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James F Stewart – 29/7/1930 – 5/12/2022

Jim had a great trick in finding hit songs. Basically he never liked anything, but if the writer fought for it, he pretty much knew he had a hit…”

Memphis guitar legend Steve Cropper posted these words on Facebook this week in tribute to his former boss at Stax Records, who passed away this week at the age of 92. Crop also went on to say that Jim “taught me so much about the record business, (and) the good news for me was that he trusted me with the company and the artists”.

Crop learned his studio craft under the watchful eye of Jim Stewart, who had grown Stax from a hole in the wall operation that initially ran out of his house in Brunswick, Tennessee into an internationally distributed label whose artists were featuring on pop charts all over the world. Once the Stax sound fell into place, Jim knew that the label’s records – mostly recorded in a former cinema in south Memphis that he and his siter Estelle Axton had purchased in the late 50s – had an audio identity that no other studio in the world could replicate, and he was very reluctant to let outside artists record there in order to keep the Stax sound exclusive.

Stax produced soul’s first international megastar in the late Otis Redding, and  greatly furthered the careers of the likes of Wilson Pickett and Don Covay before Jim put a ban or recording outsiders.  Factor in Booker T and the MGs, Carla Thomas, William Bell, Rufus Thomas, Eddie Floyd, the Bar Kays and countless others and you will understand why Jim Stewart fully deserves all the posthumous praise that has been heaped upon him this week.

Jim didn’t like R&B initially. In the early 1950s, when he was in his mid-20s, Jim supplemented his full time job in banking with a side gig as a fiddler in local hillbilly band the Canyon Cowboys.  (Ironically, the bank for whom he worked at that time and who loaned him and Estelle some of the money required to get Stax set up as a bonafide company was the Union Planters Bank, who would eventually play a pivotal role in Stax’ Demise in 1975). In 1957 he got the money together to start Satellite Records, a small label whose business address was also Jim’s home address. The first few Satellite releases were primitively recorded but great rockabilly by the likes of Don Willis and Ray Scott and the Demens, which sold  a few copies in and around Memphis without national distribution and which nowadays command astronomical sums in collector circles due to their scarcity. 

When Estelle offered to partner up with her brother and invested capital through the mortgage of her home, Satellite became a more professional operation and in 1959 the former Capitol Theatre became the home of Satellite and later Stax throughout the company’s active life. The change of name came in 1961 after another Satellite Records claimed a prior copyright. Jim and Estelle combined the first two letters of each of their surnames and thus Stax was born, midway through the national chart run of the label’s first big hit on Satellite, the Mar-Keys’ ‘Last Night’. The record was distributed by Atlantic, who had picked up two earlier local hits on Satellite by Carla Thomas – one with her father Rufus – and reissued them on their own labels.  After ‘Last Night’ hit, and with the exception of Carla’s recordings until 1965, all further Stax repertoire that was distributed nationally by Atlantic came on the company’s own labels, the Volt subsidiary having been added in 1962.

This arrangement stayed in place until March 1968, and through such soul milestones as ‘Green Onions’, ‘Knock On Wood’ and a ceaseless supply of hits by Otis Redding and Atlantic act Sam & Dave, who were ‘loaned’ to Stax throughout their greatest period of success. Jim continued to produce many Stax sessions, but as the company grew, he placed increasing faith and trust in the artists and musicians who had been on board since the early days, such as Crop and Booker T Jones. He also brought a former Washington DC DJ into the fold in the mid-60s, who would become the dominant driving force in the company’s second Golden Era – Alvertis Isbell, professionally known as Al Bell.

Stax was riding high as a label when its distribution deal with Atlantic expired in 1968.  Jim and Al wanted to take the label elsewhere for future distribution, but the deal Jim had signed with Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler some years earlier gave Atlantic not just distribution rights to all masters that had been issued since 1967, but also the ownership of all of them. Stax left Atlantic with considerable acrimony and no catalogue. Having just come to terms with the death of Otis Redding and most of the Bar-Kays the previous December, it was potentially devastating - but they started again from scratch, with new label designs and colours, and soon started scoring even bigger hits. Nevertheless it was still a bitter pill for the man who had spent almost a decade building up his business and label’s reputation to swallow.

The loss of the catalogue that he, Estelle and the Stax staff and artists of the ‘blue’ era had worked so hard to build up seemed to kill off any further full-time ambitions Jim had as a record producer. As the reborn label of the ‘yellow’ era grew, and Al Bell and the people he brought into the company (Don Davis, Johnny Baylor) took it in new directions fueled by loftier ambitions, Jim was no longer ‘hands on’ in the creative department.  He didn’t stop producing entirely, though. Forming a partnership with MGs and sometime Hi Rhythm drummer Al Jackson, the pair worked with acts that had previously been under the guidance of Isaac Hayes and David Porter, such as the Emotions and the Soul Children, before becoming the production team behind Stax’ last big hit before the company slid into bankruptcy, Shirley Brown’s ‘Woman To Woman’.  After Al was murdered in 1974 Jim produced what was more or less the last record to come out on any Stax label, R B Hudmon’s ‘How Can I Be A Witness’. It got lost in the company’s collapse, but Stewart suppressed his ongoing grievances with Atlantic and sold them the master, where it became the first of four small R&B chart hits that Georgia-born Hudmon would rack up in 1976 and 1977. Most of these were co-produced by Jim and his son Jeff, who went on to become an engineer at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios where he sat behind the board for sessions by a host of the City Of Brotherly Love’s major artists, among them Jean Carn, the Spinners, Bunny Sigler, the O’Jays and MFSB to name but a few.

The end of Stax more or less signalled the end of Jim’s day-to-day involvement with the record business. He carried on co-producing Shirley Brown’s recordings, firstly for Arista and then for Malaco, for whom he also produced the trio of singing sisters from Detroit known variously as the Greens III, Foxx and Sweet Obsession.  His last credit on any new recording came in 1991, as Executive Producer of Shirley Brown’s “Timeless” album. At 61 he may have just decided enough was enough and slipped away into a reclusive retirement, keeping the lowest possible profile at all times. His achievements as a pioneering producer of some of the best music ever to come out of the American south were acknowledged by the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame in 2002, but Jim did not attend to accept the award the Hall Of Fame bestowed on him. Instead he sent his two grand-daughters along to pick it up…

Jim Stewart continued to live off the grid and under the radar until his death this week, seemingly content to be remembered as the man whose record label pretty much invented the concept of Southern Soul and gave Memphis a unique musical identity and sound that put it on a national level with the likes of Berry Gordy’s Motown in Detroit, and what Carl Davis was doing with first Okeh and then Brunswick in Chicago. If Sam & Dave, Pickett and Redding had been the only three artists who had recorded at the McLemore Avenue studio, Stax would still be assured of its rightful place in the pantheon of great American record companies.

And it took the ambition and graft of a hillbilly fiddler from Middleton, Tennessee to make that happen…