Jim Stewart obituary

<span>Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Jim Stewart was a 28-year-old bank worker in Memphis, Tennessee, studying law in the evenings and playing his fiddle in a country music band at the 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 surnames, would be rivalling the success of Detroit’s Motown label with a string of hits including Booker T and the MGs’ Green Onions, Rufus Thomas’s Walking the Dog, Otis Redding’s Respect and Sam and Dave’s Hold On, I’m Coming.

When their operations began in a still segregated city, Stewart, who has died aged 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, unprocessed nature of its records, which eschewed the pop-slanted sweetness that characterised the hits of many of Berry Gordy Jr’s Motown artists.

Like Gordy, Stewart assembled 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 its artists a fixture in the charts through the mid-1960s.

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

Jim Stewart outside the headquarters of Stax Records in Memphis, 1973.
Jim Stewart outside the headquarters of Stax Records in Memphis, 1973. Photograph: David Reed Archive/Alamy

At the zenith of Stax’s fortunes, a series of tragedies and business catastrophes – starting with the death of Redding in a 1967 air crash – brought the company to its knees. A revival ended with its closure in 1976, and Stewart losing around half a million dollars that he had put in to try and save it.

He was born and raised 70 miles west of Memphis, in Middleton, population 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 took a business degree at the state university.

While realising that he would never be good enough to make a career as a professional musician, he had noted the success of Sam Phillips’ Memphis-based Sun studio and label with such artists as Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.

With several eager young helpers, he started a label at first called Satellite Records. When a local singer and disc jockey named Rufus Thomas walked in with his 17-year-old daughter, Carla, and talked his way into making a duo record titled Cause I Love You, its success in selling around 40,000 copies redirected the label’s efforts into the sphere of black music.

The regional hit also attracted the attention of Atlantic Records in New York, whose executive Jerry Wexler offered Stewart a deal to distribute Stax records nationally and, under their own licensing arrangements, around the world. Soon Stewart and Axton were converting the former Capitol Theater cinema on East McLemore Avenue, Memphis, into a studio, a record shop and offices.

The hits began 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 house rhythm section, the basis of such hits as Gee Whiz and B-A-B-Y 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 by 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 came the assassination of Martin Luther King in a Memphis motel often used by Stax artists, undermining relationships at a label that had done its bit for desegregation.

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

Forced to start from scratch, Stewart handed the label over to Al Bell, an energetic former disc jockey. Backing from the Gulf and Western conglomerate enabled Bell to authorise the almost simultaneous release of around 30 albums in 1969, giving the label a new platform for hits with Hayes and the Staple Singers. But after paying off in the short term, the gamble failed when bank debts were called in, revealing the extent of the company’s overspending, and this time the collapse was permanent.

The old cinema where so many hits had been recorded was demolished. But after surviving personal bankruptcy, Stewart was able to attend the opening in 2003 of a near-replica of the building on the same site, now housing the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Stax Academy for young musicians. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.

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

• Jim (James F) Stewart, record company executive, born 29 July 1930; died 5 December 2022