead standing on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, bringing a chill to what had hitherto been the distinctly harmonious relations between blacks and whites at Stax.

At the same time, the distribution deal with Atlantic, on which the label’s commercial success had been built, came to an end – with the discovery that the contract contained a small-print clause handing Atlantic the ownership of all Stax’s Atlantic-distributed recordings between 1960 and 1967. Stewart was mortified to realise that he “had not read the fine print”.

Stewart outside Stax in 1973 - David Reed Archive/Alamy
Stewart outside Stax in 1973 - David Reed Archive/Alamy

In May 1968 Stewart sold the company to Gulf & Western Industries, a Michigan company manufacturing automobile parts, which a year earlier had purchased Paramount Pictures, for more than $4 million. Stewart continued as president of the company, while the former Stax marketing executive Al Bell became vice president and a co-owner. Bell embarked on an aggressive drive to build up a portfolio of new artists, most notably Isaac Hayes, Johnnie Taylor and the Staple Singers.

In 1972 Bell bought out Stewart’s share in the company. With the money, Stewart, who was 43, effectively retired, purchasing a vacation home in Miami, along with a 52ft sailing boat, to explore the Florida Keys. At the same time he pledged a personal guarantee to loan money to Stax if the company ever ran into trouble. In 1975 the label filed for bankruptcy, despite the half a million dollars that Stewart, honouring his promise, had put into the company to try and save it.

Devastated at the closure of the company he had founded, Stewart retreated from view. In 2002 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where he was cited as “the creator of the ultimate R&B label”. Stewart did not attend the ceremony, sending his granddaughter Jennifer to accept the award on his behalf.

Jim Stewart is survived by two daughters and a son.

Jim Stewart, born July 29 1930, died December 5 2022