Jim Stewart, co-founder of Stax Records, died on Monday (Dec. 5). He was 92. The news of Stewart’s death was confirmed by the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
“We are deeply saddened to announce the death of Stax Records founder Jim Stewart,” read a statement on the Stax Records’ social media pages. “Mr. Stewart passed away peacefully earlier today, surrounded by his family. While his impact on soul music is immeasurable, the ‘Memphis Sound’ he fostered throughout the 1960s and ’70s as a savvy record executive and visionary producer can still be heard and felt in the music of today. “
The statement continued, “With Stewart’s guidance, Stax launched the careers of legendary artists like Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave, The Staple Singers, and many others. Our hearts are with his family and friends.”
A separate statement on the Stax Museum site read: “Mr. Stewart died peacefully surrounded by his family, 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 in Middleton, Tennessee, on July 29, 1930, Stewart moved to Memphis after graduating high school in 1948 with the intention to study at Memphis State University before getting drafted into the U.S. Army. After two years of service, Stewart returned to Memphis and started playing fiddle for a local group called the Canyon Cowboys while working as a banker during the day.
In 1957, Stewart founded Satellite Records, which focused on country and rockabilly music. By 1960, Stewart shifted his focus to R&B music, working with Memphis DJ Rufus Thomas and his daughter to record the song “Cause I Love You.”
“It was like a blind man who could suddenly see,” said Stewart of getting turned on to R&B.
Changing the name of the record company, Stewart used the first two letters of his last name and of his sister Estelle Axton, who initially helped him fund Satellite, to rename the label Stax.
Stewart went on to help launch the careers of dozens of artists in soul, funk, and R&B, including The Staple Singers, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Booker T, and many more before Stax went bankrupt in 1976. The label later rebounded after being purchased by Fantasy Records. In 2004, Concord Records purchased Fantasy and reactivated the Stax label. Today, Stax continues to reissue its 1968-1975 catalog as well as new recordings. Atlantic Records also holds the rights to a majority of the Stax catalog from 1959-1968.
Over the years, Stewart only made a number of appearances in public, including attending the opening of the Stax Museum at the former Satellite Records location in 2003. A year earlier, Stewart was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His granddaughter accepted the honor on his behalf.
“I’m a hillbilly at heart,” said Stewart during another rare appearance at the Stax Museum in 2018 to donate his original fiddle to the museum’s permanent collection. “I grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry.”
In 2012, Stewart and his then-deceased sister Axton, who died in 2004 at the age of 85, were also inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame.
Stewart is preceded in death by his wife Evelyn Stewart and sisters Estelle Axton and Mary Lucille McAlpin. He is survived by his three children, Lori Stewart, Shannon Stewart, and Jeff Stewart, and by grandchildren Alyssa Luibel and Jennifer Stewart. Plans for a memorial service are pending.
In lieu of flowers, Stewart’s family requests donations be made to the Stax Music Academy in his memory.
(Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)